The Individual, Culture and the Environment


Gillian Bartolo Interviews Eric Van Monckhoven

The Malta Independent on Sunday (June 2002)


Cultural and environmental activist Eric Van Monckhoven was in Malta recently at the invitation of the Inizjamed, to promote locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture and in connection with the project "Med2000 - for a Sustainable Future in the Mediterranean".. His new website is here. He spoke to Gillian Bartolo about the relationship between the individual, culture and the environment.


1.   What interests drive you in your work?


I am interested in the normal citizen, in social and environmental issues. I try to find the connections between being a human being, our environment and where we come from. Somehow whole cultures have lost the memory of their past. So I'm interested in the most ancient cultures in the world where people have kept alive their traditions: indigenous people, aboriginals. I focus mainly on culture, on grass roots organisations, community empowerment and networking. I have worked in many different countries: mainly in Europe: Scandinavia, Italy, and West Africa.


2. In world culture what helps sustainability and what hinders it?


First of all you have to agree on the definition of sustainability. I think it has to do with preserving those things in people's culture and the environment which will sustain future generations. Some cultures have kept the memory of how to support themselves and the earth with a minimum of disharmony between the person and his or her surroundings. But on the whole, twenty years ago we were already bent on destroying our surroundings, and twenty years later we haven’t made any progress.


The question is not choosing between ancient and modern. The ancient cultures are still within us, part of our selves, but a part we do not know, and we don’t often have the opportunity to recover somehow.  WE have to reconcile ourselves somehow to our pasts. This can happen through community building, as well as with large inputs from other cultures and other peoples. In that way Malta is quite interesting. It is in the middle of the Mediterranean, in contact with other cultures, many people with whom it has integrated. The language is a good example of this integration


3. What are the factors that hinder sustainability?


The main obstacles are the culture of consumption, the media, and the artificial values that invade our lives. They are not neutral objects. Take the plastic water bottle. It has power in itself and it is also the tip of an iceberg. Behind this bottle lies a system that is producing plastic bottles, an army of engineers and managers. Another problem is that we have no time to think. There are some cultures where there is no word for time, only for the day and the season. Culturally we no longer have time to sit together, to share, to reflect, to take decisions. We are always the slaves of the system. It is not easy to get out of this mode. When I am in the Mediterranean, I have very little time for myself. Finland has become my retreat. Sometimes I am criticised for not speaking Finnish, but I tell them that it is because when I am in Finland, I don’t want to speak to anyone. I don’t even want to understand, and I am only partly joking.


4. How did you come to work in Reggio Calabria?


I had been working in Africa for seven years and I was tired. So I moved to Reggio Calabria in Italy, worked on an organic farm and did some teaching on the environment. I worked mainly in the Straits of Messina - a metropolitan area of about 600,000 inhabitants where the coast has been recently invaded by thousands of apartments, constructed in a very unstructured, chaotic way. People have abandoned the countryside.

While I was working on my farm I was approached by the director of an NGO - a cooperative called Centro Regionale d'Intervento per la Cooperazione, set up in the eighties. Its very existence was interesting because most NGOs lie in the north of Italy. He asked me to help him in the building of a park, which would act as a demonstration centre where people could become acquainted with an ecological way of life and technologies. This led to the birth of Ecolandia.


5. What does Ecolandia consist of?


Covering 10 hectares of land, the project combines Greek mythology and green technology. Calabria has a huge heritage of Greek culture. Many places mentioned in Greek mythology actually exist, such as Scylla and Charybdis from Homer's Odyssey in the Straits of Messina. The park is divided into four theme areas representing the four elements. For example in the wind section we have the construction of traditional wind instruments of Calabria; for fire we have solar cooking, solar panels, how to recycle waste; for earth we have the techniques of organic farming, the history of the Mediterranean plains: the Neolithic, Roman and Greek gardens.


What was important was the challenge of the design. The people of Calabria had this feeling that they couldn’t do anything by themselves, that they always needed to call in experts from abroad, but the project has been designed locally. I helped but not as an expert, just as a networker with other countries. So this challenge has been won. The other challenge was the building stage which we are facing now, because Calabrian builders build with concrete and we wanted to build with wood


We've involved the university, a cooperative of organic farming and media companies. It was difficult at first for all these people to work together, but we managed eventually and this in itself would have made the project a success, even if Ecolandia hadn’t been born.


6. You've worked on another theme park.


Yes while working on Ecolandia, we also began work on another theme park: a literary park called Horcynus Orca, which is the title of a book written by Stefano D'Arrigo, a post-war Italian writer. It is like the bible of the Straits of Messina in which he describes the mythology, biology and anthropology of the Straits. The park gives people the opportunity to reconnect with their culture, the workers, fishermen, gastronomy, and geology of the Straits.


In building the parks we had three aims: to educate the people in their culture in an entertaining way; to teach them ways of preserving their environment; and to create jobs. To build the parks and run them we created cooperatives which provide fifty four jobs.


7. You are involved in the Med2000 project to promote and research the social economy of the Mediterranean. How do you see the Mediterranean?


I see the Mediterranean as being made up of different Mediterraneans. There is a debate about the Mediterranean. One camp sees it as a sea whose borders have a common history, the other sees north and south as different worlds. The debate forms a part of the Mediterranean's place in the European Union. At first the northern Mediterranean countries - like Italy, Spain, Greece and southern France, looked to Northern Europe for their identities. Now they have begun to realise that after all they have more in common with the Mediterranean than with Europe, and what applies to northern Europe doesn’t apply to them. This is not yet said officially, but in my experience it is an understanding that is beginning to emerge.


The ecological history of the Mediterranean is of great importance. It is the meeting place of many cultures and it has been home to many species that have existed since the Ice Age. There is an incredible patrimony of diversity in the Mediterranean that is in the process of being destroyed. There were forests once in Malta that provided water and some shade. How long will people on this island survive without forests? I have worked for many years on desertification issues, and it is clear that Malta is becoming a desert. The main challenge for the people of the Mediterranean in my opinion is to fight desertification. Farmers did not only grow crops, they were the caretakers of the whole environment and now the land is being abandoned by its carers.


I asked if there was some strategy of reforestation in Malta, but no one could answer.


8. You have been to the Maghreb as part of the Mediterranean 2000 project. What opinions have you formed?


I know Morocco and Tunisia best. They are very different from each other. The Tunisians are well trained and have a good knowledge of their resources and services, but in Morocco they don’t have the same level of knowledge about their situation. Often they take obsolete models of the sixties and seventies in Europe which don’t work. Working in these countries and others around the Mediterranean is not always easy, because they haven't heard about things like Fair Trade and sustainability, and they are sometimes suspicious of our intentions. The people in the Maghreb have also begun to lose their identity as they look to the north. This is a big problem in societies where you don’t have the resources to build the new and you are losing your past. There used to be a traditional social solidarity between people, an informal system of education based on adults passing down information and wisdom to children. So where this has disintegrated and there isn't money to set up modern schools, they only have television to teach them about things they can never get in touch with. I don’t think this is so true of Malta because the cultural shift has been slower.


9. You have been invited to Malta by Inizjamed as cultural and environmental advisor to their project “Re-Creation”, a project part-funded by the EU Youth programme and supported by Bay Street. What is the importance of “Re-Creation”?


The project tries to reuse and recycle discarded material and seeks to work especially with young people, who may have difficulty at school, but who feel comfortable in work that falls outside the curriculum. As a project it revives old traditions, developing cultural aspects as well as taking care of the environment and involves youngsters who will be adults tomorrow.



The project Med2000 is a three year project co-financed by the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The main goal is to help create Mediterranean Local Networks of solidarity based on a new/renewed relationship between Ethics, Economy, Environment and Locality.


The main activities of the Maltese Local Action Group so far has been  the organisation of the international workshop "Beyond Globalization to Local Regeneration" in 2000; the co-organisation of MedParks 2001 at the National Park of Aspromonte (S. Italy); the organisation of Worldfest at Pembroke to coincide with the first ever World Fair Trade Day.


Inizjamed is a mediterranean cultural NGO that was set up in 1998 to run cultural projects that promote cultural diversity and sustainability. Inizjamed is a founding member of the international association that runs the Biennial Exhibition of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean. The “Re-Creation” project is coordinated by Clare Azzopardi and Karsten Xuereb with Raphael Vella as artistic advisor. -