Attending the Llamado De La Montaña (Call of the Mountain) Bioregional Gathering in Atlantida Ecovillage in Colombia last year, and witnessing the emergence of the new Latin American organization, CASA (Consejo de Asentamientos Sustentables de las Americas), was one of the most enriching and energizing experiences I've had in recent times. Although I had really wanted to visit other Colombian ecovillage projects while I was there, I had time to see only one, Nashira, an urban ecovillage near the Colombian city of Cali.
Nashira, which means 'Love Song' in the ancient local language, was one of the most amazing ecovillages I have ever visited. It is run by low-income women heads of households. This is a widespread social problem in the outskirts of cities in Colombia, where the casualty of decades of civil conflict has left many women to manage and sustain the household. A Nashira pamphlet states, "The Nashira project goes beyond offering just housing solutions, it seeks to provide a better quality of life, offering a secure and nutritious supply of food within the compound, an environmentally friendly atmosphere and a source of income through the development of workshops where women can manufacture their own products."
In a 3 acre piece of land where lemon, orange tangerine, plantain and nonie trees are in full production, 88 low income women and their families have been working the land during the last three years. They have built their own vegetable beds, their own compost heaps and are in the process of harvesting worms for organic feeding of poultry and fish. Through a government program they have been provided with units to rear rabbits, ducks, quails, poultry, guinea pigs, which they use as a source of protein or barter with other neighbors. Four African sheep are in charge of cutting the grass.
I arrived in Nashira at dusk, just before sunset. I was introduced to some of residents and shown to a unit where I had a reservation to spend the night. I was met by Osiris, the thirty year-old son of Marta, the head of the house. As a sign of the changes undergone by ecovillage members, Osiris is a social sciences faculty member at one of Colombia's rural universities who was visiting his mom for the holidays, something I thought was itself out-of-the-ordinary for people in the lower-income social class. He showed me to my room, which was a single bedroom on the second floor of the 700-900 square foot home that Marta had helped to build during one of the training sessions offered by national and international ecovillage consultants. My room was spacious, with a double bed, nice windows and good lighting.
I hurried to meet Osiris outside for the last bit of daylight to give me a flash tour of the ecovillage. Nashira was founded by a donor who gave the municipal authorities 3 acres of land to build an 88 homes ecological development for women heads of households with matching donations from government housing development funds.
To date there are 48 units already built, mostly with the sweat equity of its owners, who formed cooperative groups to learn and help each other to build small, attached, efficient and durable housing units with the help of some additional materials, donations and capacity training by national and international organizations. They spent time teaching ecovillage design and hands-on skills, from village economics and small businesses that can operate from inside the village to food production, decision making for self governance, natural building, bed and breakfast ecotourism, a local solidarity economy, alternative renewable energy technologies, and waste management for recycling and recovering of industrial byproducts.
One of the organizations doing the trainings is Change the World, where several ecovillage activists in both the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA) work to bring low tech solutions to indigenous and marginalized people and natural reserves in Latin America, including Beatriz Arjona, one of the organizers of the Llamado de la Montaña event and a member of Aldea Feliz, another ecovillage active in the Colombian ecovillage network, now called CASA Colombia.
Art & Enterprise
Osiris showed me the common house, a remodeled pre-existing farmhouse where now there is a computer lab and community center. Across from the common house is the solar restaurant, where one can find pastries and coffee during the weekends, and where during special events there are cookouts using solar reflectors to grill, boil, fry or bake many different local dishes with food grown on site. We then walked down the dirt drive path, passing the communal dry toilet built with bottles, mud and bales of hay. It is beautiful, with the air of a temple or a pagoda where one would go meditate.
There is art everywhere and well designed landscaping that takes advantage of the location to create gardens and paths around the site. Then he showed me the shallow pool for children to play in during the hot tropical sunny days. It is equipped with a converted bicycle pumping mechanism that is instructive as well as functional. It pumps water from the well below to fill the pool and to create a waterfall from about eight feet up a wooden tower. The sound is soothing and children use it as a play station while they shower and enjoy the water and the sun in a beautifully landscaped outdoor corner of the land.
We were able to see a number of housing units, and greeted people as they came outdoors to wave at us in the last minutes of dusk before dark. Osiris explained how there are several window-stores in some of the houses that sell snacks and beverages as well as some fresh and canned goods and cooking supplies. He told me that people from cooperatives have more buying and selling choices. He showed me the partridge egg coop, the chicken coop, the cassava processing coop, the recycling and restoring center, the children's daycare, and the rest of the land. He talked and answered my questions as we walked through the property.
I was blown away at the achievements of this adventurous group of women. They all came from very disadvantaged sectors of the urban population. Most of them lived in shantytowns and cardboard shacks before getting the opportunity to apply and be selected for the project, creating an ecological community of similar women from the grassroots and poorest families in the Cali region.
Nashira impressed me because it is the first example I have seen of an ecological community aligned with values promoted by GEN, which has emerged from the bottom up. It is a response and a solution to the housing and poverty issues of the oppressed, in a country that has seen decades of civil strife and violence affecting the majority of people, especially those living in the lower economic levels. It has evolved from a population that is not made up of the privileged sector of society, but from the poor, uneducated, economically distraught, women leaders with families and dependents of all ages. Add to this mix the right combination of aide and guidance of national and international agents, alongside committed activists and individuals empowered to help people from the oppressed sector improve their livelihood, because they believe it is possible ... and anything is possible.
Before going to bed I spent time chatting with Marta, Osiris and Natalia, his younger sister, about growing up in this village, and the opportunities ahead for them. They were upbeat and positive all the way. Natalia is also about to start college, where she hopes to study architecture so she can help others build affordable sustainable housing. The next day I took a refreshing cold shower, and as part of the cost for staying overnight, I received a hefty breakfast of partridge eggs and toast followed by fresh brewed coffee. They even arranged calling a taxi to take me to the airport in the early hours of the morning. That's what I call 'Hospitalidad Latina'.
Seeing Nashira was like taking a breath of fresh air in the middle of the wilderness. It has given me renewed hope for a new society, that I like to refer to as the reinvention of everything, from our worldviews to the way we govern ourselves, the way we relate to mother Earth, and the way we create local cooperative businesses that aim to provide right livelihoods to community members.
Giovanni Ciarlo cofounded Huehuecoyotl Ecovillage in Tepoztlán, Mexico in 1982. He is a Board member of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and is active in Gaia Education as developer of ecovillage design and education materials. He traveled to Colombia as council representative of the Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA). He also performs Latin music in the United States and Mexico with his group Sirius Coyote. [email protected]