Heroes of El Hierro, Part I. A Regenerative Economy in Action.
This is the story of a European Regenerative Economy. It can be done!
The sound of the ocean is loud. Waves crash against the rocks, roar their lion-like roars and a quote pops in my mind: “I cannot stop the waves, but I can choose which one to surf”. That’s it. That’s what they do here on the Spanish island El Hierro. They made a choice and they live it. The result after more than 20 years is a regional, regenerative economy that works for the almost 11,000 people that call this island home. Read and be inspired to be part of a regenerative economy yourself…
La Isla Chiquita
To set the scene, let’s state some facts. El Hierro is the smallest Canary island, part of Spain. It’s nicknamed La Isla Chiquita, the small island. It measures 278 km2 and has 10,500 inhabitants and harbors around 500 volcanoes, some still active. The landscape is rough and I find it immensely beautiful. To go there you have to travel to one of the bigger islands first, Gran Canaria or Tenerife. There you can take a plane or boat to Valverde. The island is widely unknown, it’s mainly visited by eco-tourists and inhabitants of the other Canary Islands. The people of El Hierro don’t mind that. They don’t have the aspiration to become a tourist hot spot with big hotels and loud entertainment. They made a completely different choice. A choice that’s meant to bring prosperity to all, instead of enriching a few investors in international hotel chains.
Abundance for All
More than 20 years ago, the island was meant to become deserted. Some plans were presented to leave the island to the ocean, to the volcanoes and perhaps make some training area for military or something like that. Whatever would happen exactly, the plans included relocating its inhabitants to other places. The people of El Hierro protested. It’s their home! Their livelihood. They wanted to include their children's wellbeing into a future for the island. However, these children were not to keen to stay. What could they do on this island? What jobs would there be? How would they provide for their future families? People came together to form a plan and Madrid agreed to design a different future for El Hierro. A future in which the people would be self-supporting, they would work together with nature and create abundance for all by initiating projects that built upon former projects. The synergy thus created would be the economic driver for prosperity.
Economy of Scope
Let me explain how the synergy between entrepreneurial projects could work for a sustainable economy. An economy that uses synergy instead of scale as a driver for economic growth, is called ‘Economy of Scope’. In such an economy the projects, processes, and companies are building upon each other’s value. Value upon value will create a multiplier effect within the local economy. Especially if companies are not allowed to take profits outside the system’s boundaries. Waste of one process will become a resource for the next process. If waste cannot be used in a value-creating way, we should go back to the waste-generating process and design it differently. El Hierro chose qualitative growth over the currently popular quantitative growth in our consumer-driven economy. The latter needs more and more resources and creates mountains of waste. Qualitative growth has been described by Donella Meadows, writer of The Limits to Growth, as a way to build an economy that can stay within the boundaries of our planet. If you want to know more about the theory behind shaping such a regenerative economy, read my article Busines Models: from Linear to Circular to Regenerative.
“You cannot stop the waves, but you can choose which one to surf” — free after Jon Kabat-Zinn
Well, the people of El Hierro made the choice which waves to surf. They thought long and hard about what kind of island they wanted to become. And they chose to be an agricultural island with some eco-tourism and a mindful approach to nature. Every decision thereafter has been made with this bigger picture in mind. They applied systems thinking and started designing a future for their island. Now, 20 years later, they have built a resilient community with lots of cooperative businesses that bring prosperity. I won’t say it has been easy all the way. Many people didn’t understand the bigger picture, especially not in the beginning. Some people were resisting the thought that building lots of concrete buildings was no longer the dream. Some people were afraid. But they found ways to keep talking to each other, discussing, dreaming together, listening to each other and being creative and entrepreneurial in all their diversity. I applaud the mindful leadership, the perseverance and the patience of all these heroes of El Hierro.
Keeping Money in the Island Economy
Well, what did El Hierro do exactly what has been so special? First of all, they started a project to become self-sufficient in energy and water. These are the main ingredients if you want to be an agricultural island. They chose windmills and water basins with height difference as their methods for energy supply and to desalinate water. And they merged the energy and water company to prevent conflict of interest. They applied physics to find solutions for the problem of blackout when switching between the two methods. No batteries are needed. And maybe most importantly of all, they agreed with the energy company that the inhabitants of El Hierro became the main owners of the energy system. This way they kept huge amounts of money into the economic system on the island, instead of bringing this money to the Middle East for oil.
Next, they took eight years to make their agriculture fully organic. Organic farming is a must when you want to use the rest streams to produce other products and prevent waste. The key to organic farming is healthy soil, so they stimulate microbial biodiversity in the soil through high levels of organic matter. Terra preta and other composting methods result now in much higher yields of their crops. The average yield of their organic banana plants is now 41 kg, whereas the maximum yield is 73 kg per plant. Furthermore, they produce feed for their animals locally. Being an island, they depend a lot on fisheries, so one project took fish as a subject. El Hierro inhabitants now guard a specific coastal area. No one can enter here, apart from a few biologists. No scuba diving, no fishing in this area. Fish can live here to be a hundred... The big advantage is the regeneration of the sea with the so-called spillover effect. Additionally, the cooperatives of fishermen have decided together that they will only fish with lines, no longer with nets. The result is a supply of really sustainable tuna, which is available in El Hierro restaurants first, on the other Canary islands next and if some catch remains it will be exported to Spain. There is no longer a need for overfishing.
Lots of new projects were implemented, all building upon the value that had already been created in earlier projects. If you are self-sufficient in energy, the next step can be electric cars. A deal has been made with a car brand to supply the island with electric taxis to start with. People have to see examples before they want to be a follower. So taxis are a way to start. A winery cooperative wins awards with its organic wines nowadays. I tasted and loved the wine! A methane biodigester turns waste into energy and fertilizer. Yogurt is made with organic sheep milk. And because the supply chains are direct and short, the farmer gets a good price for the milk. There are projects with algae, mushrooms and black soldier flies. All in all, there is a lot of entrepreneurship in this Isla Chiquita and more and more projects are seeing the light.
Of course, many more details can be told about the regenerative economy of El Hierro, and I have decided to elaborate in the next article: Heroes of El Hierro, Part II to keep the reading time within limits. If after reading that article you still want more: stay posted about new gatherings of Living University by the Blue Economy. Or go and visit the island as a traveler. It’s a wonderful island for mindful tourists who want to learn and return refreshed and inspired to their own areas. You can be the seeds that will contribute to new local regenerative economies. All with their own identities, built with what is locally available.
In 2016 I visited the inspiring Spanish island El Hierro with the Living University of Blue Economy. We were a diverse group of people from all over the world. We shared stories and lessons, were inspired, brainstormed about possible next steps for El Hierro and learned so much from each other. After this great experience we could all go back to our own countries, initiate our own impactful projects, share the lessons and go back to living our lives a little wiser, with a little more awareness. Choosing our own waves to surf…
- About the business models beyond a circular economy
- About technology inspired by nature
- About how we can prevent waste in our business models and make the models thrive with multiple values and ecological intensification
- About start-ups with a purpose
And if you want to connect with me, please leave a comment or find me on Linkedin.