permaculture in practice on a degraded mountainside
17.03.2012 - 25.03.2012
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Vilcabamba, Ecuador: an odd assortment of established ex-pats, transient long-term travelers, vacationing gringos, and locals both catering to and trying to ignore all the foreigners. This eclectic jumble of people have all been drawn to this beautiful valley in southern Ecuador (or were born here) yet groups remain largely divided, each with their own jaded views of the others. National Geographic published a story around 10 years ago 'discovering' not only the natural beauty and sublime climate of this area but also that many locals lived more than a century. Foreigners began flocking to the 'Valley of Longevity' and many bought land in the surrounding hills to build their retirement dream homes. Yves (pronounced Eve) arrived in Vilcabamba just before the article, looking to put down some roots and begin his own farm after spending a number of years traversing the Americas. He and his partner had moved from farm to farm through the WWOOF and word of mouth networks, working and learning about permaculture, animal husbandry, and organic gardening. Through a series of events, some lucky and others unfortunate, Yves ended up owning 30 or so hectares of a mountainside on his own. He had wanted a challenging place to test his agriculture knowledge and he certainly got it. Hacking trails through the dense undergrowth, cutting steps into the alkaline clay soil, digging contour ditches, and macheting down hectares of yashepa (head-high ferns) to build terraced garden beds, Yves began the long process of restoring the soil and sculpting the ecosystem into a sustainable place for flora and fauna (including a few humans).
Eight years later Yves, a lively red-headed Canadian, has put not only his time and money, but his heart and soul into carving out a habitat for himself, his animals, and anyone interested enough to haul themselves up the rugged 8 km trail to the haven known as Sacred Sueños. It turns out over 100 volunteers spend time on the mountain every year, and with Yves' guidance and positive attitude, an amazing place has been created. Snaking out from the main kitchen/library/dining/lounge building, a network of paths leads one past terraced garden beds fighting to remain seen among the encroaching undergrowth, chicken tractors hard at work, numerous fruit bearing saplings and vines being encouraged by thick layers of mulch and humanure, compost pits and piles, and greenhouses and nurseries nestled into the slope. Many paths end at habitations from canvas yurts to tree high platforms for yoga and mosquito-net bedrooms, all with glorious views of the valley below. Other trails wind along to a peaceful waterfall or climb upwards over rough earthen stairs to the ridge and pine forest; some disappear completely, left incomplete by a wayward volunteer or simply reclaimed by the vegetation and forgotten.
Amy and I spent only a week in this beautiful place but it seems far longer based on the friends we made, experiences gained, stories shared, and projects completed. We arrived with Kendrick, a skinny kid from Oklahoma who was talkative and smart but inexperienced and naïve about manual labor. Waiting with lunch cooked for us when we made it up the mountain at last with our trio of pack animals (Bonnie the aging donkey and the two horses Joe and Two-Socks loaded with buckets of fruit, veggies, and other scrumptious vittles for our weeks cooking and eating content) was Fabian, the calm and merry dreaklocked traveler/writer from Switzerland. Matt, an intriguing Pittsburg native clambered down from his usual library loft perch and joined Yves, Kendrick, Fabian, Amy and I for a hearty lunch. Later that afternoon Emily, a jovial Quebecois biologist, and Ellen, a friendly and particular science teacher from Germany, returned from their hike in the nearby Podocarpus National Park laughing about how long it had taken due to countless photo ops. Ellen had in fact been the very first volunteer to help Yves build the first structures and gardens eight years ago and had at last returned to see what had become of her friend and the mountain. Our diverse group all spoke English quite well and we shared some great times working in the rain, relaxing in the sun and shade, and dining and playing cards by candlelight.
Our first day was an orientation to the gardens, greenhouses, orchard, kitchen and compost systems, and current projects as well as some guidelines for community living (treat others as you want to be treated!). Due to the severely depleted soil on the mountain (ph of around 4 and mostly clay, very few of Yves' first plantings produced anything) returning nutrients to the earth was of utmost importance. Compost from the kitchen was sorted into 5 different containers: horses/donkeys, chickens, standard, coffee grounds for mushroom growing medium, and hard to break down citrus peels. After the banana, mango, avocado, and other peels were processed through the powerful digestive system of the horses and donkeys, the manure was brought back and layered with standard compost and hay or grass for microorganisms and decomposers to thrive in. After just three or four months this concoction was turned into rich, fluffy, compost ready to be used in the nursery and frugally applied to garden beds. Human excrement was also used for its nutrients, simply mixed with sawdust and dirt, it too became valuable compost, but confined to uses outside of vegetable beds due to the very slight health risk of consuming parasites or bacteria that had previously infected a volunteer (sounds familiar...) and survived to remain present in the compost. The two chicken tractors were yet another tool for revitalizing and aerating the soil. Laying down fresh green leaves in the chickens movable rectangular pen and feeding and watering them daily yielded not only a few a eggs a day but mulch and chicken shit were composted in place. Any waste that was safe and satisfactory to burn was collected for fires, all other waste was either cut into strips for cob building material or if it was really nasty packed into the 'skank bottle' which was then sealed and used as a building block. In these ways, nothing was 'trash' on the mountain, anything that came up was used in its entirety. It was impressive to see many of these permaculture techniques in practice but also daunting to see how impoverished the land was and what a long process it was to restore its vitality and grow enough food to support a human community.
Yves hoped that the changing guard of volunteers could keep these systems of soil replenishment and garden growing in progress while he was personally at work on his own home a twenty minute hike away. Here he had developed goat cheese recipes without the use of electricity and refrigerators, which he brought down every weekend to the gringo market of Vilcabamba for some cash income. From two goats on a well cared for pasture he received about two liters of milk a day, enough to make numerous small cheeses a week. Yves is kept quite busy tending his goats, donkeys (Bonnie and Clyde), and horses, (not to mention his cute kitten and green-eyed puppy who play like siblings) while trying to organize volunteers and had little time to work on his own home. He was very grateful for construction help and Fabian, Kendrick, and I were enthusiastic to do some work other than garden maintenance and general farm upkeep. We gained some valuable timber framing experience as we worked to set floor posts and chisel out a large cross beam to connect them. Yves did not pretend to be a builder and was appreciative of the rough construction experience I had. Despite fighting a cough, our progress on his house cheered him up considerably and Yves kept mentioning all the other fun projects there would be for me if I was only able to stay longer.
Amy and I agree that Sacred Sueños was our most enjoyable volunteer post to date. The work was flexible, interesting, and though many tasks were routine maintenance and chores, you could see the purpose in them. Yves was incredibly knowledgeable about plants and permaculture techniques and very willingly to talk about past experiences and future ideas. The library was extremely impressive for its size and included a wide range of acclaimed novels as well as a multitude of references for all things agriculture, animal, ecology, building, and community related. Though not our most posh accommodations (certainly our best views though), the living areas had a feel of history to them (perhaps too much so for only being 8 years old or less) and being there felt like we had become part of a meaningful community, not simply our own with fellow volunteers but all the Sacred Sueños members who had come before us. By far the most authentic and organized attempt at a sustainable living community we have been a part of, it was sobering to see how much food still had to be hauled up the mountainside to sustain us. Yves was thorough with his shopping and kept the kitchen stocked with the most ingredients and best variety we have been privileged to use, which was great for our cooking and eating, but reinforced the fact that the most fundamental part of sustainability, growing food, is not at all easy. Sacred Sueños certainly began with quite a handicap due to its location and soil but it is a hearty reminder that growing enough food to survive is a challenge, while having a variety of food is an immense luxury indeed. Balanced meals full of nutrients and hopefully some protein become even more important when the work necessary to live off the land is mostly hard manual labor. Yves has most definitely shown us an inspiring example of what can be done, while reminding me that a cash crop or value added product is quite important (cheese now, Yves wants to brew mead and grow mushrooms in the future), as well as proximity to a market for those products and a place to buy goods you cannot produce yourself. In other words, its no coincidence that rural farmers have been trekking to town and back for as long as agrarian societies have existed.
When the week came to an end, Amy and I had gained two traveling partners on our next leg to Peru! Emily had biologist contacts in Chachapoyas, Peru (where we were headed) and Fabian (who rarely makes plans) felt that it was a good direction to go. On Sunday we descended from the mountain and that night the four of us boarded a night bus bound for Zumba, leg 1 of 7 to cross the least traveled Ecuador/Peru border. A sun-rise truck bed ride to the border, a simple stroll across a bridge, a couple muddy Toyota Corolla hatchback jaunts, one short rickshaw ride, a speedy van stint on paved roads across what looked much like the American southwest, one sleepy driver, a final cruise through a canyon road full of fallen rocks, and 20 hours later we arrived in Chachapoyas: land of the cloud people!