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The Quest To Build The World’s Most Sustainable Town In The Middle Of The Panamanian Jungle

HPG

It’s 10am on a Tuesday in the Tres Brazos jungle, a jagged two-hour trek outside Panama City. Aaron Prairie leads a group of biology students on a nature hike, using a machete to hack his way through an overgrown trail. Max Cooper cuts long strips of plywood with an electric saw powered by a solar generator, the beginnings of an open-air thatch hut he’ll eventually build by hand. A few yards away, Ani Dillon sits cross-legged on the second floor of a similar hut, sketching out a prototype for a custom-designed luxury tent. Jake Cardoza is on his hands and knees in the adjacent permaculture farm, planting a baby banana tree. In the nearby kitchen, also fashioned as an open-air rancho, Brigitte Desvaux chops onions, which she’ll saute for dinner along with with fresh katuk harvested from the farm. Three miles up the steep dirt path that leads out of the jungle and into the 500-person community of San Miguel, Jennifer Theone teaches English to first graders at the local school. At the dental clinic down the road, Dixie Hendley and her public health students help the staff sterilize tools and organize their supplies for the day. Molly Viall plugs away on a research paper focusing on actionable ways to address the food desert facing the town’s residents. Over in Panama City, Kristy Strait puts the finishing touches on a promo flyer for an upcoming New Year’s event, a 150-person, 4-day mix of outdoor activities, speaking engagements and live music that will be hosted in Tres Brazos. Jimmy Stice paces in circles around her, hair flopped to one side, talking breathlessly with his hands and skipping around from topic to topic as quickly as he moves, a whirling dervish of ideas and action plans. He’s considering a farming partnership with a local billionaire. He’s pinning down transportation logistics for his 30 New Year’s volunteers. He’s preparing talking points for an interview with a Peruvian newspaper, happening in 20 minutes. He’s mulling the effectiveness of Facebook ads versus targeted networks. He’s inspired by a recent book he read about Henry IV’s 17th-century concept for Paris as a walkable city and angry that today’s understanding of capitalism has been acceptably distorted into extractionism. He’s wondering what time he should be in San Miguel on Thursday, where a few dozen college students will present their visions for the future of his organization. Jimmy Stice addresses a group of students. Stice’s organization is Kalu Yala, a research institute and sustainable community currently comprised of an experiential study abroad program, an organic farm-to-table operation and an events business. He has 20 full time staff members, most of whom live together in either Tres Brazos or San Miguel. But he’s dreaming much bigger: Stice’s ultimate plan is to build what he describes as the world’s most sustainable modern town, a thriving eco-society in the middle of the jungle where residents and visitors alike can live as their best selves in harmony with their natural surroundings. “I’m creating a model for how to build a civilization that supports both the earth and its people,” Stice, 33, says. “When I started studying social systems and communities and access to resources, I learned that in order to address social problems, you first have to look at environmental ones.” A GRAND VISION In Stice’s fully-actualized version of Kalu Yala, sustainable homes and infrastructure occupy roughly 20 percent of the land, connected by pervious paths lined with trees that form a natural canopy, preventing an excess heat footprint. Thirty percent of the property is restored to a well-maintained food forest and permaculture farm, which both increases the biodiversity and feeds the community. The remaining half, much of which borders the Chagres National Park, is conserved. “My goal is to have our consumption actually regenerate and improve the natural world,” he explains, adding that Kalu Yala means “sacred land” in Kuna, the language of Panama’s largest indigenous group. “We don’t just want to have as little impact as possible, but actually improve the region by occupying it.” Kalu Yala staffers hike down into the Tres Brazos valley. Stice, who grew up in Atlanta, describes his approach for building and growing Kalu Yala as four-pronged, made up of education, hospitality, entrepreneurship and real estate programs. The experiential education and research institute has already been up and running for a few years. It includes curriculums in design thinking, business, outdoor recreation, agriculture, biology, culinary arts, public health and education, and draws up to 80 college-aged students for 10-week semesters three times a year in both Tres Brazos and San Miguel. The tourism and hospitality business, set to formally kick off in a few months, will host both small groups of travelers and large-scale events, like TEDx conferences and the upcoming New Year’s gathering. Visitors will pay an all-inclusive fee which includes a luxury campsite and access to hiking trails, yoga, horseback riding and the farm-to-table restaurant. Kalu Yala’s entrepreneurship and real estate legs will launch next year. Stice envisions a business incubator will allow former students and entrepreneurs to build their startups with the help of seed funding from Kalu Yala’s investors and mentors from the community. Meanwhile, architecture firm Studio Sky has designed a series of sustainable 2-bedroom homes constructed from reclaimed wood and other materials native to Panama, which buyers will be able to purchase for $200,000 a pop. Kalu Yala’s private investors, who have poured $3.8 million into the whole shebang since Stice began raising money in 2008, stand to profit from both of these ventures. Stice’s vision, however, extends far beyond even those four pillars. He’s laying the groundwork for a jungle recording studio and maker’s space in an effort to draw musicians and artists from all over the world. He’s in the early stages of turning his farm into a large-scale producer co-op and specialty foods business, in which farmers across Panama would learn organic farming methods on-site, his team would purchase their produce at market prices, and the company would sell packaged products under the brand Kalu Yala Farms to retailers worldwide. Google’s current designer-in-residence, Elysa Fenenbock, is helping him design a K-12 school, which would serve both Kalu Yala and the surrounding Panamanian communities. Kalu Yala students work on the farm. “It won’t be a town until we have a school,” Stice says He wants the school to open in as little as five years, and says tuition from more affluent families will offset the costs for local students, who typically don’t have access to high-quality education. “Once I realized we would be successful in creating economic opportunity in the area, I wanted to build a place where students could be trained to fully take advantage of those opportunities.” WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE Stice’s grand plan may sound idealistic — perhaps even pie-in-the-sky and a little ridiculous. Yet he’s already come a long way from when he purchased the Tres Brazos with his father and a handful of private investors in 2008. Back then, it was little more than 600 acres of abandoned cattle pasture — a sharp contrast from today’s lush food forest and vibrant, growing community of visitors, students and permanent residents. Cooper, 27, oversees the education institute and serves as Stice’s de facto right hand man in Tres Brazos. He’s been living in the jungle since attending one of Kalu Yala’s earliest study abroad semesters, in early 2011. During his first year, everyone slept in tents, peed in the grass, and collected their water in 5-gallon drums from a tributary nearly a mile hike away. “We cooked on camp stoves and lived in absolute squalor,” he recalls. “Everyone had jungle rot on their feet. Our clothes were destroyed by the rain.” A herd of cattle on the path from San Miguel to Tres Brazos. With the help of their neighbors, septuagenarian brothers Ramon and Dario Jaen, who have lived in Tres Brazos their entire lives, Cooper and the other early inhabitants learned how to properly wield a machete and construct open-air living huts with thatched palm-leaf roofing to keep out the rain. They built a kitchen and composting toilets and a piping system that brings filtered running water to showers and sinks directly from the tributary. In addition to the physical infrastructure, students and staffers alike are constantly conducting research and outlining plans for future programs. The idea for the Kalu Yala Farms brand, for example, came from a former business student’s final project. So did the original blueprints for the tourism and hospitality venture. This semester, biology students are working on proposals that would introduce mushroom cultivation and pig farming to their activities, and a design student is GPS-mapping the entire site. Given the organization’s startup vibe and rustic, communal accommodations, it’s certainly not for everyone. Scrappiness, resilience and comfort with the unknown are all required qualities in order to stay sane. Some students leave unhappy, confused by the company’s mission, chewed up and spit out by the jungle’s unforgiving landscape. Those who thrive are self-starters, brimming with ideas and the patience for actualizing them slowly, who learn by trying and failing and then trying again. And like Cooper, many of Kalu Yala’s current employees were once students themselves, high performers later rewarded with leadership roles. Ramon and Dario Jaen at Kalu Yala. Desvaux, 27, a graduate of the outdoor recreation program, runs Kalu Yala’s farm-to-table kitchen. She never went to culinary school, but she has always loved to cook, and she’s constantly inventing new recipes with the farm’s ingredients — plantain lasagna, cranberry hibiscus tea — through trial and error. Meg Pelham, 26, studied engineering in college. Since graduating from Kalu Yala’s biology program, she’s served as outdoor recreation director, biology director and business director, and next year she’ll be in charge of tourism and hospitality. Prairie, 24, also a biology program graduate and currently its director, recently became the first scientist in the world to discover a rare breed of coral snake in Panama. The journal Mesoamerican Herpatology published his report on his findings. Cardoza, 24, a graduate of the agriculture program, manages the farm. He taught himself the principles of permaculture and organic farming techniques by reading books like The New Organic Grower cover to cover and watching instructional YouTube videos. “Living here gives you the opportunity to constantly learn, every day,” Cardoza says. “Not just your job, but a ton of different things. Plumbing because we have to fix a pipe, carpentry, cooking. It’s meaningful because I can see the results of my job physically — the people around me literally eat them.” FRIENDLY NEIGHBORS Skeptics often ask Stice what a bunch of idealistic American millennials living together in the jungle are doing doing to responsibly integrate with the wider Panamanian community. But observing Kalu Yalans interacting with their neighbors suggests it’s extremely important to them. Aaron Prairie on a nature hike with a large jungle insect. The Jaen brothers often visit when they’re not working; on a recent Sunday evening they came over to eat burgers and watch a football game streamed from Cooper’s laptop using solar-powered wifi. Cooper knows every family along the route from the jungle property to San Miguel, and he’ll stop by to ask how their kids are doing or drop off supplies. Kalu Yala’s San Miguel outpost, where the education and health programs are based in a sprawling yellow house with a big front porch, perhaps affords the most opportunity for fostering relationships with locals. In addition to teaching at the school and helping out in the clinics, the students and staff attend meetings at the library and senior center, cook weekly dinners for their neighbors and simply spend hours hanging out, chatting, learning about their lives. “The real relationships happen after work, sitting on people’s porches, having a meal, having a conversation. A lot of what we do is listen,” Hendley, 38, who runs the health program, says, stopping to say hi to a dairy farmer crossing the road with her calves. “Most NGOs go into places with this set idea of what people need. We want to join in with what this community is already doing; to build relationships and learn about their strengths before bringing our own ideas to the table. That doesn’t just come from knowing people’s names — it comes from months of getting to know them, finding out what’s in their hearts.” Henley’s philosophy of community engagement came to life on a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, when Franco Ramos, 12, sat on the porch at the San Miguel house, entertaining Theone, who runs the education program, and some of her students with his catalogue of funny voices. A Kalu Yala student reads to a group of young San Miguel residents. “I come here almost every day after school,” Ramos, who lives around the corner, says in Spanish. “I love these guys. I want to study biology with them one day.” “When he’s here he’s just a straight goofball,” Theone, 23, interjects. “Well, it’s really boring in my house,” Ramos replies. “I like it here. Somos friends.” Back in his Panama City apartment, Stice says he shrugs off people who accuse him of being a colonizer of sorts. “The reality is that the world is global,” he says. “We learn to integrate by appreciating each other’s commonalities and appreciating each other’s differences. The real question is, how does any new neighbor in any neighborhood best contribute to the place they just moved to?” Assimilation aside, Stice fields one other, very specific critique about Kalu Yala from nearly everyone he meets: they want to know if he’s really just running a cult. And he absolutely loves answering that question. “One of my online bios says I’m a cult leader because it’s funny,” he says with his signature grin. “But cults drink Kool-aid, and I don’t want to die. We’re having way too much fun.” Kalu Yala’s jungle property from above. Photos by John DuPre. — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.

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The Quest To Build The World’s Most Sustainable Town In The Middle Of The Panamanian Jungle

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