Monday, February 7, 2005

Permaculture Community Restores Hope After World Social Forum

The day the World Social Forum ends, a heavy rain falls on Porto Alegre. It is as if the city is cleansing itself of all the dust, sweat, commerce, and human drama it has endured. We say good-bye to our host and his family and friends and head to the Forum to meet up with the folks from IPEP (Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillages of the Pampas) who have invited us to their site.

We find the folks from IPEP huddled under their bamboo shelter, eating mangoes and starting a fire in a tiny cob oven. We approach them and ask for Guillerme, the person with whom we’ve had most contact. Bira, a wiry guy with blackened, calloused hands shoves two papayas and a knife at us and explains between spastic hand gestures and fits of laughter that the van is broken, we won’t leave until six , and we’d better eat something because we have a lot to do. We spend the rest of the day breaking down bamboo structures and stacking hay bales then race to the station to catch the bus to Bagé.

Six hours later we stumble into the open arms of Andreu and Cristiano, the IPEP residents who stayed home to care for the land. They welcome us with a warmth I’ve never experienced anywhere, showering us with hugs and kisses and babbling excitedly about how happy they are to receive us. Andreu leads us up two ladders to drop our packs in our loft, then insists we join everyone for tea and a midnight snack. When we finally crawl under our mosquito nets, we sleep like rocks.

In the morning, we awake and wander outside into a permaculture paradise. Though it's only three years old, IPEP has two completed earth houses and two more under construction; a lushous veggie and flower garden; composting toilets; a biodigester; an organic rice paddy that produces 800 kilos annually; fields of yucca, black beans, and other staple crops; and huge areas of regenerating native forest.

I spend the morning mulching a field with Joanna, a young woman from São Paulo who has come to visit her friend Jessica, who lives at IPEP and teaches yoga in Bagé. We exchange histories as we work and discover many similarities in our personal journeys and world views. As Joanna describes her academic migration from Economics to Psychology to wondering if any university program can teach her what she wants to learn, I nod continuously. Her eyes light up when in response to her intellectual journey I tell her it makes sense to me that studying economics would make her wonder how our brains could come up with a system that assigns a higher value to gold than the clean water and fresh air our lives depend on. She tells me most people are confused by her transition.

At lunch we gather around one long table, our plates heaped with rice, black beans, deep-fried polenta, arugula, cucumbers, carrots, beets and tomatoes – all grown on site, except for the tomatoes. Over our meal we discuss what we need to do to prepare for the week long, 100 person natural building course that begins in a few days. Some disagreements arise over how to prioritize chores and how many scoops of saw-dust should be tossed in the composting toilet after each use. But the arguments are more entertaining than divisive: Those in disagreement imitate one another, they make histerical facial expressions and bring up funny stories from the past to prove their points. In the end the room explodes into laughter, with everyone hooting and hugging and walking away shaking their heads. I try to imagine our world leaders resolving their differences this way- Bush cupping Hugo Chavez’s face in his hands and kissing his forehead between fits of giggles...

We have tons of work in very little time but our hosts insist that we find a nice place to relax after lunch. Andreu explains, “Now we rest. One hour. In Brazil we call this sesta. Then we work until

dinner”. We crawl into a hammock and nap until Joanna appears with a armful of burlap sacks and says (in English), “Come, we’re going to catch beans.”

We follow our hosts through the rice paddies, up the hill overlooking the earth houses. Along the way we stop to look at an area where they’ve planted avocados, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens beneath the native climax species. “We are showing that you don’t have to clear the forest to grow food,” explains Cristiano. “Most people here are too impatient to wait for this tree to grow fully and die back so they burn it down. It is uneccessary. If you wait for it to die back all the matter that it drops adds nutrients to the soil, helping the next cycle of life.”

Just past the forest garden Cristiano points out a gulch with hand-woven dams at 15 ft. intervals. “For erosion,” he tells us. “The previous owners mistreated this land. They cut down all the trees and grazed too many cows. So the rain causes a flood and it cuts this trench. We’ve planted species with strong root systems on both sides to prevent the banks from receeding further...and the corn in the gulch itself. The dams catch the soil, water, organic matter. And we eat the food.” Cristiano flashes us a smile that reaches from ear to ear. We respond with a thumbs up, a sign Brazilians use all the time to express both delight and gratitude.

We follow the property line to the upper fields. Hardly anthing grows on the neighbor’s side. There is only stubby grass and a shrinking, algae covered pond. Some cows stop grazing and stare at us. “They wish their owner did Permaculture,” someone says and everyone nods and laughs.

We harvest black beans until sunset. I do not think of what we are doing as work. We are amongst friends, sharing dreams of a sustainable future, exchanging stories, joking about Mayan calendar signs. At one point we ask one another’s ages. Everyone turns out to be between 22 and 24 years old. Andreu (who is somewhat easily excitable) raises his hands over his head and begins cheering, “Nossa generacion! Nossa generacion!” (our generation) His shouts make me feel ecstatic. They erase the saddness that the chaos and commercialism of the World Social Forum had left me feeling. Whereas the Social Forum made me doubt that another world is possible, watching my generation growing food, building earth houses, sharing meals, and resolving conflicts restored my hope.

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