Ecovillage Design Education — Southeast Asia-Style
By Diana Leafe Christian
Students and instructors of our August 2010 Philippines EDE. That's me in the front row in pink.
I loved teaching in the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course in the Philippines last September. I was both a participant and an instructor, and also took the EDE Teacher Training.
As you may know, this month-long GEN-sponsored course held in ecovillages worldwide is a project of Gaia Education, a program of GEN. This particular EDE was sponsored by Happy Earth, a Philippines environmental nonprofit. It was hosted by Penelope Reyes, President of GEN-Oceania/Asia and founder of Happy Earth, and John Vermuelen, a permaculture designer. The course was held at Tuwa — The Laughing Fish, John and Penelope’s beautiful brand-new three-acre (1.2 ha) eco-homestead and B&B two hours northeast of Manila.
Our EDE was held at Tuwa
- The Laughing Fish, John and Penelope's eco-homestead and bed & breakfast.
— the Laughing Fish is a beautiful place. Four small buildings and one large family home, Kandungan
(Tagalog for “to be cradled on a lap”), surround a tilapia pond. Each building — with soaring pagoda-style or Indonesian thatched roofs — has a lovely view across the water, and most have a view of nearby Mt. Arayat rising dramatically beyond the rice fields.
homesite from the air.
My home for the course, Yakap
(“embrace”), looked like a small thatched hut from the outside — and a giant up-ended basket from the inside. The front of John and Penelope’s long narrow property has a swimming pond near the house and space to grow enough rice for the family for a year. A second large, multi-lobed tilapia pond is behind the teaching building, Diwa
(“elder”), with peninsulas and islands surrounding and surrounded by a new orchard of tropical fruits. From our windows in Diwa
we saw farmers and carabao
(water buffalo) in the adjacent rice fields and rosy golden sunsets behind Mt. Arayat.
Penelope Reyes, EDE co-host and President of GENOA.
Our EDE course offered a sense of ecovillage life very similar to what I experience every day where I live at Earthaven Ecovillage in the US, but Southeast Asia-style. The off-grid structures — built for passive-solar cooling and as shelter from torrential rains — were naturally-built, just like at home, but fashioned from large steel pipes, thick structural bamboo, decorative split-bamboo panels, thatched roofs, and recycled Spanish-era wooden doors with translucent seashell windows. Our water was hand-pumped from two wells, from a water table just six feet down. Most of our food was organic and locally grown, or even from the eco-homesite, as we fished for tilapia in the pond, and dined on rice, noodles, peanut sauce, and fresh coconut, pineapple, banana, papaya, guava, and a spiky red fruit called rambutan.
We composted our kitchen scraps and used composting toilets, just like home. We participated in meetings, celebrations, learning experiences, and emotional moments — just like home. Holding the course at Tuwa
clearly demonstrated that “the (ecovillage) medium was the message.”
John indicating Zone Five, “Where the cobras live.” Cobras?!
Our group of eight students and four instructors were from the Philippines, Bolivia, the Netherlands, and the US. They were impressive.
Penelope is a powerhouse: a visionary make-things-happen leader who founded Happy Earth and is an EDE trainer, a cofounder of an early ecovillage project in the Philippines, a leader in the Transition movement in her town of Cabiao, and, as noted, President of GENOA. John, a mechanical engineer and former industrial designer from the Netherlands and South Africa and also an EDE trainer, was a masterful teacher, explaining things with clarity and precision.
Every night after dinner we did homework and answered email. Henry (left front)
and JM (right front)
The EDE course participants were upbeat, warm, and engaging — I fell in love with them all. There was JM, a former marketing executive and CEO from Manila, who led yoga sessions for participants in the early morning; Professor Felicia Riviera, called Tita Pining
(“Aunt Felicia”), an 80-year-old professor emeritus of rural development; and Nicole, a young IT professional from Manila who’d studied cultural anthropology of the Philippines. And Carminia, also called Chin Chin
is a singer/actress, environmental activist, and — while humble and unassuming — a genuine movie star in the Philippines. (Neighbors used to drop by just to catch a glimpse of her.) And José from Bolivia, a Masters-Degree student in environmental science at the University of Tokyo studying waste management practices at Konohana Family ecovillage in Japan; Henry, father of three and a community development officer in a rural development agency in Leyte; and Sedarius, young American entrepreneur who cofounded and directs a conference services company based in Manila. (The eighth student was me.)
After school and on weekends we were joined by Penelope’s two precocious, fun-loving sons: Colin, 12, and Kevin, 17. Colin called himself the “EDE butler,” and Kevin, the “super computer whiz.” We had an especially good time when the boys were around.
John and Carminia building worm beds.
“It’s like we're all from Central Casting,” Carminia mused. Indeed, our course truly did resemble a reality TV show, with a fascinating multi-generational, multi-cultural cast. “Reality” arose daily to teach us ecovillage lessons — whether the unexpected opportunity for John and Penelope to buy the property next door for others to create a future ecovilllage (they did), to the need to pitch in and do cleaning and housework when neighbors previously hired for these tasks were no longer available. And when Tuwa
was awarded a grant to learn vermiculture and got a sudden delivery of hundreds of pounds of red wigglers, we rolled up our sleeves and built worm bins! We EDE participants were set not upon a tropical island but in a tropical eco-homestead. Instead of trying not to be “voted off the island,” our ongoing task was to learn ecovillage living and ecovillage design, adapt to the unexpected (just like in a real ecovillage) — and while were at it, to have a great time!
The Philippines are one of two Asian countries (India is the other) where English is spoken fluently, so the course was taught in English. Spain occupied the Philippines for 400 years, followed by the US for 50 years. So the linguistic culture we learned in was like a rich broth of musical Filipino-flavored English spiced liberally with Spanish.
Jose and Sed catching dinner, with the hut where I stayed (right),
and our teaching hut (left)
across the pond.
The teaching/learning environment was also like life in an ecovillage. We were learning all the time, whether getting to know someone from another culture at breakfast, developing skills to facilitate a consensus meeting or to make a fermented foliar spray during class, or sprawled on pillows in the evening watching videos about ecovillages, the world banking system, or new biomimicry inventions. Intellectually and emotionally rich!
The four Keys of the EDE course — Worldview, Ecological, Social, and Economic — are often taught in EDE courses as separate, sequential week-long subjects. However, in our Philippines EDE smaller aspects of each Key were intermixed over the 30 days, and presented in a similar order as the steps people typically take to found ecovillages worldwide.
John taught permaculture-based site planning principles and hands-on projects. He showed us how to pace and measure the land, place elements in the landscape according to good design principles, and make site-plan overlays. And how to make yogurt and a fermented lactobacillus drink; build worm bins and fences; and make adjustments to the compost toilets . . . the same kinds of ecovillage tasks we do at home.
Penelope taught principles of permaculture too, along with Wendell Berry’s 17 Elements for an Ecological Community, and Worldview topics such as Transition Towns, resilience indicators of human eco-settlements, and Spiral Dynamics.
Nicole practicing meeting facilitation, with José, Tita Pining, and Henry. These students were good.
I taught the steps and processes of starting a successful new ecovillage: “structural conflict,” Mission & Purpose documents, consensus decision-making, a clear membership policy, the “Ecovillage Board Game,” as well as ecovillage land-ownership methods, finding and financing land, and legal issues in ecovillages. And interpersonal dynamic: building a sense of trust and connection, helping people stay accountable to agreements, dealing with conflict, and effective ways to work with challenging group members or make needed change in groups. I also introduced the basics of facilitating a consensus meeting, and everyone practiced facilitation skills. I was delighted by how fast everyone learned to facilitate a meeting.
Sedarius offered compelling information about the worldwide banking system and how money is created through debt and bank loans. He showed videos about Peak Oil and its relationship to food and the world economy. Penelope and I led sessions where participants in small groups taught themselves about local alternative currency systems used worldwide, especially in UK Transition Towns. I covered different economic systems typically used by ecovillages, internal ecovillage finances (capital budgets, operations budgets, labor credit systems), how various ecovillages offer options for affordability, and local currency systems in ecovillages.
Gil Carandang, “Father of Organic Gardening in the Philippines.”
The three days taught by special guest instructor Gil Carandang, “The Father of Organic Farming in the Philippines,” were a highlight for me. He shared the high-yield farming principles of the Alan Chadwick “Grow Biointensive” methods as well as Asian Natural Farming techniques involving home-fermented lactobacilli-based foliar sprays and compost teas. He also taught sustainable farm planning, and helped our two design groups walk the land — actual fields on either side of Tuwa — to plan small organic farms for each EDE design project.
Participants used their consensus and facilitation skills to hold meetings to decide the kind of local currency we’d create during the course. And so the “Tuwa Pulso” was born. Tuwa (“joy”) was our eco-homestead, and pulso means “pulse” in both Tagalog and Spanish, so our currency, the Tuwa Pulso, meant “joy pulse.” With our Pulsos we bought and sold tilapia fish for dinner, neck and back massages, and Nicole’s highly popular cookies. In our fabulous end-of-course Tuwa Pulso Feast each participant made his or her favorite special dish and auctioned it off.
Nicole and Henry preparing their and JM's design project, “Totobe Ecovillage.”
One of the things I most enjoyed — and which certainly said “ecovillage life” — was singing. Filipinos sing a lot:
while working, cooking, cleaning — they’ll break into song anytime to express the joy of the moment. So we erupted into song in class, at lunch, while fishing, anytime. Especially JM and Carminia. JM sang parts of opera arias in a beautiful soprano, and Carminia sang songs equally well in Tagalog or English, Japanese or Gaelic!
Jose, Carminia, and Sed preparing their ecovillage project, “La Cuna Ararat.”
As in all EDE courses, participants created design projects in order to apply the ecological, economic, and social design principles they had learned. In our case they used actual land parcels on either side of Tuwa.
Henry, JM, and Nicole designed Totobe
(“Dragonfly”), an ecovillage devoted to healing arts, spirituality, and growing and preparing nourishing vegetarian food. Sedarius, José, and Carminia designed La Cuna Ararat
(“The Cradle of Ararat”) — with a mission to teach sustainability philosophy and skills in residential courses to international government and business leaders. I was so proud of them!
Our Tuwa Pulso
Some aspects of our EDE course were physically challenging, but we usually managed to turn them into learning experiences. Tuwa
was brand-new and still under construction, with carpenters finishing some of the buildings. The solar panels and inverter hadn’t arrived yet so electricity was provided by a noisy generator. It started at 5:30 am when the workers began construction and lasted into the evening so we could see at night and send email. Depending upon this intrusive but necessary interim strategy taught us to not take off-grid power for granted! (Now the place has quiet solar power.) Most of the time it was swelteringly hot and humid. So we learned to take “Filipino showers” — pouring cool water over ourselves in a shower stall with a dipper and bucket. The paths could get so muddy they’d suck rubber thongs right off our feet, so we learned to place narrow bamboo racks on the path so our footgear could get some traction. Black ants (numerous and relentless) and red ants (ferocious and biting) appeared in Diwa
like clockwork every evening at six. After we learned to deter them with a homemade mixture of Ajax and dish soap they didn’t visit again.
“Please know this is normal in a rural ecovillage,” I’d tell the group. “We’re learning what it’s really like to live in an ecovillage — especially one that’s new and still under construction.”
José and a fresh-caught tilapia.
My fondest memories of our EDE course are of sheer community hilarity. Like the lunchtime when Sedarius and José first taught themselves to catch tilipia. The night José and Nicole capsized the kayak and landed in the pond. Carminia’s squeak-voice impersonations of Bart Simpson. The evening JM had everyone, even José and Henry, doing facial massage and fierce grimaces to banish wrinkles. Not to mention the many times we’d spontaneously combust into our Tuwa Pulso
song, which Carmina made up one lunchtime when she was mopping the floor. She paraphrased words from “I Will Follow You,” a Ricky Nelson tune from the 50s made newly famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Sister Act.
Towards the end of the course we’d break into this song anytime, night or day:
You earn it, you spend it, you save it,
and then you cir-cu-late it,
invest it, create it,
It’s all about my Pulso, your Pulso, our Pulso,
It’s not about the money, collection, connection.
Small is beaut-i-ful . . .
It’s a heartbeat away,
There’s no place that I’d rather be,
Than here with us, you and me,
Living this way . . .
With joy in our hearts . . .
Sun setting behind Mt. Ararat.
Diana Leafe Christian editor of this newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillage, North Carolina, US. She is author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. The next EDE course she will teach will be in Israel in June, 2011.
This article appears in a shorter form as Diana's April/May 2011 column for the GEN website.
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