"Regardless of their reasons, they all share a common goal to live life in the practice of self-sufficiency and ecological awareness with respect for each other at the core."
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Kevin Faingnaert
Matavenero is an extremely isolated community, and just getting there requires a challenging three hour hike through dense forest and mountains. There are no roads leading to the settlement, and reaching it with a motorized vehicle is impossible. Deep in the valley below Matavenero you will find the sister village of Poibueno, also an ecovillage, and the two villages often work closely together.
The original inhabitants abandoned the village in the late sixties. In 1989, the village slowly began to be repopulated by an international mix of strong, independently-minded people who wanted to live simply in harmony with nature. The early German pioneers lived in teepees and tents, while they started to rebuild the ruined homes, clear new paths, and dig a canal to bring water in the village.
The community grew to attract people from all over Europe who wanted to start a new life for themselves. Today there are approximately 60 inhabitants of all ages living in the village. They come from many different European countries, but most are German, Spanish, French and Danish.
Most people living in Matavenero don’t like the idea of being photographed. During the first few days I didn’t even have the nerve to unpack my camera from my bag, but gradually, by letting myself become immersed in their community, lifestyle, daily tasks and sharing stories, I felt the walls of distrust crumble slowly turn into a genuine co-existence. This allowed me to make a series of personal portraits of people whom I would come to call friends.
Many of the inhabitants have very different reasons for why they abandoned their old lifestyles in order to start a new life in Matavenero. Some couldn’t live with the pressure of today’s fast-paced modern society, others craved proximity to nature and the land. Several came to escape personal problems, while artists arrived in search of a peaceful place to work. Regardless of their reasons, they all share a common goal to live life in the practice of self-sufficiency and ecological awareness with respect for each other at the core.
Jürn, a grizzled 56-year-old German, couldn’t live with the pressure of today’s fast-paced modern society and wanted to live closer to nature. He is one of the Germans who helped to build the village back in 1989. Everywhere you go, you see his name on tools, books, and trees. It is very clear that he played a vital role in the development of Matavenero. Jürn is also very active in social activities like organizing rainbow gatherings (a temporal gathering for those who practice the ideals of peace, love, respect and freedom), or building natural communal saunas. Before Jürn lived in Matavenero, he spent time living in many other eco communities, and crossed many different European countries on foot.
Dani, a 28-year-old illustrator, grew up in Barcelona and sought a peaceful place in which to practice his art. In 2009 he visited Matavenero and decided to buy a house from its former owner. He now spends his mornings keeping bees, his afternoons with painting and drawing, and his evenings with trail running in the mountains of El Bierzo. He still manages to keep in touch with a gallerist in Barcelona where he sells his artwork.
Others, like 26-year-old Leoni, pictured with her child, were born in Matavenero. She once left Matavenero for a new life in Berlin, but returned a year later with a new love. They built a new house together and had their first child a couple months before I arrived.
Most residents have their own gardens but there is also a large communal garden. Everything brought in must be carried by donkey, horse, wheelbarrow, or on your back on the three-hour trek from the nearest road. Once a week some people from Matavenero undertake the walk to the nearest village to gather essential supplies at the local market. The only electricity in the village comes from renewable sources. All waste must be recycled or carried away.
Very little money is used, and the same euros go round and round. Most of the inhabitants here still have a small income, working as builders in nearby towns during one particular season, while others sell chestnuts or trade their handicrafts in the outside world. Some still have savings from the sale of the homes they had before.
A small shop sells essentials such as rice, tobacco, juice and fresh vegetables from the village gardens. Next door is the village bakery where once a week, there is a big cheerful pizza event. Every Thursday there is communal work and a council meeting which everyone can attend. There is also a small primary school house, with a couple of teachers.
The school philosophy is very open — the kids learn math, writing and reading, but here there is no homework and school hours are short, around four hours each day. There is also no doctor in the village, and although there is one person here practicing homeopathy, if someone is really sick or hurt, they must travel to the nearest village or town.
The most interesting building is definitely the big yellow geometric dome down at the bottom of the village, the place where all of the celebrations are held. You see the dome from everywhere. I could watch that dome for hours — it looks so surreal in the landscape, almost holy.
While liberated from the mental stress of the modern world, life in Matavenero is not easy, and bares considerable challenges. For instance, practicality is crucial and living off the land means tending to every acre. The land available for farming is steep, rocky, and not for the faint of heart. In winter there is plenty of rain, snow and frost, and it is not unusual for the village to get snowed in. Summer brings challenges of a different sort. The slope above the village is completely exposed to the elements and susceptible to forest fires— a threat which the wood and stone village has lived with since its founding, and which it has so far avoided.
The utopia the people of Matavenero strive for may not seem realistic to some. But I cannot feel anything but admiration for their persistence. These are people who transform their ideals into deeds and hard work.
In the end, though, I was happy to return home. Unlike Matavenero’s inhabitants, I find cities inspiring, exciting, and pulsing with life. I’m happy I can visit the local museum of Modern Arts once in a while or when I can go to the movies with friends. For me, Matavenero is not the utopia I would like to live, but for them, I believe in it.
Kevin Faingnaert is a documentary and portrait photographer who lives and works in Gent, Belgium. His work focuses on European culture and communities who exist on the edge of society and are removed from the mainstream. For more from Kevin, visit http://www.kevinfaingnaert.com