[Women’s Month 2023] Interview with Mateja Medić of ZMAG (Zelena mreža aktivističkih grupa)

woman smiling
Mateja Medić, the president of ZMAG

PUBLISHED: 20.3.2023.

Mateja Medić is the head of the education program and president of ZMAG – Zelena mreža aktivističkih grupa (Green network of activist groups) based in Vukomerić near Zagreb. ZMAG is an association gathering organic gardeners, practitioners of applied technologies and ecological construction, permaculture designers, researchers of fair social models of organization and equal human relations, and ecological activists.

As part of our Women’s Month campaign, female-owned businesses and women in leadership in Croatia were nominated for recognition by YOU – our audience. Our independent panel of Croatian professionals selected 4 extraordinary businesses to be interviewed and featured on expatincroatia.com. ZMAG was selected as the winner in the Sustainability category, deservedly so.

I spoke with Mateja on February 23, 2023, during which we talked about…

Read the full interview below…

Interview with Mateja Medić of ZMAG (Zelena mreža aktivističkih grupa)

houses in nature
ZMAG’s Recycled Estate

Marija: Let’s start at the beginning. ZMAG is based on Vukomerić outside of Zagreb. Where are you from originally?

Mateja: I am from Kutina, I came to Zagreb for university and have been living here since. I have been here forever, I think for 20, 23 years.

Marija: When you tell someone about ZMAG for the first time, how do you explain what you do? You are running so many projects, workshops, and initiatives… How would you explain it, in a nutshell, to someone who doesn’t know anything about your organization?

Mateja: We’ve been active for 20 years. During those years, we have been working on the implementation of various activities. A special emphasis is placed on educational activities in the areas of ecological food production and seed conservation, renewable energy sources, sustainable waste management, and natural construction.

We are also involved in the creation of good economy models and the promotion of a social and solidarity economy. In fact, we have been one of the 9 knowledge centers for social development in Croatia for many years in the field of sustainable living and permaculture development.

The main backbone that permeates our entire work is permaculture and permaculture ethics, where we act based on principles of care for people, Earth, and fair resource distribution. These are some basic principles that permeate everything we do.

A very important segment of our activity is the Reciklirano imanje (Recycled Estate), which dates even before the organization itself. It has been existing for 23 years now. It has been the formal headquarters of our organization and social-educational center within which we carry out the majority of our activity programs. We host various groups and organizations, so it is also a platform that supports us in what we do.

Marija: Great. I have been following you for years. I love your workshops and attended some of them. I hope to take the permaculture course one day.

Mateja: We have an ongoing Permaculture course in spring, you are welcome to come if you have the time. Which workshops did you attend?

Marija: That would be awesome, I could work there since I am mostly online. Workshops about seeds exchange, earth ship biotecture building, and architecture. ZMAG stands out as the only udruga among our 2023 winners. Is the association made up of only individuals, or do you have other udruga that you work closely with?

Mateja: ZMAG consists of individuals gathered in teams divided according to their field of interest. We have teams for the seed food program, good economy, natural construction, sustainable energy sources, and education, which is our horizontal activity. To improve the situation in these five areas, we work through the transfer of know-how and skills, networking and consultancy work, advocacy, and public policies.

Individual teams cooperate with various organizations, operatives, initiatives, and other associations active in these fields. So yes, we are very open to cooperation, and many of our activities are carried out in cooperation with other operators on the scene.

The association itself has been nurturing certain strategic partnerships with various organizations and financiers for many years. I would like to mention some of them, in particular – Nacionalna Zaklada za razvoj civilnog društva (National Foundation for Civil Society Development), which has been supporting our work from the very beginning, and also some foundations such as Rosa Luxemburg, Stiftung, and Salvia.

There are also some cities, such as Velika Gorica, our municipality. We have been cooperating with them for many years, and they support our work in various ways on different projects. We are members of various local and international networks, of which I would single out Solidarity Economy Europe Network RIPESS EU.

ZMAG’s bank of seeds

Marija: It’s good to hear that you’ve been recognized.

Mateja: Yes, more and more, in fact. We have expanded throughout Europe and the region, so our scope of activity has expanded a little.

Marija: In the case of some udrugas, the board members have other jobs or businesses that they do in addition. Is ZMAG your full-time work? How many people work on this project full-time?

Mateja: We currently have seven employees, and most of them work full-time. Some work part-time, so there are different combinations.

Our aim is to enable all employees to work full-time, to keep people and have them be satisfied with working conditions – so that this does not become an obstacle in offering a quality program and executing activities we are engaged effectively. People are very important to us.

Marija: Growing up, was your family especially environmentally conscious, or did your interest spark in adulthood?

Mateja: My family was not environmentally aware at that time; I am a child of the 80s. My parents come from the countryside. I am the first generation that was born and lived in the city. I had grandparents who lived in the countryside, and every weekend we went to visit them.

I really liked that rural way of life and contact with nature because my grandparents had a house literally on the edge of the forest. I would spend all my holidays there. That’s where I developed this love for nature and life in a rural community with animals and traditional principles of life that are quite different from today’s ways of city life.

In my opinion, we could be inspired by some of the ways people used to live and how they treated the resources and things they used. I’ve always been sensitive to injustice, and the way society works today is unfair on so many levels. I think my love for nature and the fight for justice came together in what I do today to actively participate in positive change.

Marija: What inspired the founders to start ZMAG?

Mateja: I was not in ZMAG from the very beginning. ZMAG was founded in 2003 as an association. The estate was created in 1999.

The main motivation of the team, some of them are still here today, was the creation of practical, visible, sustainable solutions for modern life problems and challenges that modern life creates. At that time, there were no such stories or initiatives.

There was a great shortage of good living examples in Croatia. These young enthusiastic people in their early twenties decided to start an estate to practically try out various technologies and sustainable solutions in areas where, in a way, we are still involved in some extended form. This was mostly food, energy, transport, construction, etc.

They wanted to provide examples of practical solutions that would contribute to a broader change and as a response to the problems and challenges that society is facing on this subject – sustainability and sustainable development.

Marija: What is Reciklirano imanje (Recycled Estate)?

Mateja: The Recycled Estate is our starting point, a place that, from 1999 until today, has provided us with space for experimentation, permaculture research in practice, and the acquisition of many skills that we pass on to others today. Today it is an educational center where, as the Knowledge Center for Sustainable Living and Permaculture Development, we implement a significant part of our programs.

The estate is in the village of Vukomerić – only 30 km from Zagreb. Near the educational center, there are houses where members of our association live and other neighbors with whom we share the life of the village community.

Our goal is to continue to develop the estate as an educational center, a place of inspiration, meeting, and socializing, but also a demonstrative model of how to design a space according to the principles of permaculture.

wooden house
ZMAG’s Recycled Estate

Marija: How is ZMAG funded? Is it a combination of member fees and government funding? Do you also receive donations?

Mateja: We are mainly financed by projects and in combination with our economic activity – educational services. However, we finance salaries from projects to which we apply. This way of functioning is sometimes vulnerable, but the worst thing is when, due to a lack of projects, we do not have salaries for people we would like to stay with us.

Yes, we receive donations, but it is not a significant part of our financial flows.

Marija: You mean the National Foundation that you mentioned?

Mateja: The National Foundation is one of them, and so are certain other foundations. We’ve done projects through the Associations Office as part of a Swiss-Croatian cooperation program that ended two years ago. These were large projects where we cooperated with local self-government, schools, and others.

There are various tenders and other ways of financial support for the activities of associations. Until recently, we also had two ESF projects from the European Social Fund. One is ongoing until the end of the year, and one has finished, so we are combining various financial supports.

Marija:  How would you say ZMAG has changed since the beginning?

Mateja: As I said, ZMAG was created in 2002. Those were simply different times. In that certain civil scene, we were among the initiators of an ecological movement that was happening at that time and was being started in Croatia.

Our focus was to prove it is possible to create a quality and sustainable ecological estate such as ours in accordance with sustainable and natural principles, provide education to the wider population, and present these solutions through education.

A lot has changed in 20 years, it would be bad if it hadn’t. If it hadn’t changed, we wouldn’t have survived, that’s for sure. In the beginning, it was youthful enthusiasm and energy that wanted to change the world through practical action. From an informal initiative, it evolved into a very serious professional organization with people employed. It continues to promote the same values for which it was founded but on a much broader plan. We are now operating in Croatia, the region, and throughout the entire EU.

And as for the Recycled Estate, it is a lifetime project. It is a living organism that, I have a feeling, will never be finished. It is constantly growing and developing. We constantly see a need for new elements in our ecosystem of the estate. The recycled estate is a process of construction and learning and a platform through which we offer others to learn what we are promoting.

Yes, big changes have taken place, but that is somehow natural and healthy for the development of organizations.

people sitting in a circle
ZMAG’s workshop

Marija: What plans do you have for the estate? Any plans to build more in other parts of Croatia, besides Vukomerić?

Mateja: There were some possibilities, but we decided not to go ahead with such expansions.  Our goal is to stay here, expand our story here, and spread some positive influence on the wider community in which we are located, develop the infrastructure, and offer even more to our users.

What is important to us is that we build the financial sustainability of the estate and that it is a real representative example of what we promote. We want it to be a place that inspires people and shows changes are possible, and what is needed to make these changes happen.

We want the estate to be a kind of open-air permaculture museum where people can come and see how certain solutions are applied in practice. Our goal is to further develop our educational activities. We want to enable everyone interested in these topics to come to the educational center and be able to learn about everything we do.

Marija: What type of programs do you offer to schools? How open are public schools to programs focused on sustainability and the environment?

Mateja: The schools are increasingly interested. We worked together on some of the projects I mentioned. We educated the teachers and students on how to be active operators and how the school can be active in creating positive changes in the local community.

We work and cooperate with Zagreb and Velika Gorica schools, but also schools from all over Croatia. Although it often depends on enthusiastic individuals within the school system, such as some professors and teachers who have a sensibility and an interest in these topics and want to give it to students.

It’s still not a systemic story, but things started to change. In Zagreb, as part of the pilot project, the elective subject School and Community is being introduced into schools. Our colleague Dražen Šimleša is working on it for the topic of sustainable development.

Yes, we consider schools to be very important collaborators in this whole process of the practical application of sustainable development in the community. Working with children is very important because they carry the future. In fact, they are the ones who will face challenges that will possibly be even greater than the challenges we face today.

children and teachers
ZMAG’s workshop for children

Marija: You are changing both the system and the community for the better. That is phenomenal. In Croatia, there is still a general sense that recycling is a bit of a farce – that it’s done for appearances, but that behind the scenes, nothing is really happening. Due to this impression, it’s easy for people not to take it seriously. What is your assessment of Croatia’s recycling efforts? In the grand scheme of sustainability, does recycling matter?

Mateja: I am more in favor of zero-waste solutions. For me, recycling is near the bottom of the scale of those principles. It is not the first step in dealing with waste. It is much more important to reduce the amount of waste and think about what we really need.

I think that today many of us own too much and buy things too easily. When we throw them away, we think that it is out there somewhere and that it is no longer our concern. However, there has been such an accumulation of waste, now it is literally in our backyards, but also in our bodies, if we talk about the problem of plastic and microplastic.

Today we consume large amounts of plastic through food, air, and water. This will also have some long-term consequences for human health in the future. It is no longer somewhere far away, but it is now really in our backyards and bodies.

Recycling is one part of waste management, but that’s what should be for some leftovers that remain and are then recycled in the process. We should really avoid creating waste at all, reuse things. and learn some of those old principles of dealing with the things we own – fixing things.

Things are manufactured in such a way that they cannot be repaired, or it is not worth repairing them. But there are various initiatives – for example, Biciklopopravljaona (Bicycle repair shop) in Zelena akcija (Green Action), where bicycles are actually repaired. There are also some other places in Croatia where some household appliances can be repaired.

Yes, recycling is one part of the story, but I think recycling should not be the basis of waste management. The strategy should be focused on reducing waste, making residents aware of the problem, and educating them on a system level. Even though more people may be going in that direction, they are still uneducated. What kind of plastic, whether and how is it recycled?

It is important to educate people and restore that trust because it is not without reason that this trust has been broken. When people separate waste, it should be recycled, not just thrown back somewhere in the landfill. To restore that trust, it is necessary to show people the processes of waste disposal and explain what really happens there. Then they could understand the purpose of waste separation, where does it end, and what is the end product.

people gardening
Permaculture and gardening

There were some headlines about the truck, which picked up all the waste and threw it away together, even though people sorted it. This is where people get frustrated and unmotivated. I think it’s also important to work on this issue.

Nevertheless, people are recycling more and more. That’s why we have this situation in Zagreb where the system is currently in some process of adjustment to the new waste management strategy, and we can see loose waste in those collection spots. The good side of this situation is that people can become more aware of the problem of waste we create.

However, for some more radical changes, a strategy on a wider level that promotes less waste generation and building the capacities of the system to process all the waste that could not be reused or recycled is needed. Here is one quote from Anne Marie Bonneau for inspiration: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

[Read: Zagreb’s new trash collection system (Zg vrećice)]

Marija: What do you consider the biggest environmental problem in Croatia?

Mateja: It is quite a complex issue. There are a lot of environmental problems in Croatia on multiple levels, which involve some bad public policies that are connected. Apart from the waste problem we mentioned before, one of them is that local resources are not in the hands of the local community and do not serve for the development of the local community rather than for the benefit of some private interests.

We are promoting the participation of residents in the production and consumption of energy and that they benefit from it. If there are resources of the sun in a certain area – just because someone possesses a certain technology, they sell these resources elsewhere, and they do not benefit the local community. We try to promote local energy owned by the local community.

The problems are also the overbuilding and concreting of the [Adriatic] coast and the way we treat the natural resources we are so rich in. In addition, how we treat biodiversity that we are also rich in, food production, the soil, water, and other natural resources. Also, how we relate to urban areas where we do not think about the city as a place where we want to increase the quality of life, but in fact, some other lobbies rule and other interests prevail. These are some problems that I would single out.

Marija: You mentioned food production. Before the war, Croatia imported around 12% of its food. Now, we import approximately 60% of our food. Do you think it’s possible for Croatia to get back to producing its own food? If so, how do we get there?

Mateja: Of course, it’s at the political level. The problem is that a lot of funds are invested in agriculture in Croatia. Obviously, these funds are not invested in a good way because our agricultural production is decreasing, and food imports are increasing.

We promote short supply chains as a part of the solution. We believe that it should be encouraged to distribute food through short supply chains from local producers, especially through green public procurement, which enables producers to sell the food they produce and not have tons of food go to waste. This would lead to a win-win situation. Our children in schools, people in homes for the elderly, public institutions, hospitals, and others would eat quality local food and not imported food of questionable origin and quality, and local food production would develop and, with it, the local economy.

Organic tomatoes grown at ZMAG

We promote green public procurement, which is part of the European Green Deal. The countries that developed more in this way were less vulnerable. The crises that have shown us – from Corona, wars, and the interruption of global supply chains – how vulnerable we are on the topic of food and how much of a food crisis is at our doorstep, if we do not take care of it in a good way. 

So, we promote short supply chains and green public procurement as a broader system-level solution.

[Read: Croatian farms and food suppliers with online ordering and home delivery]

Marija: Given the breadth of what ZMAG does, your impact is clearly measurable and substantial. Are there any achievements you are especially proud of or lessons learned?

Mateja: In 23 years, there were a lot of achievements but also lessons and mistakes through which we learned. ZMAG was an incubator for innovative models and practices that later got their own independent life from us. They became a story of their own that we no longer have to push or initiate.

Some of those are solidarity exchange groups which are one of those stories with short supply chains that I mentioned. Through our Cooperative for Good Economy, we have our own solidarity short supply chain with local organic food producers and active residents. Then there are the community seed banks – we strongly supported the development of seed banks and the preservation of old seed varieties. Our Community Seed Bank aims to preserve and promote seed and plant diversity and to connect ecological seed growers with interested farmers and hobbyists.

We built the first straw bale houses in Croatia and, in a way, started the story of natural construction and eco-villages in Croatia, which did not exist in the region at that time. Every year we are running the Natural Building Academy as a practice-oriented educational training and the Natural Building Convention as a place for sharing and networking among practitioners, experts, and interested residents.

Our contribution to the field of DIY culture has been significant. We experimented with biodiesel, rocket stoves, solar panels, natural cosmetics, creative recycling, etc. We are also pioneers of permaculture in Croatia – we organized the first permaculture convergences. In fact, we are among the first teachers in Croatia who started doing permaculture courses and educating others in the field. Through our Consulting Center for Permaculture and Sustainable Living, for years, we have been sharing with everyone interested free advice on all topics related to sustainable living.

We are also developing the concept of a good economy – we organize conferences on a good economy, and our Support center for the development of Social and Solidarity Economy in Croatia (SSE Centre) provides support for local and regional self-government units and civil society organizations in the development of good practice models.

people building a house
Natural construction in ZMAG

Lessons? I see our organization as a living organism that goes through some cycles of maturation and development. Through these problems, we ourselves as members have matured – now we approach some situations and problems differently.

What I consider very important is the communication between members -which communication patterns are good for the organization and which are destructive. We have learned how to give more space for conversation about problems. We encourage things to be communicated timely so that they do not grow into potential monsters difficult to fix later.

We realized that a clear structure is needed in communicating expectations. When there is an uncommunicated empty space, some unspoken grievances, misunderstandings, and conflicts are often shot into that space. This can be resolved easily and quickly through direct communication.

I would say that the lessons were mostly related to interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are the foundation of an organization like ours. If that foundation is fragile and unstable, the overall organization’s performance is questionable.

When the founders started that estate, they were inexperienced young people who did a lot of research and experimenting. Many technical mistakes were made in the construction of the estate because they were learning.

From this point and with this knowledge, we wouldn’t approach it in that way. However, through those mistakes, the skill was developed. Now we can inform others of all the possible problems that existed and mistakes we made to prevent them from making their own. We learned from those mistakes and took something good from them.

Marija: What is your biggest fear in operating the udruga, and how do you fight against it? How do you get inspired and stay positive?

Mateja: One of my personal fears is the fear of making big mistakes. I fight against it with action. It is important to me that we operate successfully in accordance with legal regulations. Therefore, we invest a lot of energy in following all the regulations concerning the work of the association in order to adjust our operations in time and avoid possible mistakes.

Another of the fears that arose on the basis of difficult experiences is the fear that the stability of the organization will be damaged by unhealthy interpersonal relationships. That is why it is important that we cultivate healthy communication and togetherness in the association, ask for support and help from each other, and talk about problems.

Personally, I try to act from a place of good intentions, but also to take responsibility and forgive myself for the mistakes I make along the way. Mistakes are there to learn from. Although the learning process itself can be very difficult, the lessons learned give me a positive feeling and are one of the important resources I use in life.

Marija: Is there anything else you’d like to add or share with us?

Mateja: I must say that this nomination surprised me, and I experience it as a nomination of our association, not me personally. All the good that we have created through our activities over many years was created with joint efforts and invested effort. I am very proud of all of us and grateful to everyone who contributed along the way.

I am happy to be a part of this story and to be surrounded by wonderful people who work together to create a different, better world…

Marija: Wonderful! Thank you for the interview, dear Mateja, I really enjoyed it. See you at ZMAG’s workshop!

people in front of the house
Team built a house from sustainable materials, including our colleague Steve sitting top right

How to support ZMAG

  • View web site here
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View the full list of Women’s Month 2023 winners here. We will publish a new female entrepreneur interview every week during March. Stay tuned…

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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