Interview with Drazen Simlesa from ZMAG

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ZMAG (Green Network of Activist Groups) is an association established in 2002 in Croatia which unites organic gardeners and food producers, practitioners of sustainable technology and engineering, permaculture designers, economic justice model researchers and participative forms of organising. ZMAG deals with the promotion, education and application of permaculture ethics and establishing a foundation for sustainability which comprises various social, ecological and economic levels.

 

“I’m Drazen, I am a member of Green Network of Activist Groups, which is mostly known in Croatia because they run an ecosocial centre near Zagreb, where I live. Basically, it’s a permaculture educational centre and a farm. People come to this place to learn about many sectors and areas that permaculture covers: food, energy, economy… We are doing a lot of educational activities, for example right now there are 25 people from all over Europe and they have an English permaculture certified 72 hours course and they do volunteering work in the Balkan countries. Also a lot of schools come here to discover the nature. It’s twenty kilometres from Zagreb.

 

We also build houses, that’s how we get some revenue. We also have our own cooperative and every Thursday we bring ecological and local food to citizens in Zagreb who ordered the food on a website. We are networking with other ecological producers to put together all the food. We get food mostly from around Zagreb, but also from other parts in the country and we even get cosmetics from one of the islands. For us, it’s very important to support honest and decent eco producers.

 

We insist that everything is organic and certified to avoid possible health problems. That’s a bit hard, because we know that there are some good producers who don’t have the certificate. There are several organisations that are authorised by the state and the European Union that are able to give those certificates. You have to pay for it, but it is not that much, especially if you are in this subsidy program as an eco producer. But it’s a lot of bureaucracy and you have to do it every year. It has to be part of your life.

 

“If you do everything by yourself, you have to invest a lot of energy in human relationships and feelings, otherwise you cannot keep [the project] alive.”

 

ZMAG is part of a network, but our part is called ‘Recycle the State’. Three weeks ago, we celebrated our eighteen years. We are now helping others building farms and places. We all dream of living in a place built with friends, without fighting and as a utopian paradise. We aren’t used to learn how to work with others, how to listen to others, and that is why we are supporting many similar stories, because we know that the hardest part is surviving in the beginning. If you are doing everything by yourself, you have to invest a lot of energy in human relationships and feelings, otherwise you cannot keep it alive. Even if we have some misunderstandings or bad relationships, our place immediately looks much worse and when we are in good shape and we are respecting each other, everything is much more fruitful.

 

Around fifteen people live on the farm right now, six of which are kids. Some of these people work in Zagreb, some of them, like me, are lucky to not have to go there everyday. So our project is also both co-housing and co-working. Some people of our group don’t live in this area because there wasn’t enough space for all of us. So we’ve started to buy houses in the village, which is also not bad since we are now more integrated in the village life. We speak with the villagers more easily now and can tell them about our project. But now we have also other places where people group two or three houses so they live much closer to each other. They integrate their energy systems, water systems and things like that.

 

“I finally realised that the ecological footprint is not the problem but something that affects the ecological footprint and that is the economy.”

 

We arrived here when we were very young because we were so poor. In the beginning our evolution went very slowly. But now, it is a very important place for me, because we are working a lot, even outside of the farm. Some work as a circus artist, as a comedian or musician, some like me are teaching through entire Croatia, and I am also working as a researcher in an institute of social science. I studied sociology and I currently work on two projects in social economy at my institute with my team. I finished my PhD on the ecological footprint, but after ten years of working on this subject, I finally realised that the ecological footprint is not the problem but something that affects the ecological footprint and that is the economy.

 

As busy as we are, we all find our harmony at ZMAG. Sometimes we have breakfast with ten other people, but we also have our private space where we always can be alone. We have our own electricity, we have our own forest for heating systems, we recycle almost all garbage and kitchen leftovers. The only thing I pay is the internet. We have a common rent, I pay only five euro per month. When we are with more people, we produce more food. The people who live in private houses have some animals and we all take care of them when they are travelling for example.

 

“For us it is important to have this [place] on the level of cooperation, solidarity and mutual help, to have a low ecological footprint as possible.”

 

Before we used to squat several places, but it wasn’t possible to run it like we do here on the long term. We then got this land for free, so now this is our unique story. We do not tell other people how they should live their lives. We are lucky to have this place and still be close to Zagreb. For us it is important to have this on the level of cooperation, solidarity and mutual help, to have a low ecological footprint as possible.”

Interview and photo by Sonderland