Tag Archives: Permaculture

Lourdes house

Bienvenidos a CASA! Bem-vindos a CASA! Welcome HOME!

CASA is the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas, a network of projects that are working towards sustainability in diverse countries of Latin America. Sustainable Settlements are: EcoVillages, EcoNeighborhoods, EcoTowns, Transition Towns, Nomadic Ecological Project (EcoCaravans), Permaculture Centers, Organic Farms, Collectives, Networks, Cooperatives. Projects who are creating a regenerative and sustainable culture through the continent. CASA is part of GEN, the Global EcoVillage Network, connecting this network to the the EcoVillage movements around the world.

This video was produced by the Común Tierra Project which since 2010 travels throughout Latin America documenting sustainable communities, creating multimedia educational materials and building networks within the movement: www.comuntierra.org.

Call of Quetzalcoatl: Materializing the Vision

Closing circle

TEMICTLA, Mexico – If there were ever any doubt that Quetzalcoatl lives, that doubt was dispelled in one moist, glistening, luminous week in the heart of Mexico.

Here in Temictla, a sacred valley, a tiny ecovillage and spiritual retreat center on the edge of Chalmita, a pilgrimage destination to millions of people of diverse traditions, a far-flung family reunited under the light of a waxing moon in November of 2013. It’s a family of many nations and many traditions, a family whose multitudinous members have dedicated themselves heart and soul to the survival of humanity and of life on Earth.

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From caterpillars to butterflies: Mayan dreams for 2012


The last golden rays of 2011 slipped away gloriously yesterday, lingering across the chalky face of the Pinnacles, an ancient towering limestone formation in the north of Boone County, Missouri – one of the places on this planet I will always call home.

The unseasonable warmth had us removing layers as we scrambled up to catch a glimpse of the world from on high. Another climatic oddity in a year that was full of them. Change is in the air, for those with eyes to see: We are closing the book on a year that saw vast swaths of the American Southwest go up in smoke, millions of dollars of hurricane damage in Vermont, a monster tornado that erased big chunks of Joplin, massive flooding in Australia, the Phillippines and Southeast Asia and record-breaking heat waves in Europe and much of the United States.

My mother’s garden in the Missouri countryside was cooked before it could be harvested. Where I live, in Mexico, widespread crop failure due to extended drought pushed more subsistence farmers to leave the land for the traffic-choked cities or for a desperate, life-threatening dash for El Norte, the forbidden promise of employment across the northern border. But today, on this balmy December day, global warming seems a welcome respite from the bone-chilling cold that usually accompanies us at this time of year. So I won’t complain.

Much has been written about this turning of the ages; no place on Earth is more excited about the Mayan prophecies than Mexico, birthplace of the Mayan calendar that ends this year. To me, it’s impossible not to link this prophecy with the profound changes we are facing. I’m not speaking of Armageddon – rather, a time of reckoning as we end a cycle of industrial excess. The Mayan people I have spoken with are laughing at the notion that the end of the calendar means the end of the world. It’s simply the end of a cycle, and the beginning of a new one, they reassure anyone who asks. But in more serious conversations, they shared with me their hope, as fervent as my own, that a long-awaited shift is pending, and in fact has already begun.

“After five centuries of oppression, we’re ready for a change,” Rony, a Mayan friend from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, told me. “It’s the only hope we have.”
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Meet Anna and Dave, the Permacyclists


Meet Dave and Anna, the Permacyclists.

She was a corporate lawyer from Brussels; he was a sociologist from New York. Neither of them was happy with their chosen profession, and after a great deal of soul searching, they decided to do what many dream of but few actually do: They quit their jobs, studied permaculture, bought bicycles and headed off across Africa, pedaling and working their way through 12 countries, 12,000 kilometers and 16 months from organic farm to organic farm, sharing what they’d learned along the way.

Now they’ve landed in Mexico and are launching a Phase 2 of their journey, but with a difference. This time they’re bringing a video camera and sound equipment, and documenting the stories of people working on solutions to the many environmental problems they have learned about in their travels. Their goal is to make it to the Earth Summit in Rio in June 2012. And this time they’re going by bus, instead of bike, to give them time to do reporting, writing and producing for their blog.

I was inspired by their story and by their plan, since in some ways it parallels my own – so we got together and shared stories. Here’s a little bit of theirs.

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El Salvador proves fertile ground for permaculturists



By Tracy L. Barnett

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador – A gentle breeze ruffles the thatched roof of the hilltop shelter here at the Permaculture Institute. An electric-blue morpho butterfly flits past, a sharp accent against the muted blue of Volcano Guazapa in the background. An incongruously peaceful backdrop for the violence, massacres, scorched earth and forced evacuation that razed this region less than two decades ago.

That mountain, the hideout for guerilla forces for miles around, was bombed daily and burned repeatedly; the town of Suchitoto itself became a battlefield. Hundred of tons of artillery, white phosphorus and napalm rained down on the once lush jungles of these lands, drying up even the springs where people once retrieved their water.

But the Earth has a way of healing herself, and her inhabitants, and this land and the people who work it are living proof of that reality. Continue reading

At home with a Mayan permaculturist

IMG_2963By Tracy L. Barnett

San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala – Rony Lec is roasting coffee beans on a clay comal when I arrive, stirring patiently as the smoke rises. He grew the coffee out back, and every step of the process, like many of his processes, is his own.

We’re seated at his kitchen table now, in the home he designed and built, sharing a cup of the freshest coffee I’ve ever tasted. A soft-spoken Kakchiquel Maya with a loose ponytail and a gentle voice, Rony takes a sip of the fragrant brew and settles in to tell me his story.

The light filters in pleasantly from above through a skylight, an artfully placed series of bamboo tubes and the brown, green and white glass cylinders high above us that are set into the adobe walls. Later I learn, to my surprise, that these colorful cylinders are discarded bottles.

A tree trunk with its gracefully gnarled limbs emerges somewhere from the wrought-iron staircase; a lamp woven from bamboo hangs above us. The stone wall and arched door of the sauna in the background, the lush greenery of the garden out back and the savory aroma of home-grown and home-cooked food complete the picture of natural harmony.

I am at home with a permaculturist. Permaculture, for the uninitiated, is a design system that incorporates everything from agriculture to architecture to community and organizational development into an elegant system that works in harmony with nature. How permaculture came to this tiny village amid the volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlan is a story as winding as the canals Rony designed to slow down the torrential floodwaters here.

Rony was one of the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans whose lives were blown apart by the 36-year civil war. He was just a boy when his father was killed by the army.

“My family was always involved in community development and organizing, and that was the reality in those days; anyone who was working with the community was perceived as a threat.”  His family, in fear for their lives, fled to the United States with the help of the Catholic diocese of New Ulm, Minn., which has a strong presence in this village.

Rony studied at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, earning a degree in cultural anthropology, but always with the idea of coming back home and applying it in a way that would make a difference for his people.
“I never wanted to gain knowledge just to put it in a book on a shelf,” he said. “For me, knowledge has to go beyond theory, it’s something you must put into practice.”

Returning home in 1994, when the conflict had calmed and negotiations were underway, he looked around for a project that could apply what he’d learned about his roots in the Mayan tradition, a tradition interwoven with the rhythms of nature.

“My idea was how to reconstruct and rescue the traditional, ancestral knowledge, and of course much of that had to do with agriculture, because that’s the base of our culture.”

On his own he read far and wide about alternative agricultural practices, and he began to dig into the ancient traditions of his own people. He found his first project on a piece of flood-prone land near the lake, owned by the Catholic Diocese. The land was compacted from many years of cattle grazing, and it flooded, along with the surrounding homes, every rainy season.

Rony asked for the land to try out the ancient system known in ancient Nahuatl as chinampas. The chinampa system is most famously illustrated by the design of ancient Mexico City, which was built by diverting the waters of a swampy lake into canals. Xochimilco, a historic neighborhood in the south of Mexico City, is the last vestige of the old chinampa system.

Here in the Guatemalan highlands, the Kakchiquel Maya had the same concept with a different name, but it fell out of use many years ago with the advent of modern agriculture.

Rony organized a group of subsistence farmers to help him analyze the situation and reclaim the land so that they could farm it, and they spent weeks digging the ditches that would slow down and channelize the rushing waters. But come rainy season, it didn’t work; the canals were clogged with sediment, and the project was swamped.

“Of course, in the anthropology books they tell you about the chinampas, but they don’t tell you how to build them,” he recalls with a laugh.

That’s when he was invited to a conference in the States on traditional agricultural practices, and he decided to make the trip with a dual purpose: to visit the Santa Fe-based center of Permacultura America Latina.

It was there at the “permaculture mansion” of one of the PAL board members that Rony began to realize the potential of permaculture to transform living systems. He explained his plan to PAL founder Ali Sharif, who took a look and quickly diagnosed the problem. The canals he had made were linear and angular – not like anything you’d find in nature. The trick to designing systems that work well is in mimicking nature, Sharif explained, working with nature instead of against it.

The trip was a breakthrough for him, and he ended up making another trip to Australia to study with the legendary Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the permaculture system.

Soon after his trip to Australia, he was joined by Rebecca Cutter, an artist, designer and educator from New York, who had heard about Rony’s group, then called Ija’tz, the Kakchiquel word for seeds. All she knew about the project was that it combined design and organic agriculture in some innovative ways. She came down to volunteer and ended up staying.

The new chinampa design was by all accounts a success. Rebecca took me on a tour and I was able to see the lush forest they had created on this urban tract of about 60 by 150 meters, where there once was only barren, compacted ground. It was raining, so I saw the canal system at work.

“What this does is slow the water down,” Rebecca explained. “Fast water is destructive.”

Runoff from surrounding hillsides carries tons of soil, silt, sand and other debris with it, which formerly ended up in the houses of the people who were flooded each year. Now the water as well as the soil it carries is retained on the land, and at the end of each rainy season when the canals dry up, the farmers empty them of that season’s load of rich soil, sand and silt, piling it up on the sides. In this way, mounds of rich, fertile soil a meter high or more has been built along the meandering canals.

A profusion of tropical plant life, much of it edible, sprouts from those hills. Rebecca shows me the house where they once lived on the site, and a “banana circle,” a permaculture technique involving a circle of banana palms used to treat greywater.

IxChel, Rebecca and Rony’s curly-haired, bright and energetic daughter, accompanies us on the tour, running off to gather wild strawberries and yellow flowers to share with us.

The growers collective who made up Ija’tz eventually decided to focus their energy around the production and commercialization of organic coffee. Rony and Rebecca supported their decision but wanted to continue promoting Permaculture with a focus on the protection of genetic diversity both locally and throughout Mesoamerica. So in 2000, Rony and Rebecca founded the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute, or IMAP, and the two associations continue to collaborate and support each other.

In the decade since its founding, the group has organized local growers to produce seeds and vegetables organically and has helped to create fair trade markets and seed exchanges with farmers and organizations working locally and throughout Guatemala; set up a center that has adapted the permaculture system to a subtropical and indigenous setting; where they’ve taught hundreds of students, both local and international; and responded to the disaster created by Hurricane Stan with low-tech water treatment systems, soil conservation practices, community gardens and other appropriate-technology approaches to disaster relief.

Perhaps their biggest success has been the establishment of a seed bank, housing seeds from thousands of native plants and disseminating them among local growers to keep them in circulation. The seed bank is a concept that has been growing in response to an increased homogenization of agriculture, with corporate growers pressuring local varieties out of existence.

Now, however, it’s time for us to go, and the rain is growing stronger. My tour of IMAP and the seed bank will have to wait for another day.

Please follow Tracy on her trip through Central and South America by going to her website http://www.theesperanzaproject.org/.

At home with the Subcoyote

Alberto home

Outside in the darkness, up in the hills not far from here, a chorus of coyotes is greeting the coming of the dawn. How appropriate, I think with a smile. Here in Huehuecoyotl, place of the old, old coyote, I’ve just bid farewell to the greatest coyote of all, Subcoyote Alberto Ruz Buenfil, who is letting me use his home as a base for a few days. Now it’s his time to head into Mexico City, where he is taking the lessons of the Rainbow Caravan for Peace into the barrios of that other place of coyotes, Coyoacán.
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