aka: Ozark Area Community Congress

Bioregionalism is both a deep ecological philosophy and an apolitical, decentralized, volunteer egalitarian movement. Whereas environmentalists conserve to preserve the human environment—an anthropocentric view—bioregionalists re-inhabit, living simply and sustainably, to preserve all species—a biocentric view. Bioregionalists hold that if humanity is to avoid ecological and social collapse, people must recognize, nurture, sustain, and celebrate relations to land, air, plants, and animals; springs, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and oceans; and families, friends, neighbors, and community. They also engage in local systems of production and trade whenever possible.

A bioregion is a geographically defined landform, bounded by watersheds with distinct plants and animals. The Ozark Plateau is one of fifty discrete ecoregions on the North American continent. The Ozark Highlands cover north-central and northwestern Arkansas, the southern half of Missouri, and northeastern Oklahoma.

Bioregionalism was conceptualized in 1972 at the United Nations Conferenceon the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, with the call for a continent congress promulgated by activist Peter Berg, who served as director of the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco, California. Until his death in 2011, he widely preached re-inhabitation, traveling as far as Russia, Japan, western Europe, Australia, and China. Other notable figures in the movement include bioregional cartographer John Diamente and author Stephanie Mills.

The Ozark Area Community Congress is one of at least a dozen bioregional assemblies on the North American continent. OACC (pronounced “oak”), the genesis group that first gathered in 1980, has roots in both Arkansas and Missouri. Most of the founders of OACC were educated urban refugees who had migrated to the Ozarks as part of the back-to-the-land movement. They espoused self-reliance, established small organic farms, and in some cases constructed intentional communities.

Michigan migrant David Haenke conceptualized OACC in 1977 at New Life Farm, a rural alternative technology demonstration project run by Ted Landers in Drury, Missouri. Haenke went on to establish the Bioregional Project in 1982, under the nonprofit Ozark Resource Center based in nearby Brixey, and coordinated the first North American Bioregional Congress (NABC) in 1984 near Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Some 200 bioregionalists from across the continent attended. A politicized faction emerged at that congress, which would later manifest as the U.S. Green Party.

Continental congresses have since convened on the Great Lakes Bioregion (Michigan, 1986), Cascadia (British Columbia, 1988), the Gulf of Maine (Maine, 1990), Edwards Plateau (Texas, 1992), the Ohio River Valley (Kentucky, 1994), Cuahunahuac—a hemispheric gathering (Mexico, 1996), the Flint Hills (Kansas, 2002), Katuah on the Southern Appalachians (North Carolina, 2005), and the Cumberland Bioregion (Tennessee, 2009). Continental congresses are staged as week-long ceremonial villages, facilitated using bilingual consensus decision-making, including indigenous tribal representation. Congresses are free of leaders, sectarian beliefs, dogmas, and religious ritual. Participants meet in committees to draft resolutions and “green” laws, which are passed by plenary vote. Proceedings are recorded and implemented. Expert participants host workshops to share best practices and technologies.

Annual OACC conventions are weekend-long rural encampments, with participants sharing costs, agenda building, meal preparation, childcare, entertainment, and cleanup. OACCs have been hosted in southern Missouri and in Arkansas near Eureka Springs (Carroll County) and south of Fayetteville (Washington County). OACC’s primary benefactor was philanthropist Miriam Ella Alford of Fayetteville, who provided annual grants to administer OACC until her death in 2005.

Indigenous peoples are acknowledged by the movement as the first bioregionalists. Members from the Navajo/Diné, Anishinaabe, Odawa, Hopi, Osage, Ponca, and Cree Nations have attended continental congresses and OACCs. OACC participants were among the first in the nation to discuss sustainability across disciplines, including agriculture, energy, land use, economics, watersheds, and waste management.

Along with the Kansas Area Watershed Council, the Ozark Area Community Congress remains the most viable bioregional assembly in the world, meeting every autumn. Numerous nonprofit projects and organizations were founded at OACC, most notably the Ozark Regional Land Trust in Carthage, Missouri; the Water Center based north of Eureka Springs; and FORGE (Financing Ozarks Rural Growth and Economy), a community-based revolving loan fund in Huntsville (Madison County).

Since the first congress in 1980, OACC continues to attract original participants as well as new enthusiasts concerned about climate upheaval, species extinction, oil and gas extraction, and food insecurity.

For additional information:
Campbell, Brian C. “Growing an Oak: An Ethnography of Ozark Bioregionalism.” In Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, edited by Joshua Lockyer, James Veteto, and E. N. Anderson. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.

Ozark Area Community Congress. (accessed October 12, 2021).

Jacqueline Froelich
National Public Radio KUAF


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