One of the big things we talk about in permaculture is our structures – their relative location, how they utilize resources, and their integration into our systems. In the past few weeks here we’ve had an incredible amount of energy going into construction. It’s the dry season and the busy season, and so not only is it the only time of year when plasters and mortars have plenty of time to set, but it’s also when we have a lot of hands on deck for all of the labor that goes into putting up new structures and repairing the old. There have been tons of people here, two big groups of students and loads of short and long term volunteers, and all of them have made a big difference. There’s been a lot of hauling sand, cutting bamboo, stomping in clay pits, carrying tiles, and much more. Thanks to the high season we’ve really been able to get a lot done.
Paul and Vida are a couple with their own farm project in Argentina. They brought their natural building expertise here and lead the construction of new walls on one of our larger dormitories. They used a mortar mix made of clay, sand, and horse manure, along with cow enzymes to help harden and waterproof the mixture. First they put stem walls in place, fixing large stones with the mortar. On top of that they used our bottle bricks (PET bottles packed until rock hard with trash) supported with bamboo and covered them with mortar to create the wall. They used fermented nopal cactus juice in the rough coat over the wall to add water resistance, and borax to prevent insects from eating the bamboo. The new walls will make the dorms dryer during the rainy season and cooler during hot months.
So, you might be asking yourself, great, Bona Fide looks prettier, but what does that have to do with the community of Balgue on Ometepe? There are a few different elements at play here, but the most obvious and direct is showing how natural building techniques can be used to create structures that are not just functional but also aesthetically pleasing. During the construction nearly all the locals passing through were shocked to find out that the mortar isn’t based in cement. What we’re doing is nothing new in Latin America. These techniques, minus the PET bottles, have been used for centuries. However, years of advertising campaigns and indoctrination have lead to the belief that the materials like cement and iron, that come from off island and have a high cost and high level of invested energy, are superior and will last longer. Now the knowledge around how to make these structures has largely been lost. By utilizing these techniques and showing how they can be modernized to also help us deal with our trash output on an island that has no trash collection system we create a demonstration of how the community can build new structures that are durable, attractive, sustainable, and low cost.
Our other major project has been the renovation of our kitchen. We’ve been lucky enough to have a very experienced and highly trained carpenter, Tomas working with us. He’s designed us a beautiful new sink and a whole new kitchen to go around it. Don David a local master mason, has been putting in the stone work. A couple weeks ago we knocked down our old sink, and we’ve put everything we have into getting the new one finished as efficiently as possible.
So why does all this have to happen? The reconstruction on The Hilton serves as a demonstration, but there’s another essential level to all of this building that can’t be overlooked. When talking about permaculture, what we talk a lot about invisible structures. No, those aren’t buildings with cloaking devices, they’re the social structures that exist within our community. Just like any physical structure, our invisible structures need upkeep. We’ve been working on that across the board; as I myself am only finishing my second month here as a coordinator, Dana, our community organizer has just begun, and there are a lot of new projects getting underway. All of our building projects address the feeling has been that our physical structures are limiting the improvement of our invisible structures and our growth as an organization.
The new walls on The Hilton and our new kitchen will allow us to handle greater numbers of people with a more sanitary, more aesthetically pleasing setting. Nicer dorms will give visitors a more comfortable place to sleep so that we can take on more guests who may have a lower comfort level for ‘roughing it’, and encourage people to stay longer giving us greater continuity in the project’s goals. Being able to take on greater numbers will enable us to take on more groups, who are great for the organization as they bring a lot of good labor, interest in what we’re doing, and all come together making them easier to manage. There’s that, and then there’s the aspect that nicer spaces make happier people, and happier people work harder and better and that positive energy gets passed along to newcomers. It’s all building up from here.