I sat in the passenger seat of Juan Carlos’ Fiat Palio, filled with trepidation. We were on our way to Ecovilla Gaia, a community founded on permaculture principles in the pueblito of Navarro, around 120km outside of Buenos Aires.
I had signed up for a sustainable life course and, while considering the environment a vital issue, felt anxious that my green credentials would not quite be up to scratch. Betraying my ignorance, I turned to two other course participants: “What exactly is permaculture?” It would not be long till I became well acquainted with the term and hurtled into a way of life that is dramatically different from any I had previously known!
Sweet, fresh air filled my lungs. Born and bred in London, and a Buenos Aires resident for three months, I am without doubt a ‘city rat’, as the Argentines coin it. The vast, flat, green pastures of the Pampas were foreign to me.
A Very Big House in the Country
On arrival, we were shown to our rooms. We had been advised that accommodation at Gaia is “simple” but I had not expected to confront a huge mud heater – resembling an alien from ‘Dr. Who’ that I can’t remember the name of – directly in the middle of the dorm. I soon became quite fond of it however! Every room has lockers and plugs and there is always a dry-compost toilet nearby, but you have to walk a short distance to get to the solar powered showers.
The thatched roof, bamboo shutters and mud walls ornamented with mosaics and glass bottles, make the Gaia community centre striking to behold. Inside, as we sat down to our first naturalist dinner, I still felt a little nervous. However, the tension dissipated after we watched a film about two ‘highly consuming’ US citizens’ experiences at an eco villa. Surely I couldn’t be as hopeless as them!
The sustainable life workshop began the next morning. After some bread and amazingly addictive home-made jam (if you have a sweet tooth I defy you to come away without buying some), our seven-strong group gave brief introductions. Course organisers and Gaia inhabitants, Gustavo – a man with a serious aspect and a beard longer than Santa’s – and his wife Silvia, introduced themselves and the course.
We learned that Ecovilla Gaia covers 20 acres, is 12 years old and 100% sustainable, apart from some cheese and milk obtained from a neighbour, and – the essential – mate!
The general daily routine for the sustainable life workshop was a 7am breakfast, in order to start practical work outside by eight. Lunch at one was followed by a theory class in the afternoon and a group task at six. This was either collecting firewood, cooking or cleaning. At eight the whole community dines together and there was often an activity afterwards.
I confess that such packed days can be draining, both mentally and physically. One group member, Sanra, commented that she had been “overwhelmed during the first few days”. We all learnt so much, however, that this compensated for being tired out.
Course organiser Silvia has very good English and she is happy to help those who are not overly confident in their castellano. She translated for Canadian participant, Naila, who felt that her Spanish was not strong enough to understand everything. Naila commented that this did not put her at a disadvantage, particularly because she was already familiar with permaculture principles.
One tip for English-speakers is to learn nature-related vocabulary before going. Particularly tools: wheelbarrow (carretilla) is an essential!
On Saturday we tagged along on the Gaia guided tour, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in sustainable living or the natural world. It takes place every weekend and on national holidays, but it’s worth arriving before the tour itself starts and paying slightly more to have lunch, particularly because it will probably be very tasty pizza.
Gustavo gave a thorough explanation of how Gaia works. He showed us the ingenious plants that clean the community’s dirty shower water and we marvelled at the carefully thought out construction of the buildings on site and their naturalistic air conditioning and heating systems.
Participants were also invited – positively encouraged, in fact – to make an unconventional contribution to the project: in the dry compost toilets! All waste is made use of, either as tree compost or fertiliser. Hesitancy to use these loos will vanish, when you learn that every year an adult flushes out (no pun intended) an average of; 365g of phosphorous; 730g of potassium and over 4kg of nitrogen. All of these are important fertiliser components, which are often expensive or scarce.
After the guided tour there is a question session, at which point the strong political ideals (or cynicisms) that underlie the eco villa are revealed. An unashamed anti-capitalist, Gustavo never missed an opportunity to condemn “the system”, which he believes is based on pride, possession and competition, and managed by “secret societies”. We were not allowed to forget that the impending implosion of such societies will mean that we have no choice but to leave the cities and live sustainably in the future.
Permaculture is an alternative life structure that encourages “observation and interaction” with the land and the “least possible intervention” into nature. It promotes the regeneration of ecosystems, planting trees to restore the earth and produce oxygen. Growing your own food is also essential. It is not only healthier, but cuts out the 12,000km that 1kg of food travels, on average, to consumers dining tables.
I asked Gustavo if there was enough cultivable land to support the whole of the Earth’s population, living according to the Gaia model. He replied: “Seventy million people could live on 20% of the land that makes up the ‘damp Pampas’, following Ecovilla Gaia’s example.”
By the end of the week, I felt uncomfortable and could not shake off the idea that I ought to relinquish my journalistic pretensions, banish myself to a remote field and start growing my own potatoes as soon as possible.
We watched several documenataries as a part of the workshop. All of them are educational or political, relating to genetically modified soya amongst other issues. One of the films we watched, ‘Zeitgeist’, a cult film rapidly gaining popularity, sums up much of Gaia’s political stance. All can be obtained at Gaia for a small (monetary) contribution.
Sustainable Life Activities
Aside from the politics, we studied natural construction and cooking, which were both highlights for me. We helped construct the walls of the new auditorium, which plans to accommodate around 300 people for meetings and classes.
Silvia encouraged us to put plastic bags in between helpings of mud, whilst building up the walls. When there is no further use for these bags, for the Gaia inhabitants it is sensible to incorporate them into buildings where they can’t do any harm, as they take hundreds of years to disintegrate.
The hard physical work of mixing mud, water and straw with our feet, then shovelling it into buckets to take over to the construction site was a killer! I felt it in my shoulders and back during the week and was consistently ravenous after natural construction sessions.
One participant saw this in a positive light, revealing that she had often procrastinated physical work outdoors for fear of not being able to cope with it. The week at Gaia showed her that she is physically capable of more than she had realised and inspired her to put practical plans into action when she got home.
Each member of the group left their mark on Gaia, sculpting an array of objects such as flowers and animals on the outer wall of the auditorium, and decorating them with mosaics. Creativity is apparently also an integral part of the permaculture approach!
In the natural cooking class we made, amongst other things, a roasted aubergine dip, a ricotta pie, an apple crumble and quinoa. Quinoa is a multi-purpose food that is popular with indigenous communities, who also used the soapy liquid it produces when rinsed prior to consumption for washing things.
Uruguyan group member Susan admitted that she “had not expected naturalist food to be so tasty”. The only thing she had missed during the week was chocolate. I must also confess to the occasional strong dairy craving, though the fault here is probably my own.
Seeds and seed saving comprise another fundamental aspect of permaculture. Gustavo showed us Ecovilla Gaia’s seed bank, a fascinating room filled with jars of seeds of different shapes and colours. He emphasised the importance of keeping them dry, for which Gaia has developed its own special method.
Though you might not immediately realise it, these seeds are an important part of the political revolution. Farmers can keep those that perform best and swap varieties of seed with other cultivators. We learn how soya farmers’ ability to do this has been threatened in some parts of the world by genetically modified seeds, patented by large corporations, which contaminate their plantations.
On our last morning at Gaia we threw the seed “cookies” that we had made at the beginning of the week. These “cookies” are inspired by Masanobu Fukoka, a permaculture guru, and form part of his plan to reclaim and rejuvenate the earth.
Made out of mud with various seeds and a little fertiliser added to them, they give the organisms the best chance of germinating and can be used to cover vast areas of land. Essentially, they work like cow dung.
It was uplifting to walk side by side throwing the “cookies”, in the knowledge that we were helping to revive the earth. Strengthening your bond with nature is one of the main reasons I would recommend a week at Gaia to everybody. One participant was so moved by the view of a sunset across the Pampas that she hugged a large nearby tree.
As a group, we returned to a small plot where we had cast some bolletitas – like “cookies” but smaller and rounder – exactly a week ago. Tiny shoots were beginning to force their way out of these little balls.
Reflecting on what I had learnt, I wished that the permaculture principles promoted at Gaia might start to sprout in the minds of all those who visit the project, be it only for one afternoon. My only fear is that political radicalism and ‘local discounts’ for Argentines may put off some visitors, particularly foreigners.
All in all, I had a genuinely life altering experience at Gaia and was introduced to a vast number of new ideas. Alicia, a student from Rosario, commented how much she had learnt. “Things that I didn’t even expect to learn. And not just from the course, but also from all members of the group. I feel sad, that I have to go back and continue living in the city.”
To find out more about visitng Ecovilla Gaia, including the details of upcoming courses, visit the website: www.gaia.org.ar