Letters from Chile – Building Community Around a Permaculture University

Editor’s Note: This is Part IX of a series. If you haven’t already, be sure to catch Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII and Part VIII!

My time in Chile is almost at an end. But, before I go, I want to share with you the present and future plans for transitioning the community here in El Manzano. They are not insignificant.

The second community meeting I attended during my stay was to discuss these plans and solicit community input and participation. It is the end of the agricultural season here, so people are in high spirits and also have a little extra time for contemplative discussion.

But before I jump straight into the meeting it’d be good to get a grip on practicalities of advancement here.


Funding for transitioning at El Manzano comes primarily from the following three revenue streams:

1) The farm, consisting of 120 hectares of land: 80 ha of Zone 5 (70 ha of primarily pine and some eucalyptus trees and 10 ha of regenerating forest – i.e. re-establishing natives along stream beds and borders to protect the watershed and improve eco-system services, aiming to eventually become 30% of the property), 5 ha of organic blueberries, 30 ha of broadscale horticulture (horses used for cultivation as much as possible), 2 ha of orchards, and 3 in Zone 1 intensive gardening. The farm is entirely chemical-free, implements permaculture principles throughout and is steadily transitioning to increase diversity and reduce dependence. It currently employs seven of the villagers, and others work, as expressed in the last post, on a very appreciative voluntary basis so they can share in the farm’s harvest – essentially bartering labour for food.

2) Eco Escuela: Eco Escuela El Manzano translates to ‘Apple Tree Eco School’. It is the educational business set up by Grifen and Javiera, and includes other family members as business partners and teachers-in-training. The school has trained 145 students, now Permaculture Design Certificate holders, since the school was launched two years ago, and is poised to teach many more (more on that below). In addition two students have completed their two-year Permaculture Diploma here (Eco Escuela is also Gaia University Chile, the only Gaia University node in Latin America), and 33 more are current diploma works-in-progress. Funding through permaculture education is, as regular readers will know, part of our Permaculture Master Plan concept, where sites become financially self-sufficient, and self-replicating, through education – a proven and efficient way to move permaculture forward sustainably.

El Manzano’s outdoor class, when weather conditions invite

3) Grants: Funding is sought from outside individuals or organisations for various endeavours where possible. An example: two years ago the family met with the local community and discussed the need to transition the village to meet future resource constraints caused by energy descent (peak oil) and climate change. They determined to petition the Chilean Ministry of the Environment for funding to help implement initiatives that would reduce the village’s impact on its surrounding whilst increasing their resilience. Jorge and Carolina were subsequently delegated the task of creating the application, and their request was rewarded with support by way of U.S.$16,500. Another example is funding for the house project, a demonstration of sustainable post-quake redevelopment, where U.S.$5,000 was secured via Artists Project Earth, and of course the assistance of the Permaculture Research Institute, and the likes of you!

All of these aspects take time, dedication, persistence and vision. The good news is these traits don’t seem to be in short supply here.

The community discusses a possible budget

Back to the meeting

The main point of the meeting was to look at the financials – how much funding they had, and options for expenditure. Central in this discussion were plans the family and the community had long been brainstorming, which would utilise some of the family’s 120 ha mentioned above to develop new building and land features to benefit both Eco Escuela (the eco school) and the community. It was decided at this meeting that the plans had ripened sufficiently in maturity of evolution and consensus in thought, so that Angel Carrillo, the architect profiled in a previous post, could begin formal designs based on community feedback for this development.

The meeting broke into groups to brainstorm the design concepts

And then the three groups shared their ideas before the entire meeting

Until everyone came to happy agreement, and even applause!

There’s more than can be described within the constraints of this post, but in a nutshell, the new development would fulfil multiple functions:

  1. increase the capacity of the villagers to work together in mutually beneficial ways to improve their lives along highly sustainable lines – one example is in converting the Adobe House into a food storage and preserving facility, village bakery, and potentially even an outdoor cafe supplied with farm produce, all providing employment for villagers and healthy food options for the increasing student numbers.
  2. utilise some of the land to build an additional classroom that can be utilised by both the existing children’s school and Eco Escuela, and to create additional facilities (kitchen, accommodations, etc.) that can also be utilised by the growing training centre and the villagers.
  3. create public spaces and environmental elements – a walkable landscape – that will benefit all of the above.

The goal, and one that seems entirely within reach, is for the community to become a beacon of realism, inspiration and reskilling – making not just the school a source of education, but also making the entire settlement a lesson in appropriate development, and cooperative endeavour. The designs being worked on today, once turned into reality, will essentially see a permaculture university in the midst of the village – with maximum participation and benefits for the villagers themselves.

Reversing the trend

These initiatives for El Manzano have great potential to not only stem the flow of rural migrants into cities, where they become wholly dependent on a collapsing money economy, but to actually reverse it. As the quality of life here improves, and resiliency builds – and the social order elsewhere continues to unravel – sons, daughters, brothers will notice the change during their visits and will inevitably decide to move back home and get involved. This is another motivating factor for the villagers who have up until recently seen their community steadily disintegrate as people head to regional capitals in search of work.

People want to see their families come to life again, and this work is making it happen.

Culture of plants, not careless propagation

One thing that needs to be clear, El Manzano is wholly unlike many ‘alternative communities’ we hear about, or have been involved in, where several well meaning but oft-naive folk decide to converge on a newly purchased property due to their shared, idealistic vision of the lifestyle they want to possess. That eco-village scenario is said to have a ninety percent failure rate. Comparable to plants being mismatched with soil and climate types, throwing westernised individuals together in situations out of their element can be rife with tension, misunderstandings, maladjustments and heartbreak.

Instead, El Manzano is about inspiring an existing community, in situ, to consider their future, and to begin to work together to achieve common goals – goals based on an increasing understanding of current events and a determination to meet them head on. The work here is taking a village and transforming it from within. This is the transition approach – one that arguably has a far higher likelihood of success.

Better to give

One thing I noted during my stay was the feeling of peace oozing from the Carrion family. Rather than cling to land ownership as an inherited ‘right’, or narrowly considering it as merely a means of securing short term gain, they’re gaining great satisfaction from finding ways to use it to create something of far greater value, and in doing so feel a weight is being lifted from their shoulders.

If this attitude were to become infectious, the world’s troubles could dissipate rather fast.

Continue on to read Part X: Eco Escuela El Manzano, a Nice Place to Learn



2 thoughts on “Letters from Chile – Building Community Around a Permaculture University

  1. Thank you very much for this link Craig: http://www.ecobrain.com/product_info.php?products_id=1002&it=1&filters=0&manufacturers_id=217

    I’ll order this book as soon I get back from my holidays! Also I think it’s more difficult to create sustainable communities here in the western countries, because people are just so individualistic. I think the individualism is not so extreme in South-America like here.

    Anyway I cannot see how one can transform the communities here from within, because they are made 100 % wrong, they are completely fabricated and artificial, especially the houses. Maybe the best thing simply is to give up our western communities and move to South-America? It is like we design for dying here, it’s all so hopeless. Anyway, read this interview with Bill Mollison and you’ll understand what I mean:


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