Their beds hang in trees, and they eat off the land, guided by little more than the seasons. But their mulch is landfill and the leafy backdrop is overgrown with concrete pillars. Deep in the centre of Buenos Aires, between blaring traffic and steel high-rises, lies Velatropa El Aldea, an eco-community dedicated to sustainable living and the tenants of permaculture.
The community, hidden in wasteland behind the Ciudad Universitario campus of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), was started by students from the urban design faculty. “It’s an experimental centre for sustainable living,” says Juan Chodaa, a 23-year-old image and sound design student who periodically sleeps in the tree-top bunks and leads environmental construction seminars on site each weekend. “The earth is ours and it’s up to us to look after it.”
Today Juan is hunched over two bamboo poles demonstrating how to bind them together into an arched roof support. Seven equally dreadlocked faces fumble with the waxy plastic string dug up from a skip as he calmly describes the natural bend of the plant. Few words are exchanged but the stealthy movement of his mud-speckled hands say it all.
The public land, which was once nothing more than a rubbish heap, is now occupied by anything from 20 to 40 people throughout the year who devote their time to recycling and tilling the pebbly urban terrain. That is, when they’re not meditating. In a vacuum of silence they go about their daily lives in conversation with their surroundings. “Life should be driven by the rhythm of nature,” says Juan. “If we live like that we can most improve the environment.”
Through the exhaust fumes that settle overhead, the members of El Aldea have created an urban oasis. Twenty-four-year-old Marie sits crossed legged, and closes her eyes, with her head faced towards the sun. The airplane that growls overhead doesn’t interrupt her meditation and the six plastic crates on which she is perched are just as good as any yoga matt.
El Aldea’s commitment to recycling breathes new life into the discarded objects gathered from around the city. An old sink is now an herb garden, and shards of glass have been crafted into colorful windows inserted into the mud hut walls. A rusty stretcher lies by the kitchen, waiting for transformation into a very different tool of survival. Perhaps a table in the clubhouse or some shade for the new bulbs. El Aldea is all about experimentation: “How to re-imagine rubbish,” says Juan. “This is a cooperative where we can teach people about recycling and how to do it.” Even their daily food is expatriated garbage. Ingredients rescued from bins – a practice known as ‘dumpster diving’ – are eaten along side homegrown vegetables.
El Aldea is open to anyone and the number of residents ebbs and flows throughout the year. Some just pass by on their travels, directed down the hidden path by word of mouth. Others move in for weeks at a time, taking root in the mud huts. “I am a traveler of permaculture,” says Pedro, who’s ragged t-shirt and callused feet indicate a life on the road. Originally from Brazil, he has spent the past three months hopping between eco-communities and he has stopped off in Buenos Aires for five days. “There is a network all over the South America, and they welcome everyone – but you have to know about them.” Indeed, the community has remained relatively secret; protected from tourists and voyeurs hungry for a taste of ‘real’ hippy living. And ‘real’ hippy living is exactly what El Aldea does best.
The disheveled troupe is made up of dreadlocked men and women who wander through the site with bare-feet and sun-stained hands. Meditation is the favoured pastime, and everyone has something to say about their connection with the earth and consumer abundance. However a slightly different streak runs through these residents who are more students of the environment, than fully immersed land worshipers.
Gabriel, 26, studied programming at university and he is currently a systems analyst. “I’m looking for reception,” he says, as he weaves his way through the vegetables, holding his computer above his head. “Ahah!” he sits down cross-legged in a patch of dried grass and leans his computer on a tree stump. “Education is about communication,” he emphatically proclaims – the mantra of his barefoot life. “Everything is integrated. Education, permaculture, health. I want to create an online tool that demonstrates this.” Gabriel is currently working on an environmental database that will allow users to sift through pages on sustainable living. Like most residents of El Aldea, he lives free of material possessions – barring of course, his computer. But even this has become an environmental tool.
“Technology and permaculture can work together,” he says as he balances his laptop in one hand, and a fistful of freshly picked basil in the other, ready for lunch. His companions sit in a circle around a tin bowl of gooey white rice and boiled vegetables. Closing their eyes and touching palms, the residents share a long, silent thank you before tucking into their home-grown feast. They eat in silence, the clinking of spoons blending into the rock music that drifts in from a group of skateboarders nearby. Eventually a man with a long beard and dreadlocks tied up on his head opens a discussion on harmonious mixtures of food as a tattered bag of salt is passed along the circle. “Ah the poison of life,” Gabriel sighs. The others violently nod in agreement. “Hang on,” he cuts in. “Pass it back here…just a little bit more…”