Sustainable living in practice
By Jonathan Jucker Original Print Publication: September, 2008
This article accompanies the story Walking a greener path: Challenges and advantages of building and developing green.
One of the key aspects of sustainable living as practiced at Playa Viva, a coastal development in the state of Guerrero, is the concept of permaculture, the practice of examining all aspects of an ecosystem and applying long-term solutions to its improvement. The project's Permaculture Developer Odin Ruz defines it as a "system to organize knowledge in order to apply it, taking into account all the elements that make a sustainable development." Builders should not only try to affect the surrounding environment as little as possible, but should actively try to improve it by regenerating natural systems.
Ruz grew up in the Huehuecoyotl community at Tepoztlan, Morelos, established in 1982 by a group of modern-day nomads (that included his parents) who had spent fourteen years travelling and learning about communal and sustainable living. Settling in Tepoztlan, they were able to put into practice all they had learned from Kibbutzim in Israel, ashrams in India, and communities all over Europe and the US. Today Huehuecoyotl also serves as a school, fomenting sustainable living throughout Mexico. Ruz calls it "a nest for movement, thinking, teaching, and spreading the word."
An important tenet of permaculture is observation. Before the first earth was turned at Playa Viva, Ruz spent a year studying the site to see how it changed through the seasons. Many developers, he says, make basic errors like building in floodplains or areas that are susceptible to wildfire. By observing the different ecosystems in the area--humid estuary lands, dry deciduous forest, and sand dunes--he was able to make recommendations that enabled Playa Viva to have as low an impact as possible.
One example Ruz gives was the site of a proposed greenhouse: he noticed one day that thousands of small crabs had emerged from the soil there, and the greenhouse was duly relocated to avoid both damaging this habitat and exposing the nursery plants to the depredations of the crustaceans.
Permaculture's holistic approach is especially critical for Playa Viva due to their location at the mouth of an estuary: everything that takes place upstream has an effect on them. Playa Viva has taught its neighbors sustainable agriculture: Ruz found many locals receptive to organic farming, natural pesticides, and moving away from monoculture.
As they put these methods into practice and found that their costs were lower and the prices they received for organic produce higher, interest spread throughout the community.
As Ruz puts it, "if you want your system to be strong... you have to empower people around you."