Albert Bates is regional secretary for the Americas of the Global Ecovillage Network. He is also the principal founder of the Institute for Appropriate Technology in Tennessee, where he has taught sustainable design, natural building, agriculture, and technology.

Monday, 4 Dec 2000

UNGUIA, Colombia

The fruit hanging from the trees here, which looks like Idaho’s biggest baking potatoes, is zapote (Pachira acuatica), which is called chila blanca in Salvador, pumpunjuche in Honduras, and castana in Cuba. Here at Concisa’s cochina in Unguia, with horses tied to the hitching post on the dirt street in front, Leon makes zapote into first-rate milk shakes, practically a whole meal. He does equally well with cantaroon, lolo, borraho, passion fruit, or guayava, which you can get con leche or con aqua. We have been eating here every day, and Concisa, whose speciality is deep-fried fish, is doing her best to accommodate the vegetarians in our group, here in Unguia to teach “permacultura, ecoconstruccion, y tecnologia apropiada.”

Unguia street traffic.

Photo: © Institute for Appropriate Technology.

I have been living as a sort of voluntary peasant for the past 30 years in a rural intentional community in Tennessee . A lawyer by training, I used to run an environmental law project called the Natural Rights Center, but after writing a book on global warming in 1990, I found that my priorities had changed. Now, the best strategy that I can imagine to wean the world from its carbon habit is lifestyle change. My travelling companion, Alejandra Liora Adler, and I are both on the board of the Institute for Appropriate Technology and active in the Global Ecovillage Network. Our work takes us to communities that are seriously trying to tackle this “sustainability” issue in practical ways. We draw upon the experience of similar efforts all over the world and provide training classes, experienced consultants, and opportunities to network.

Liora is a kibbutz-born Colombian whose home is in Mexico’s oldest ecovillage, Huehuecoyotl. For the past few years she has been travelling with the Rainbow Peace Caravan as it wends its way through the Americas, performing street theater with an environmental slant. The Caravan is our network’s reconnaissance patrol, tracking down rumors of ecological experiments in the farthest reaches and letting them know they are not alone. Worldwide, the Global Ecovillage Network has documented more than 15,000 villages that are doing this kind of redevelopment work.

Schoolchildren under the watchful eyes of the Colombian army.

Photo: © Institute for Appropriate Technology.

The Colombian military, apparently worried for our safety, garrisoned a regiment of the armed forces under the command of a two-star, Tenete Nelson Enrique Chacon; now, you can’t sneeze in this town without dampening the collar of a soldier. Nelson enrolled in our course, but I suspect it is to keep an eye on us, because he is not taking notes or understanding the material. Not to be outdone, the National Police also assigned a Lt. Hernandez. In contrast, he is very studious, because the local Chief of Police has instructed him to teach the rest of the barracks everything he learns after the course is done.

Today, we did a cob dance with the commanding officer and the lieutenant, their M-16s leaning against coconut palms, stomping clay on a big tarp in bare feet and tossing cobs, with several dozen schoolkids gawking, pointing, and giggling at these guys in uniforms getting all muddy. Most of the world’s population lives in earthen buildings, but mud is usually held in low regard, and poor people want to get into something made of cinderblock as soon as they can. Personally, I have never liked the feel of cement buildings (maybe because I went to elementary school in them!) — they deaden sounds and always feel cold to me. We teach people to build more elegantly with basic materials like cob, rammed earth, straw bale, and adobe, using the inherent sculptural qualities to make elegant buildings that even wealthly people would envy.

This is my third course since I arrived in Colombia a couple weeks ago. Liora has been here for some months making all the arrangements. The people taking the class are a mix of trainers from universities and local agricultural agencies, peace activists, and people assisting with programs for refugees. The war in Colombia has resulted in huge numbers of displaced persons — as much as 20 percent of the population of this town of 5,000.

The courses are part of a strategy we have cooked up to help us pay for our meeting that starts later this week. The Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA) is now barely two years old, and already it has eight regional offices, each of which will send a representative to the meeting. Some of the regions (and most experimental ecovillages) are financially challenged and air travel can be prohibitive, so our plan has been to run these courses with a mix of paying and free participants and to use that income to bring our council representatives to Colombia.

The school where we are meeting was selected because it has one room with an air conditioner. After an hour, though, the diesel fuel ran out at the town’s power station, so we started to bake. We removed ourselves to a thatch-roofed gazebo by the basketball court. We took a walk around at lunchtime and decided that the first afternoon should be spent in a design exercise involving the school. We broke up the class into four groups and had them look for water, waste, people, and pollution vectors, map them, and come back for evaluation. This turned out to be a really good exercise.

The school’s water comes from a well. One well went bad and was abandoned, an open malaria generator 20 feet from the classrooms. A short distance away is the new well, cement cased but also open, and between the two is the waste pile, rotting coconuts and banana peels, half-burnt plastic bags, old lead batteries, and scrap chemicals. Over 100 inches of rain per year ensures that some of this will eventually soak into the wells. Pigs, chickens, and cows wander the spaces between classrooms, fertilizing the grass and drawing those wonderful little bacteria buses, the flies. Asbestos shingles crumble from the roofs, and where the roofs have failed, the cement classrooms have been abandoned. The toilets are all stopped up. The septic tank has probably never been emptied and overflows when it rains. There is no cafeteria, so vendors peddle junk food by the gate. Barbed wire separates the schoolyard from cattle ranches on three sides. Last year, 20 poisonous snakes were caught in the high grass that grows up to the walkways between classrooms.

We were invited to Unguia because the former mayor, who is now an evangelist for sustainable development, wants to make the town over as an ecovillage. It is
a daunting task, but hey — you have to start somewhere. And actually, these people already have the most vital ingredient — unbridled enthusiasm. The 30 of us spent the afternoon thinking about how we could redesign the school in ways that would teach the children the basic elements of sustainability. And then these children would provide the impetus to redesign Unguia, because as they say, it takes a child to raise a village.