I would end up visiting the community of Lakabe twice during my trip to Spain. The first time I came was for a brief visit with my girlfriend and daughter. We’d camped out near a ruined farmhouse the night before, still uncertain exactly where Lakabe was, and thinking that it might be as difficult to find and get to as Matavenero.
We needn’t have worried though. The next day, after emerging from a motorway tunnel we came upon a large reservoir, and something I had not expected – a large, clear road sign for the community itself. It seemed odd to see the name of a village of occupation printed in official black and white lettering like this. It turned out that the motorway had been built when they constructed the nearby resevoir of Itois – before that, Lakabe had been another isolated and secret settlement.
We turned off the tarmac, and onto a short dirt track, quickly arriving in the community. Our first impression was one of beautiful, neatly restored houses, cobbled paths, and well maintained gardens, all on a small hillside surrounded by pine forests. But where were the people? It seemed incredibly quiet. We wandered a little uncertainly into the village.
It turned out that everyone was at the reunion, the community meeting which took place twice a week to discuss important issues. But we found our way to a little playground for the children that live there, and met a cluster of kids and two fathers who were looking after them all while their partners were at the meeting. They were heading of up the hill for a swim – would we like to come along?
Our little crocodile of adults and children followed a track up the valley, past the communities wood supply and its small resevoir (where you can also swim) to a small clearing high above the village, where the spring water that supplied the village trickled down a rocky channel. Here in this quiet spot, with views over the valley, they had a large rubber paddling pool for the kids. It was an idyllic spot, and soon all of them were splashing about and playing, chatting away and playing. I had a quick dip too, and the water was wonderful after the heat of the day and the the walk.
We chatted a bit to our new colleagues, but mostly we just enjoyed the company, and the experience of being there, and having been invited straight away to this special spot. We shared some fruit, and some bread and cheese, both of which had been made in the community – Lakabe has its own bakery, and makes its own cheese, and even produces enough to sell some outside the community at festivals.
Later, descending again to the village, we saw people returning to their workng day after the meeting. It was a little like watching bees emerging from a hive. There was a busy, business-like feeling to this that somehow had been missing when we visited Matavenero – a focus on the work and tasks. Some were working on one of the houses, but most were weeding or gardening.
You could see why the small gardens were so productive.
Partly, I think, this is down to the fact that Lakabe is such a compact community. Matavenero is spread out, not just on a large hillside, but also into the nearby valleys. People obviously work hard on their individual plots, but at different times, in different places, out of sight and out of mind.
But we also found out that Lakabe was different philosophically. This is a tighly knit community where everything is shared – the produce, the labour, the meals and even the money which they raise. Above all, they share the decision making process – something that I was to find out first hand when I visited the community for the second time.
This time, I was accompanied by a Spanish friend from the nearby city of Pamplona, Miguel. Like many people, Miguel had heard of the community, but had never had a chance to visit, and as a photographer with an interest in social issues and politics, he didn’t need much persuasion to come along.
This time, I had emailed and called to specifically ask if it would be possible to do some interviews with people. I had a friendly but not very encouraging email back, which said that I was welcome to come, but that members of the community were very rarely willing to speak to the media. Really, I knew that I was cutting corners – ideally I would have come and stayed in the community, working with people, and getting to know them before I even got my recording equipment out. But I was running out of time in Spain, I had committed to some BBC research work back in Scotland, and I only a few days left before I had to catch a ferry. And I knew my intentions were positive – I hoped that if I explained what I was hoping to achieve, it would strike a chord.
Which, as it turns out, it did – though not quite with the result I had hoped.
Miguel and I turned up at Lakabe, and introduced ourselves to a few people. I explained that I would like to do some interviews, and I was told I would need to wait until the consejo, the community meeting, and explain what I was hoping to do and why. So, in the meantime, Miguel and I hung out in the small square outside the communal dining room, chatting to a few folk, and admiring the view. It wasn’t altogether comfortable – there was a palpable sense of being an outsider, which wasn’t there the first time I had visited. So by the time I was due to speak to everyone, to stand up and explain my project in Spanish, I was a little nervous.
The consejo happened outside in same the small square where we had been waiting most of the day. Actually, it formed more of a circle, completed by chairs and bences, and by people sitting on the ground or against walls. First of all, they discussed some of community news, and one visitor from another similar community nearby explained the progress they’d been making on a shared project – it seemed that over the weekend people had been visiting Lakabe to work together. Tonight there would be a celebration.
Finally it was my turn to speak. I explained as best I could in Spanish the nature of the project I was hoping to do – a radio documentary about the housing boom in Spain, which would visit ghost towns past and present, and which would question why housing had become a commodity rather than a basic need or human right. I explained that I felt that Lakabe would make a great example. They listened politely, but it looked unlikely that anyone would be willing to be interviewed.
One member of the community obviously decided it was a worthwhile endeavour, however. A dark, curly haired young man, sitting to my right said that he would do an interview – but there were some conditions. It was very rare that anyone in Lakabe spoke to the media, and he wanted to ask some questions first. And he had some work he had to do first, and needed to spend some time looking after his kids, so we would not be able to speak until the end of the afternoon.
I offered to help out with the work, so we spent a while lugging sacks of cattle feed into a big stone barn. The community had two or three cows – the source of the milk they use to make their cheese – and as we hauled the sacks onto the wooden floor, we could hear them lowing below us. Many of the stone buildings I had seen in the Bsaque Country and Navarra seemed to have this design, of having the cattle, with people traditionally living above them. Interestingly, on many newly built rural Basque homes that I saw, the modern twist on this architectural heritage seems to be to have a garage to park your car where the cattle would once have been.
While I was waiting to interview Estasi, I was also invited to share a communal meal. The dinning had two large round wooden tables, but the room’s most impressive feature where two great circular wooden wheels on each table, onto which massive bowls of food could be placed as it was cooked or prepared by a team in the kitchen. The wheels were rotated so that everyone could help themselves to the different dishes – all vegetarian, salad and rice dishes, simple but healthy, and very unlike the typical Spanish diet with it’s emphasis on meat, fish and dairy goods. Much of the ingredients had been grown there in the community.
It was a few hours later when Estasi and I sat down to talk. I found him in one of the communal houses, a restored house of stone and wood which might have looked traditional were it not for the innovative use of passive solar windows on the south facing front of the building. But for the interview, he thought it would be better if we went outside – there was a carved wooden bench with a spectacular view out over the valley where we could sit and speak in peace.
He had, he reminded me, a few questions he wanted to ask before we did anything. He wanted to know what would happen to the material – where it might be broadcast. I explained that I was doing the story without a commission, but I told him about the kind of organisations I had worked for – everything from the BBC to prison radio in London, and that I hoped to be able to sell the work to one of the smaller independent shows in the USA that I sometimes work for.
“Well, I’ve thought about it…” he said “and I’ve decided that I will talk to you, but I do not want it to be recorded.” My heart rather sank at this, but in retrospect it does not seem surprising. We had only just met, and without being able to be clear about where the material would go, I could understand his caution.
So, we spoke for about an hour instead, and I learnt a great deal about this remarkable community.
Lakabe was founded some 25 years ago by a small group of people from Bilbao trying to avoid military service. They were part of what was called La Insumisión, a campaign against military service, which had begun after the dictatorship had ended.
They were looking for somewhere to start a new and more self-sufficient life, away from authority, and they’d been staying in the area of the mountains near to Lakabe, but renting a farm house on the other side of the valley. They only discovered the remains of Lakabe because some of their cattle were grazing and had wandered over to that side of the valley.
Ruined and overgrown through the village was, they saw an opportunity, and moved in, clearing the site and rebuilding the homes.
Unlike many other attempted pueblos occupados, the people occupying Lakabe were able to get community rights to the land. It happened that the village and the land had been bought by the local government for forestry. There was a brief window of opportunity back in the eighties when, if there were thirty people living on land owned by the local authority, then they could apply to get community rights to the land.
The houses, ironically, still technically belong to the Navarran government, but in practice, Estasi says, they feel secure in their right to the land. Despite being radically autonomous and independent in their lifestyle and beliefs, the village is aware of the wider world – a member of the community is even a local councillor.
Estasi explaned that from the very begining the community was based on a totally shared economy. Work is shared, food and produce is shared, building and comunal work is shared – even money earned by the community, which is distributed according to need. If that seems hard to believe, remember how routinely the community meet. If problems or disagreements arise, then they are discussed and people try to reach a shared decision.
It became clear as I spoke to Estasi that developing and maintaining a system like this requires a great deal of commitment – the strength of the community was more about cultivating a philosophical state of mind, of working as a group, of listening in meetings, as it was about having found a piece of land or a group of people. After-all, there are many similar projects which fail. Possibly they struggle to get hold of land, or people, but most often they fail because of the politics between people.
In Lakabe they appear to have developed a strong level of self-awareness about how to make it work, about how to discuss and resolve problems – so much so that the model has been copied.
There are five other pueblos which have been set up nearby, and three of them are using the same system.
For example, compared to other consensus based meetings that I’ve attended – for example, by the Occupy movement – it was noticeable how efficient the meeting at Lakabe was. People listened attentively, but spoke sparingly, and only if they had something essential to say
As a result people come from all over the world to do their courses, with subjects such as “the processes and dyanamics of how to live or work in a group” or “women and power, men and love.” They also teach intensely practical things, like how to bake bread or how to make soap.
Estasi said that he didn’t feel the need to leave the village or travel, because the world comes to them.
In an attempt to pin down what the politics of the community might be, I asked Estasi whether they were anarchists. There were many elements that appeared to fit with other anarchist meetinsg or communities that I had seen in action – particularly the consensus decision making and the rejection of state power and authority. But he rejected that label. The members of the community, he said, have a wide variety of opinions and political ideas. The emphasis is on making good decisions, on being practical. “It’s a way of sharing life.”
My last question was personal. Why had he chosen to come and live here?
Estasi said that he wanted to live with people in an integral way. “It transforms you – it’s a challenge. It’s an intellectual, physical.” But he also believed that he had a long way to go – he wanted to get deeper into that shared way of life.
Leaving Lakabe, I realised in part that, although I had come away without the audio that I had wanted – the prize I was after, as it were – I had in a sense arrived at the conclusion of my journey in my conversation with this one member of the community. I usually chose to make radio on subjects because I have a desire to learn about that subject, and to then be able to share what I learnt. But in this case it seemed I had come a long way to learn a personal lesson – about patience, about the commitment that is required to build community and trust – and about what you can learn wen the microphone is switched off for a change.