Aldeafeliz, Colombia

31 12 2009

Aldeafeliz is an eco-village, located one and a half hours away from Bogota. Surprisingly, the climate changes drastically between the big city and this flourishing community, allowing its members to enjoy a warm tropical weather and a significant range of home-grown fruits and veggies. Aldeafeliz translates to “Happy Village” making a clear statement about the community´s goal. All of its members come from Bogota, where they were seeking a solution to the stressful and less fulfilling life in the city. As one them says: “We were all computer junkies, trying to save the world behind a computer screen.”

 

General Context

“The project started online, says Silvio, there were about a hundred interested individuals attending meetings and contributing towards the idea. Once the time came to put some money together and buy the land only a quarter of them were left!”

The three-year-old community established itself in three and a half hectares (35 000 m²) of land and counts with nine members, eight tortugas and one aspirant. Amongst the many natural benefits, it is important to mention the clear waters of the San Miguel river, the delicate balance between sun and rain and the rich native biodiversity.

The land is owned by thirty people, or associates, eight of them live there (the tortugas) and the rest keep close ties with the community and are called escarabajos. According to Julian, one of the founding members, these categories were born in the spirit of making it easy to understand who we are taking about. Through time, more categories were created, such as colibries who contribute with knowledge, and libelulas who donate funds and goods or volunteer with time and energy. Hopefully these categories won´t create too much of a difference between people and will be used only in order to better understand ourselves. 

To become a tortuga one has to go through specific stages. First, one is encouraged to spend a minimum of two weeks as a volunteer, fully participating in the community´s life. This period is both for the volunteer and the community to get to know each other and see if they are compatible. If everything works out, and the aspirant is still interested in living in Aldeafeliz, the community has a meeting and decides whether they wish the aspirant to stay with them or not. If yes, the aspirant begins a one-and-a-half-year trial period, living in a tent (as in the picture). Once officially accepted as a resident, one has to pay for the land and the right to build his own eco-house (25 m² per person). Considering all common areas (kitchen, bathrooms, shower, office, etc) the established surface is more than enough. They are limited by the law to build only six houses. So they have come up with the idea of making six “neighbourhoods” or residential units as they call them, all connected through shared spaces, such as a dry toilet or a vegetable garden. That way they respect the legislation and are able to accomodate enough people to build a strong community. Currently, their maximum capacity is set to eighteen people, with possibilities of expanding themselves by buying more land nearby.

 

Everyday life

Everyday life is divided between community work and personal time. Mornings start at 8 am with breakfast. Then, all members spend some time cleaning the common areas and making sure everything is in its place, what they call “karma yoga”. Next, they take care of their weekly tasks and daily chores until 1 pm when lunch is served. The afternoon is dedicated to personal time, yet some will choose to keep on working for the community. As they all come from the city and are currently at a learning stage regarding agricultural work, it is common to see Don Pedro in the fields. He´s been hired to help them with the physical work and is regularly trained on permacultural procedures by the community. Their goal is to be able to take care of the land on their own.

Most of the members telework from the office located in the aldea while others actually work in the city. But all of them need to go to Bogota quite often making it pretty complex to keep a schedule and make sure things get done. So they came up with the role of “Captain Planet”. Each month, one person is chosen to assign roles and tasks for all the members of the community. Until now, it is the best way they have found for making things work, they say. Some tasks change weekly like taking care of the chickens or managing the water system. Other chores change every day: cooking, dishwashing and cleaning the toilets. 

We´d like to comment on the efficiency of their dishwashing system. They use three basins full of water. The first one is for washing with their home-made soap, the second one is for taking off the soap, and the last one has lemon in it and is used for a final rinse. Only the first basin, the dirtiest one, is completely emptied and washed and becomes the third one, the cleanest. This process is done after every meal and assures that a minimum amount of water is thrown away by rotating the position of the basins. Quality and availability of water is a main concern in a community that wishes to live sustainably and respecting the Earth.

Aldeafeliz benefits from a river, a lake and rainwater making the community privileged in this sense. John, a Canadian volunteer we met over there, was in charge of developing their water management system. He´s been there for the past six months and his work consisted mainly in establishing a list of priorities regarding the community´s vision of water. But he was also developing a water filter to stop using gas in order to boil water and a solar-heating prototype to make warm water accessible for showers without the need of electricity. His focus was energetical self-sufficiency. “The community has everything it needs to make its own electricity and even sell the surplus back to the grid”, he said.       

Amongst other projects, they are currently building a maloka, a space for sharing amerindian knowledge and traditions that will benefit the community and its bioregion. To discuss ongoing and future projects, weekly meetings are held and assure that all members share a clear vision of their development. They also have a weekly circulo de palabra to share their feelings and let others know about personal issues. This common practice in this type of communities is seen as a time for intimacy that generates brotherhood amongst the members. They say that “in the circulos de palabra one speaks from the heart, while in the planning meetings one uses its mind”.

 

Impact on the bioregion

By bioregion we understand the naturally defined geographical area, including San Franciso, the nearby village as a main actor. Aldeafeliz´s mission statement is “to be a school for community life and for a holistic development, where voluntary work and the desire to share lovingly with nature and other people allows the expression of our inner source of peace, love and creativity” (free translation by the author). 

We can identify three major aspects in which this community wishes to influence the bioregion and all visitors:

1) Cultural & Spiritual Influence:

  • The aldea is an open space, welcoming all to experience and learn about alternative ways of living. We were there when a neighbour from San Francisco came to visit and was positively inspired by their progress.
  • Counting with three generations, Aldeafeliz is an example of respect towards individuals of all ages. All members are supported by the community. The elders´ participation is welcome and their wisdom is taken into consideration. Pregnant mothers are supported and advised, respecting their needs. For the new-born, growing in a peaceful atmosphere with vegetation and clean air to breathe is a true gift considering the current circumstances in most cities. 
  • The maloka, once finished, will also be used to host amerindian rituals that will be accessible to all and specially to neighbours.
  • The community is known in the surroundings and villagers respect and appreciate their presence. They think of them as happy people who play music every night! This was told to us while trying to get there.   

2) Environmental Influence:

  • Their home-made soap is made out of recycled oil that they get from the restaurants near the village. This reduces the amount of waste of this otherwise polluting substance (1 drop of oil contaminates 25 liters of water, source: H2O, Oxfam-Quebec). It is important to mention that even though the soap they fabricate is less polluting than commercial alternatives, it contains caustic soda which they are trying to replace by natural compounds. Also, the instructions to make your own home-made soap are available in the website.
  • For each automobile they have in the village a specific number of trees must be planted every year in order to neutralise their emission of carbon dioxide (learn more).
  • Descriptions, pictures and professional 3-D designs of the eco-houses are available in their website, allowing interested individuals to learn form their experience.
  • In the nearby forest, they have put wooden signs to encourage the respect and love towards nature.

 3) Economical Influence:  

  • By giving work to Don Pedro and the other workers that help with the construction of their houses they generate work and create links with the villagers.
  • The coffee beans collected in the aldea are processed and packed by a family company living in San Francisco, thus contributing to their economic well-being.
  • As a source of ecotourism the aldea attracts many visitors that have an impact on the economy of San Francisco.

All in all, it is clear that by just existing this community shows that there are alternatives to our mainstream way of living: be it the way they wash their dishes, the dry toilets they use, the products they sell  in their shop, etc. By visiting this place, one is invited to re-think its current habits and own life in general. 

 

Our involvement

While we were there, they were having a minga de aseo. Which means everyone was needed for a major clean-up of the common areas. “Thanks to the mice, we have finally done a task we´ve been delaying for ever!”, says one of them with a smile. In a very holistic approach and looking at it symbolically, their close relationship with nature made them realize that instead of eliminating the mice that had appeared in the office by killing them, maybe the mice were there as a sign of neglect. Thus, they decided to go through and sort all the things they had been accumulating in the past three years. We were there to help them out, on top of contributing to everyday chores: cooking, dishwashing, and cleaning of toilets. 

By helping them, we learnt the importance of choosing what items are welcome or not in an eco-village like this. Because of its location and the close ties to the city, it’s very easy for things to come into the community either brought by members thinking it´s needed or left by visitors. The result is a large amount of things that have no owner and are not really needed by anyone. An extreme example of this situation is a bunch of roof tiles someone accepted as a gift thinking they could be useful. It turned out these roof tiles are full of asbestos, and they don´t know what to do with them now. We suggested that every time a member wants to bring something into the community, there should be some sort of “circle of acceptance” and the community as a whole should give its approval. To some extent everything can be useful, the question is: what is really needed? As for the stuff already in, lots of clothing was washed and put together to be donated to San Francisco, the main village nearby. Most of the unused electronic equipment was not working, so it was discarded as waste and taken to Bogota. Paper, glass and metal are somewhat easy to be sold, so they were kept aside, but plastic is not. Their answer to plastic waste and all other waste that cannot be recycled or reused is to be put in a plastic bottle and compressed. They call it “relleno sanitario” which means sanitary fill. Once full, these bottles can be used for construction, replacing bricks. They have great insulation properties for noise and temperature! It´s true that not everything fits in a plastic bottle, and it´d be better not to have any waste that can´t be treated, but this imaginative idea gives a second and useful life to otherwise polluting garbage. 

Besides the minga de aseo we also participated in making granola, one of their best-selling products. The process consists in taking the moist out of oat, corn, barley and wheat mills so that the product doesn´t rot. Then we had to mix it all together, add sesame seeds, nuts, peanuts and raisins without forgetting the secret touch! We also helped Vincent making some wooden boxes to protect the merchandise and learnt how to build them.

All in all, it was a great experience and turned out to be the best place to start our journey in Latin America. Being very talented with computers, the community has taken the role of networking with other eco-villages in Colombia and the Continent. For instance, they have launched and manage the website for all eco-aldeas in the country (ecoaldeasdecolombia.org) and actively participate in the yearly event called El llamado de la montaña, where members and enthusiasts of alternative forms of living come together to share their experiences and set common goals for the year to come. This year, the gathering will take place in El Retoño, a natural reserve which was our second destination.

 

Conclusion

This young eco-village has lots of potential in becoming very close to self-sustainability. For now, their major challenge is to start working the land and implementing a serious permacultural production for their own consumption. It is important to mention the priority for now seems to be the production of goods for selling. “We are selling a way of life”, says one of the members in a meeting we attended. Indeed, Aldeafeliz has it in its mission statement to be  “a school for community living” and uses the shop and the selling of their carefully and lovingly produced goods to achieve that mission. They want their customers to think differently about their consumption habits by consuming different goods in a different way. For example, they want their loyal customers to keep and give back their empty pots of jam in order to be refilled instead of just throwing them away once finished. A beautiful project, yet we find it a bit dangerous to focus too much on the shop and the selling of goods. We hope they keep a balance between the commercial activity and the fulfillment of their own needs. 

So thanks again for all the info and the great times we had at Aldeafeliz. One thing we forgot to mention is that these people do actually look happy!

¡Adelante y gracias aldeafelicianos!    

   

Take it further:

To learn more about Aldeafeliz visit: www.aldeafeliz.org 

To learn about Colombia´s network of eco-villages go to: www.ecoaldeasdecolombia.org

To learn about construction with plastic bottles go to: http://www.basurillas.org/construccion-a-partir-de-botellas-de-plastico-pura-vida/

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2 responses

3 04 2010
Lucas

woww,, so nice this place ! i was noticed about your blog in couchsurfing, i am interested in farmstay, maybe someday i ll do this ! haha
Go on with this , lets do a better world ! 😉

Lucas from Argentina

8 04 2010
lookingfortherainbow

Let´s do it! : )

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