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Byron Shire
May 7, 2021

The rich history of intentional communities

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Members of Mandala, located in SE QLD, call their corporate structure both an intentional community and an eco- village. Photo www.mandalaaustralia.com.au

Mairead Cleary

The birth of intentional communities in this region goes back to the early 70s.

Carol Perry remembers arriving in the area a couple of years before the legendary Aquarius Festival to start the still-existing Dharmananda community in Terania Creek and finding that there was already a community existing in Mullumbimby.

Of course, after the festival the intentional community movement took off in a big way. People came in their thousands from all over Australia for the event and many decided to stay. Low land prices meant people could buy large properties and create new communities around ideals of freedom, harmony and sustainability. Carol remembers blocks being advertised at the time as ‘well stocked with marsupials.’

One of the post-festival communities that survives to this day was Bodhi Farm. After meditating his way through Asia in the early 70s, John Seed moved to the area and helped create the Bodhi Farm community 30km from Lismore.

‘It was a time when there were a lot of intentional communities forming, going back to the land, growing organic food, delivering our own babies, burying our dead and catalysing social change in the region where we lived.’

Legal framework

In reality, bringing together large inexperienced groups of people to start these new utopian communities brought several challenges. Firstly people had to choose a legal structure in order to own their land.

‘Communities need a legal structure because it provides a framework within which governance can be taken,’ says Wroth Wall, who has worked as a lawyer with different types of communities for more than 40 years. He has delivered more than 100 intentional communities in conjunction with local planner Rob Doolan.

‘A legal structure provides each person’s entitlements in relation to the property. It outlines bylaws that set boundaries in relation to behaviour. It defines the decision-making process, dispute-resolution mechanisms, default mechanisms and exit mechanisms. It includes provisions that govern how money is raised, managed and in some cases borrowed. If you don’t have these things in place, you end up with anarchy and people’s personalities take over. And this leads to resentments. You need to have clear agreements in place.’

‘Working out effective governance was and continues to be one of the main issues facing communities,’ says Wroth. ‘It involves finding a balance between decisive governance and participation. You don’t want a totalitarian situation but you also don’t want to be caught up in endless meetings.’

Then of course there was the clashing of strong personalities as people vied for power and control over how things were done.

‘Nothing’s going to happen if people can’t resolve the issues that are in front of them,’ says Carol, who became a dispute mediator.

‘No group activity can happen without harmony. There has to be good communication. Otherwise all the energy gets used up with conflict and complaining’.

Demographic changes

As the years have passed, maintaining affordability has emerged as an ever-growing issue. Wroth has learned that ‘If you can’t maintain affordability, you need to decide what the culture of the community is and ensure its integrity in maintained. Because a person buying into a community today at $1m is culturally very different from someone who bought in 35 years ago for $20,000.’

In terms of economic challenges for communities, local activist Helena Norberg-Hodge says, ‘It’s not an easy thing to establish a completely localised economy inside the dominant economic system. The pressures of the dominant economy are multiple. They encourage hyper-individualism. But once something gets started it goes from strength to strength.’

Many of these challenges haven’t changed over time, but the resources available to respond to them have. Working with the benefit of hindsight, we can learn from the experiences of other communities before us.

Helena maintains that ‘what comes together and works well is intergenerational communities. Fragmenting age groups doesn’t.’

‘I’m seeing that what’s most effective is the focus on local food. Community energy initiatives have also taken root. Setting up a local fund is something eco-villages can do with other community- minded people. Local light industries can also be quite successful. Localising creates interdependence,’ she says. ‘It’s community building.’

At the end of the day, the most important glue in the community fabric is that people can get on with each other.

‘I’ve found the most useful way through conflict is to focus on feeling the body,’ says Carol.

Disconnected culture

‘Our culture has caused us to disconnect from our body so we need to do a lot of work to reconnect. When working to resolve things in a large group in community you have to have a percentage of people who can stay grounded and centred. And it requires a resolve to learn the skills needed to be a responsible participant in a group decision.’

Mairead Cleary is a Bruns Eco Village spokesperson.

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