Saturday, December 12, 2009



When we were in Costa Rica last year, we visited an inspiring community adjacent to the Parc National La Amistad, which straddles the Talamanca Range forming a backbone running from Costa Rica through northern Panama. The founders wanted to protect the park from encroachment by neighboring farmers who wanted more land for pasture by setting up a buffer and monitoring it. Indeed, the first evening we were at Durika, one of the residents showed us the fires burning across the valley, climbing up several facing ridges. The man shook his head, mourning the continuing loss of rainforest to cattle. There are only 6 rangers for the entire park, which is huge (give acreage). So, after years of planning and pooling funds, the Durika folks purchased 8500 hectares bordering the park. Their plan, now into its 18th year, was to build a self-sustaining community and host eco-tourists. Guided tours of the park would both provide education and give the community members the opportunity to patrol their end of the park via walkie-talkies, providing a supplementary presence for the rangers.

Durika's plan is working. A community of 20-25 makes a living there, growing fruit and vegetables, with a sizable goat operation which porduces yogurt and cheese. They trade fruit for beans grown by their indigenous neighbors, and receive rice from a farming partner who lives about 100 km away. The income from ecotourists goes primarily towards Durika's monthly land payments. Available food goes to the guests first; what remains is equitably distributed to the individuals and families who make up the community: so much for each adult, so much for each child. They have not missed a payment, and the members are strong and lean, but not malnourished. Financial resources are pooled, but each member has a modest yearly personal allowance.

The bunkhouses where we stayed are spartan, but there is plenty of running water and electricity, which both come from a generously flowing stream with an impressive fall, issuing from the mountain slopes above the community. (GUY who designed it). Hydropower is a major source of electricity in Costa Rica, which only requires fossil fuels for 10% of the total. The community was hosting a solar power workshop the day we left, and the American leadig it told us that the main plan was to provides power for the indigenous school on adjacent land that operates minimally for lack of electricity.

Schooling at Durika is Montessori-style through eighth grade. The high schoolers have tutoring to help them pass qualifying tests for college. We met several kids, ranging from infants to age 16. They were well-adjusted, bright, and knew how to take care of themselves while backpacking. They had a sense of independence and fun. The Montessori teacher was a man in his seventies who had just decided to retire and work full-time with the goats. A woman in her late twenties was taking over the position.

Though they hope that the children will return to the community after college, Durikans are senstive to the huge differences between their way of life and the urban life that their kids might one day join. So, every year, they take a field trip to the favelas and bordellos, interviewing prostitutes and druggies. (As a retired humanities teacher, I see a great opportunity for a journaling assignment!) One of the most impressive members we met was a self-described “party-girl” who had come to Durika to kick her alcohol habit, then undergone a year's trial membership, then welcomed into membership by consensus. She is a perfect example of the kind of initiation that I described the need for in my last post. It was clear that she lived an integrated life with meaning and purpose, whereas she was on the brink of disaster before she discovered Durika. It is she who will be the new lead Montessori teacher.

Durika is very tight-knit, as you can imagine. They hold a community meeting every night after dinner, which includes everyone still awake. These are open to everything possible affecting the life of the community, and can be alternately intense, business-like or humorous. This is a family, and even the divorced couple who live separately but continue to co-parent treat each other with respect and affection, like brother and sister.

Like any community, there are problems, both interpersonal and structural. Right now, there is not enough housing for everyone who needs it, and building goes slowly when you have to raise the money and the crew have other daily responsibilities. I detected some tension between those who had nothing except what the community gave them, and those who seemed to have other sources of income (there is no requirement to hand over your bank account). In terms of food sustainability, they still import wheat, and I wondered why they didnt grow corn. We discussed potatoes and setting up a mill for potato flour, but this does not seem imminent. The farmer who donates the rice is a key to their survival, as is their voluntary submission to food rationing. I learned elsewhere of a family who left after nine months, since they had all lost weight, the father and mother 30 and 20 pounds respectively.

But that's where we're headed as a civilization, and if you're gonna survive, it means lean and mean. Durika is really pointing the way. In a world of decline and collapse, none of us, including farming communities, is going to be “self-sufficient.” Community is something that will need to transcend immediate locality, though the ability to ship gargantuan volumes of material long distances will soon disappear, due to peak oil. If you have a story of community, or meaningful intitiation back into indigenous life-styles, please respond with comments and links. We are all in this together.

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