Punta Mona: Costa Rica's Alternative Farming

Phil Moore
Sunday, 13th October 2013

Using 'the problem as the solution', Stephen Brooks has created an abundance of food and learning opportunities in Punta Mona, Costa Rica with techniques like building Chinampas and planting an incredible edible biodiverse forest on what was abandoned land.

Punta Mona, Monkey Point in Spanish, is like entering a permaculture garden designed by Willy Wonka. A wonderfully eclectic and exuberent ecosystem, full of edible plants and trees from all over the world jostle side by side threatening to spill out into the paths, leading the bewildered onlooker from the open air kitchen to the showers and back to the communal living space.

Arrival to the 85 acre off-grid site is either a two hour hike or a 25 minute boat ride. Primary rainforest juts up to a picture-postcard beach with a tropical fruit garden and a complex of buildings in between. All of Punta Mona's buildings are built from fallen trees, the electricity comes from solar panels, and there’s plenty of fresh food to pluck and pick if one looks closely enough.

A tropical climate and good design results in the growth of over 200 edible plants such as mangosteens, peach palm, guanabana (soursop), moringa, katuk, eggfruit (canistel), rambutans, mama sapote, gotu kola, passion fruit (I could go on!) and Jackfruit - the 'Permaculture Pin-Up' tree: a complete food and humongously bountiful. Based on the southern Caribbean coast where big bananas are big business, Punta Mona is an island of sanity in a landscape that at times looks more like a Banana Republic than a land of preciously diverse life.

One experience can change a life

A dream thought up by the effervescent and ever-inspired Stephen Brooks, Punta Mona came into being, as with many things, during a decisive moment. In 1995 on holiday in Costa Rica, Stephen witnessed a playground of happy, smiling indigenous children being sprayed by a Chiquita banana crop duster.

“It was painful. I was ashamed of my culture creating this awful design that was inherently there to maximize profits for few while the masses struggled and live in toxic situations with a poor quality of life. I knew we could do better.”

Starting an educational tour company in 1995 that still exists today, Stephen was inspired to show young students the beauty and ugly realities of a fast changing place like Costa Rica and was introduced to the remote setting by a local guide.

The area, also known as Punta Mona, was first settled by Afro-Caribbean people in the mid 1800s and until the early 1970s there existed a coastal fishing village with nearly 40 families. A road, built along the coast but stopping 10 miles short of the village in nearby Manzanillo, witnessed the departure of families in search of other work and livelihoods. But one person remained, a fisherman named Blas Martinez, known as Padi to all who came to meet him. In 1997 Stephen purchased 30 acres of overgrown and abandonded land next to Padi, where most would fail, and created the beginnings of something else. And so The Punta Mona Centre for Sustainability and Education was born.

Stephen felt an instant connection to Padi who would become his confidant and guide over the years. Padi fished and farmed the land, collected rainwater for drinking and read by a kerosene lamp in his humble wooden abode overlooking the advancing sea. Sadly Padi passed away this year.

Having the gusto and get-up attitude of a permaculture pioneer combined with the confidence of younth, the land was a great teacher to the 21 year old Stephen.  

“There was no store, so we had to grow food. I got really obsessed with growing my own food, like tropical fruits, and plants that would improve my life and figuring ways how I could spread those plants and improve other people’s lives.”

It was this inspired and constant whirling of the brain that has propelled Punta Mona into what it is today. Over the last 18 years 10,000 plus students have passed through Punta Mona bringing their own ideas and thoughts to the challenges of design set by such an environment.

As a change-maker Stephen's vision is infectious. And like a walking embodiment of the saying ´the problem is the solution´, Punta Mona has had to adapt to its own changes.

Substantial portions of the original forest near the sea fell under the machetes of the farmers who worked the area and, with the high water table, the aggresive six metre tall Cana Brava (a fan shaped grass that looks like sugar-cane) quickly colonozied the disturbed area. The swampy land looked unworkbale. The response was the creation of Chinampas, raised pieces of land surrounded by bodies of water. An age-old agricultural technique once used in Central America, the Punta Mona version is a series of small islands comprising of fruit trees, gardens and a greenhouse that are surrounded by small ponds. As Stephen says, “We took back an area from the Cana Brava that was completely usless to us and now it’s our most productive.”

The eternally vigilant sea and the rising level is a steady feature but life continues. One worker, Roberto, used to walk in a short straight line across what was once a wide beach. His journey home now takes 40 minutes as he follows the newly formed curve of the coast. With change comes fear for the future - an uncertainity that unbalances some and fires the imagination of others. Despite the rising sea level and the behemoth that is Big Bananas (how am I ever going to eat another banana in England?!) Stephen is remarkably sanguine.

“How could I not be optimistic! In 2001 we held the first ever PDC in Costa Rica. There’s so much going on. There’s a million great things happening. Sure, the opposition is always fierce. We’re on a great path, I have a lot of faith.”

And it is this zeal and lust for seeking solutions and helping weave the fabric of a more equitable, just and healthier future that has seen Stephen found two ecovillages  - La Ecovilla and Tacotal. As he says in his TEDx talk on building intentional communities, “If you don’t like the way things are… start a town!” The neighbouring ecovillages are located near the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. A huge appetite for life and increasing hammock time for all, as well as an obssession with fixing broken food systems, it was inevitable for him to venture down this road leading him to other places.

Alongside his wife, Sarah Wu, a herbalist and nutritionist, both have taken Punta Mona in a different direction. Alongside PDCs and Yoga courses, the site is now working to focus on hosting more retreats and include longer term volunteers into the Punta Mona family of workers and ardent permaculturists. To find out more visit www.puntamona.org

Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Punta Mona is a living machine of possibilities brought to life on the vines, branches, and leaves of the plants and people that make up this stunning site. Faced with the realities of market dictates that promote cash crops in favour of local variety, Punta Mona embodies an alternative to the destructive practices in parts of Costa Rica and the wider world. By seeing the opportunity rather than the problem, change no longer looms like a scary inevitability but as a reminder that we are all designers and that we are able to create the reality we want and the reality we dream.

For more about Punta Mona visit www.puntamona.org

For more on Stephen Brooks and the many good things he gets up to: http://permacultureglobal.com/users/6311-stephen-brooks

Phil Moore is on a permaculture tour of the Americas, tweets @permapeople and also writes for Permaculture magazine in print. Please help us to continue to post inspiring, practical and cutting edge features online for free by SUBSCRIBING to Permaculture - download a FREE sample issue and try before you buy. Also available as a digital subscription (for just £10) and Apple and Android devices.

More adventures from Phil:

Using experimentation to create acres of multiple fruits for food sovereignty and security

Building Belize's first Earthship alongside the Mayan ruins 

Medicinal herbs: an antidote to modern medicine