An example of coexistence of a healthy economy, environmental care and social well being, Varese Ligure, in the northwestern Italian valley of Vara, is perhaps Europe's cleanest and most ecologically friendly community.

From farming to livestock, from renewable energy to recycling of waste, from sustainable tourism to social programmes, everything in this village spread over 1,600 hectares, in the middle of the mountains of Liguria province, is done with the strictest respect for nature.

Home to just 2,350 people, the municipality was destined to be filed away on tourist itineraries. The population was ageing and the younger people preferred the bigger cities to seek work opportunities.

The decline prompted village authorities to change the traditional development model for a sustainable approach, which in the last 14 years has turned Varese Ligure into an example to be followed both within Italy and across Europe.

This is the first community that received two European environmental certifications (ISO 14.001 in 1999 and EMAS II in 2002) and a prize for "best rural community of the Old Continent" in 2004.

"The services function well in the framework of respect for ecology and cleanliness is the consequence of that whole policy. The environment was the only resource we had, and the only thing we could exploit. So the benefits are for everyone," Varese Ligure's Mayor Michela Marcone told Tierramérica.

Ninety-five percent of the territory is farmed organically: the fruit and vegetables have not been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. The animals, largely goats and cattle, are also raised under the eco-friendly credo.

One such example is the Cibele cooperative. "It isn't easy to follow the rules, because they are strict, and there are controls throughout the year," owner Percy Wochiecivich told Tierramérica. The shift from the usual commercial practices to sustainable farming techniques benefited the 50 agricultural cooperatives in the area, which provide food for local school lunches and sell to nearby supermarkets and to neighbouring towns.

Most have increased their workforce and their revenues, as has the Carni San Pietro Vara cooperative (750,000 euros annually) and Casearia (1.3 million euros). Varese Ligure is a pioneer in care for environmental quality.

The village has four wind turbines, standing 46 metres tall and spinning at a velocity of 7.2 metres per second, saving 30,000 euros each year in energy costs, as well as avoiding 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

The town also has solar panels that generate energy according to their size and the amount of sunshine the cells receive, producing about additional 23,000 kilowatts. This represents a savings of 9,600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (the leading cause of the "greenhouse effect"). And there is a hydroelectric dam that provides energy for the households of 3,000 people.

The production of waste in this "eco-valley" has fallen to 350 kg per person, compared to the province-wide average of 530 kg per person. "It is one of the most advanced communities in Europe in terms of the environment, and an example of how to administer a particular territory, almost in the mountains, and with many problems," Stefano Sarti, regional president of the Italian non-governmental environmental organisation Legambiente, told Tierramérica.

Sustainable tourism has been on the rise in Varese Ligure, drawing travelers who seek peace and quiet, enjoy nature, and who can adapt to the environmental rules. Most of the visitors come from Germany and Britain, and they much appreciate the efforts made by this tiny Italian community. "Some of the young people have returned, because 140 new jobs were created, tourism and trade increased. Today the citizens feel proud; they are the protagonists of these changes and they are motivated to stay," president of the association Qualitambiente (Quality Environment), Maurizio Caranza, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.