Heroes of El Hierro, Part II. A Regenerative Economy in Action

Desiree Driesenaar
Oct 7, 2019 · 9 min read

This is the story of a real European Regenerative Economy. It can be done!

Energy system on El Hierro, the lower reservoir. Credits: Javier Morales, El Hierro.

In my first article, Heroes of El Hierro, Part I, I told the general story of the smallest Canary Island. It’s a wonderful story of inhabitants who want a future for their volcanic Spanish island and who design this future using systems thinking and synergy as a driver for their economic growth. In this article, I will elaborate and tell you more details. I really hope that it inspires people to start working on their own regional, regenerative economies. To embrace ‘Economy of Scope’ and use synergy instead of scale as a driver for an economy of abundance. We sometimes seem to forget that economies are made by people, so we are very much able to change the economic system as well. The people of El Hierro did it. And they still do it every day. Because I won’t say it’s easy. From my own experience, you start somewhere and the next project builds on the former one. Before you know it, you are somewhere along the way, experimenting, building, collaborating with others you meet. And out of that entrepreneurial energy something beautiful will emerge. But let me start by telling you the details of El Hierro, then I will finish by sharing some inspiration and methods that might help YOU along the way towards a regenerative economy too.

Energy and Water

The systems model of El Hierro started with a decision about what kind of island they want to be. They decided 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. An agricultural island needs energy and water most of all, so that was their first focus. They built five windmills and two water basins, one at the foot of the mountain, another at the top. They implemented an online system to monitor real-time (24/7) their energy demand. Whenever there’s more wind than demand for energy, they use the surplus energy to pump water from the lower basin to the upper one. When there is not enough wind, they let the water flow from the top to the bottom basin and use the hydropower. Experts were convinced that the switchover would always result in blackouts, but in El Hierro, they were stubborn in searching for and finding solutions. They now use a mechanical flywheel to bridge the power switch and it works well. An other important measure is that they merged the energy and water company to prevent conflict of interest.

Wind and hydropower station on location. Credit: Javier Morales, El Hierro

Recirculation of Economic Value

For water, they implemented a reverse osmosis system to desalinate salt water from the surrounding sea. Desalination requires a lot of energy, so normally it would be a costly solution. In this case, it has been taken into account as part of the total energy requirements and costs are less of an issue. The inhabitants of El Hierro are co-owners of the energy system, so the money they would normally spend on buying oil from abroad now stays in their own island economy. Because the inhabitants of El Hierro are the co-owners of their energy system, a total of € 23,5 million recirculates yearly into the local economy. This energy is spent on electricity, car fuel, water, feed, and food. When you take into account that the yearly budget of the island with a little less than 11,000 inhabitants is around € 29 million, this is big economic value! Ownership also triggers awareness of energy use and stimulates the need for transparent communication and taking responsibility.

Organic Farming

If you want to be an agricultural island and you want to build multiple income streams, as explained in my other articles about regenerative business models and ecological intensification, you need to go organic. It’s the only way to use the waste streams of agricultural processes systemically in other business cases. In a regenerative economy, you will use everything that is locally available, without producing waste. You will use bacteria or fungi to make your organic waste ready for the next process. However, if the waste has been polluted with chemicals, it complicates matters. The quality of your next process will be negatively influenced by chemicals. That is why the Blue Economy principles state that everything is biodegradable, it’s just a matter of time.

Fertile Soil

In El Hierro, they used a lot of terra preta to make the switch from regular farming to organic, regenerative farming in a time span of eight years. Here is a recipe for this kind of carbon-rich, fertile soil as applied by Ayumi Matsuzaka in Berlin. Additionally, they apply other composting methods with organic material, micro-organisms and fungi to build up and maintain a living, fertile soil. The result is now a good average banana yield of 41 kg per plant and a maximum yield of 73 kg. Apart from bananas, they also grow crops such as pineapple and grapes, they have livestock (goats, sheep) and they grow their own feed locally. As feed crops for their animals, they e.g. grow maralfalfa (pennisetum violaceum). This is a crop with great yields (550,000 kg/ha per year) that grows easily without much fertilizer.

Maralfalfa (pennisetum violaceum), organic animal feed crop. Credit: Javier Morales, El Hierro.

Birds and Biodiversity

Because the farmers of El Hierro use organic, regenerative farming techniques, biodiversity flourishes! I loved to see this bird’s nest in the banana tree, helping to keep pests at bay and maintain the ecological balance. But I also asked the question: Was it easy for all farmers to go organic? Wasn’t it met with big resistance? And the answer was yes, of course, it gave was resistance. At first, when the plan to go organic was introduced, farmers were afraid. They said: “You will attract many pests to your farm and yields will fall dramatically.” So the island government set up an example farm. They worked on soil health here and for some time the yields did go down. But when the soil showed its resilience and started to find the positive spiral of natural regeneration again, yields started to rise. After a while, they even exceeded the yields generated with regular farming. Farmers saw it and followed the example. All farmers - plant growers, and animal breeders - have gone organic in eight years' time. And by now yields are very good.

Biodiversity flourishes in El Hierro. Credit: Javier Morales, El Hierro.

Fertilizer and Cooking Gas

A methane biodigester has been implemented to turn organic waste into energy and fertilizer. Here, the problem of animal waste becomes an opportunity and the benefits are clear. The biodigester produces clean water, fertilizer and cooking gas. There are no negative effects, such as flies or odors attached to this solution. The biodigester consumes no energy and is beneficial for forages, wildlife, and tourism. Only a low investment is needed and management is simple, without much maintenance required.

Added Value to Island Produce

In El Hierro, the entrepreneurs are mindful of a fair distribution of wealth. You will find no multinationals on the island that suck money out of their local economy. Instead, the entrepreneurs are mostly organized in cooperatives that add as much value as possible to the produce of the island. E.g. a winery has won multiple awards with its organic wines. The fishermen’s coop is selling their sustainable tuna fish first to local restaurants, then to the other Canary Islands and if something remains, it’s sold in Spain. Sheep yogurt is produced to add value to the milk, and because supply chains are short and coops take care of their own selling, the farmers get a good price for their milk this way.

Really Sustainable Tuna Fish

Producing with what is locally available on an island like El Hierro, includes fisheries. But of course, they want to regenerate the sea, so how are they achieving that? First of all, they have installed a marine reservation area where nu scuba divers may enter and no fishermen may fish. Only a few marine biologists are allowed to monitor the fish. All the fishermen have agreed to fish with lines, no longer with nets. As a result, the fish can grow older than old and they produce more eggs than ever. In our regular way of fishing, we put a minimum on the size of the fish caught. However, if fish are allowed to grow older and bigger they will produce thousands or even millions of eggs extra. Due to this spillover effect, the sea is regenerated with baby fish and the fishermen have a good income out of selling the really sustainable tuna fish.

Marine reservation south of the island. Credit: Javier Morales, El Hierro

Spillover Effect

Let me give you some perspective on regenerative fisheries. George Monbiot wrote in an article in the Guardian about the spillover effect: “What makes all this so frustrating is that regulating the fishing industry is both cheap and easy. If commercial fishing were excluded from large areas of the sea, the total catch would be likely, paradoxically, to rise, due to what biologists call the spillover effect. Fish and shellfish breed and grow to large sizes in the reserves, then spill over into surrounding waters.” Well, in El Hierro they show that such a solution can be implemented and can result in a diet of sustainable fish and the creation of abundance for all.

Creating Abundance and Sharing

Abundance and sharing, those are the words we need in order to create regenerative economies. And abundance is, in short, the story of El Hierro. After the given examples they started entrepreneurship with black soldier flies (feed for chickens and other important nutrients), they re-introduced extinct animal species, they renovated buildings with healthy building technologies for education, and they made a start with the introduction of electric cars and use the car batteries for the local electricity grid. Now that they own their renewable electricity system, they can build upon that value to create new value. The island inhabitants have seen problems as opportunities, are creating abundance with what they have locally available, and share equally with humans and nature alike. I applaud these heroes of El Hierro, who show us that even within our consumerist, money-driven European economies, it’s possible to build an example of how to do it better. We need more of these examples for sure. The heroes of El Hierro can be an inspiration to all the other grassroots groups trying to create regenerative economies.

Your Own Regenerative Economy

So why not become active with your own regenerative economy? Here’s a way to start. Make a group of very diverse people (diversity gives many different viewpoints) in your own community and brainstorm:

  • What are your local problems? Go deep into the details of them and you will see where problems turn into opportunities
  • What is locally available? In El Hierro they had heights for hydropower, in my lowland area, we do not have that. But we do e.g. have the river Maas which gives my province opportunities
  • Are there any stranded assets that can help with investments in new projects? Where there is pain, there will be money to solve it…
  • Be inspired by technologies in line with nature: biology, physics, and smart chemistry will give you answers that will regenerate your area and provide economic opportunities. The Blue Economy innovations, as well as biomimicry, can be inspirations to find technologies that matter
  • Start with regenerating ecosystems in your area, even if it is on a small scale at first. You will be surprised how many movements for the better started with just a little example. So just do it. Regenerated soil (and regenerated seas) will bring us the resources we need for further development of abundant economies of scope. You can take your inspiration from permaculture, agroforestry, ecosystem restoration camps and films such as Green Gold. There is even a free permaculture course by one of my heroines in the USA, Heather Jo Flores.

In 2017, I did a project in my own area in the Netherlands, Venlo Regionomics. With a team of businesses, government and education, we stimulated sustainable business in our area, inspired by Cradle to Cradle and Blue Economy. Gunter Pauli explains in Case 100 this method of ‘Scan, Screen and Implement’. If you ever want to apply it in your area, there are ZERI-experts all over the world who might be able to help you. And of course, you can also connect with me on LinkedIn. Be inspired and let’s regenerate for future abundance!

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Desiree Driesenaar

Written by

Wondering about life. Systemic thinking. Aligning economy, ecology and human spirit. Freelancer & EU Commission. https://www.linkedin.com/in/desireedriesenaar

Age of Awareness

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