My girlfriend, Lauren, and I spent an incredible two years travelling overland from Mexico to Argentina visiting permaculture projects. A huge help in our research came in the form of earth ambassadors Común Tierra (‘common ground’).
Ryan, from the U.S. and Letícia of Brazil are the creators of the Común Tierra Project, an online map and directory of permaculture projects in Latin America. They met working in the kitchens and gardens of a community in California. What initially was planned as a year-long overland trip to Brazil grew into a four year exploration of sustainable communities in Latin America. With video camera in hand and motor home turned mobile sustainability unit Común Tierra took permaculture on the road.
Their lovingly named vehicle, Minhoca (Portuguese for earthworm) is kitted out with dry toilet, solar panels, and a bike-powered rig for washing clothes, making smoothies and powering films. They also plan to create a vertical garden. Stacking functions on the road, the pair initially thought they could finance their way playing music on the streets of the Americas.
They soon realised that documenting sustainable communities across Latin America had to be financially viable. With their contacts in both Brazil and the U.S. they were able to secure funding that would help with day to day survival and the creation of their website.
Initially the pair imagined the project would be geared toward education through the web. “One thing that really inspired us at the beginning of the project,” says Ryan, “was searching for information about eco-villages and permaculture in Latin America. We couldn’t find that much. With our website we wanted to create something useful for people access projects and ideas.”
The trip wasn’t just about sharing information – they wanted to get their hands dirty. Letícia explains: “How could we use our experience and travel to serve the projects we’d visit and not just take and learn, but bring something and learn.”
The architecture of their movement has been codified in the blessed internet. Their website includes a map, detailed information about each of the projects and their videos. Tying the thread of alternative communities the mighty Minhoca has worked its way overland to 84 projects from Mexico to Argentina.
“A big challenge we have in the sustainability movement,” Ryan points out, “is building community across regions and countries and building more collaborative structures with fluid communication so you don’t lose the spark of inspiration.
“I think that’s something that’s developing but it’s not quite there. It’s not easy to get that information.”
Video and film have an immediacy that make them accessible. Yet the pair realised their ‘experiential’ life on the road would supplement their film screenings and providing workshops on everything from growing classes to issues in sustainability grew organically.
“We realised our motor home was becoming more and more demonstrable as a sustainable mobile house,” Ryan explains. “At first there were guided visits to the house and we would explain the different technologies and how it worked and then we expanded what we could offer to schools. We have this novel aspect of being foreigners with this big colourful van and it’s really curious for kids.”
Taking that curiosity and guiding it towards new ideas was key. “When we get out the bike machine the kids have never thought about sustainability and they see it and they’re like ‘Wow! You’re drinking this juice’,” Letícia excitedly recalls. “It’s not mental, it’s more real – you ‘get it’. You can’t know where that’s going to go in the life of each person. It’s about opening the mind a little bit.”
Sowing conceptual seeds, as well as real ones, Común Tierra exchange making videos, performing workshops and volunteering for time at the many communities they visit.
“We were really impressed with a community in Mexico that is called Teopantli Calpulli,” reflects Ryan, “which is a very grassroots community, and one of the biggest in Mexico. It’s one of the places that really feels like their own little village. You can see three to four generations interacting and living together. It’s also a very interfaith community with some members practicing different Indigenous Mexican spiritual traditions whilst others are Buddhist or Christian.”
Inter-faith and inter-generational communities point toward a trend that Común Tierra observed along their travels: the renewal of traditional practices, unique to the movement in Latin America.
With a rich vein of history and peoples, the world’s fourth largest continent, has a host of traditions to draw upon. As Letícia explains:
“Examples of ancestral community social structures are the Ejido’s and Kalpulli’s of Mexico, and the Allyu’s in the Andes. One concept that is really popular amongst the projects we visited is the Minga – a communal work project (barn raising or rearing in English). Hosting a Minga is a strategy not only to get things done quickly with a lot of people, but also to bring the community together. Many people we have talked to stress that community building has to include taking real actions to help each other, in order to form long-term friendship and trust, and to be truly meaningful.”
Común Tierra are particularly interested in the ‘invisible’ structures that make sustainable communities work. The recovery of ancestral practices has impressed them most over experiments in education or alternative versions of democracy such as sociocracy and holocracy.
Life on wheels meant the two where attentive to one particular innovation that could be replicated: the humble and magnificent bicycle-turned machine.
Easing time consuming daily tasks like washing clothes, blending, grinding, and pumping water, “Bike-Machines were invented in 1997 by Carlos Maroquín, an Indigenous Guatemalan man,” explains Ryan.
“They were developed as a response to a crisis situation in which the countries rural poor were isolated from basic services and have since spread to several countries in Central and South America. The designs are usually very simple, using the bike chain, or in some cases a pulley, that connects to a gear system to spin a blender, grinder, move a saw, or even turn a cement mixer, helping save many hours of manual labor and economising electricity expenses. Plus, using a bike machine can be a great workout, combining exercise with productivity. They’re also generally made from recycled materials that would otherwise be sitting in a landfill somewhere.” Común Tierra have produced two videos about Bike-Machines, or ‘Bicimaquinas’ as they are known and the amazing Maya Pedal project in Guatemala.
So what does permaculture have to offer with regards to decision-making – especially for life on the road? “Permaculture points towards a process of life design, not just design of physical space. We’ve really tried to look at things in a holistic framework,” explains Ryan. “What are all the effects this decision is going to have? On an emotional, a spiritual, a social level as well as how we can design our daily routines, weekly, monthly routines, our communication, our economy, our strategy.”
Ryan continues: “Permaculture for me is a way of seeing things. It’s about your lens if you will. So I see it as a perspective and as a lens rather than just a set of tools. I think the tools are really important but I think the most important aspect of permaculture is becoming co-creative, becoming a designer.”
“Permaculture is the new culture,” says Letícia. “It’s holistic as it has the spiritual, rational, practical levels. It’s more powerful than just the techniques and workshops. It shows us a way of how to connect to the land, how to serve nature and be a part of nature.”
For now Minhoca sits in a parking bay as the pair have put on their backpacks for the Común Tierra Europe Tour. Ryan and Letícia will be screening their films at Café Cairo in London this Thursday, 24th July. For the rest of their dates across Europe please look at the Común Tierra Europe Tour page.
Phil Moore is one half of Permaculture People. Having spent two years travelling the Americas they are currently touring the UK
www.permaculturepeopleuk.tumblr.com and @permapeople
For more information about Común Tierra’s London Screenings visit: www.facebook.com/events/523762027724559/
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This article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine.