Utopian seeds against the capitalist mantra

Plongée au coeur d’expériences de permaculture à Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires has all the makings of a megalopolis, full of cars, people in a hurry, advertisements and stores. Yet behind some of the buildings and behind the colorful walls of reclaimed houses, many citizens are trying a different path, guided by the principles of permaculture.

Just a few steps from the Faculty of Architecture of Buenos Aires, 500 meters from the River Stadium, a small path runs through the recent vegetation. A lamp post blends in with the trees that have grown. A little further on, a strange village competes with concrete and weeds… 

The Velatropa « eco-hamlet » defines itself as an « experimental interdisciplinary environmental education center ». In 2004, a small group of people decided to reclaim the space of the abandoned foundations of the university’s Pavilion 5 project to create a buffer zone that would protect the neighboring marshes, declared a nature reserve. Very quickly, the occupation acquired an educational dimension. « The idea was to make it an experimental and educational campus, complementary to the university ‚ » explains Marco, who has been at Velatropa since the beginning. Today, he no longer lives on site, but comes to participate in the space every weekend. Yasmine comes and goes. « For me, it’s a place to experiment with a way of life that fits the place you’re in, not the other way around. It’s about observing, and using the things you have at hand to function. And on top of that, we live together. So there’s the whole concrete aspect of building with natural methods, of doing the vegetable garden, but also the whole other side of living together and getting to know yourself…and the rest! ». On 1 km², there are many vegetable gardens, several mud or geodesic constructions, huts and nests in the trees, tents too. In the center of the hamlet, the covered kitchen and the « circle of the meals », made of mismatched chairs and pieces of logs. 

On the other side of the city, the Huerta de Saavedra also builds its corner of paradise. Neighborhood residents did not plant on the concrete of foundations left unfinished. Instead, in 2001, they jumped over the smoldering embers of Argentina’s troubled economy to create a different space. The neighbors of the Saavedra assembly started by reclaiming an abandoned lot full of trash and planting some plants. The aim was also to gradually generate another form of food, more sustainable, given the serious food problems posed by the crisis. 

Twelve years later, the place has blossomed into the cultural, cooperative and community space Cucoco. The garden has grown, and so has the collective project. Today, between the two pieces of vegetable garden rises a cultural center self-managed by about fifteen people. Among them, Grisella, 19 years old. For her, it’s about generating change from culture, showing people other things. « We offer workshops such as yoga, acrobatics, recycling, writing and many others. We also organize screenings, debates, shows, events… The vegetable garden is central because that’s where it started. But also because we go to the supermarket every day, we take food without even knowing where it comes from or what it contains ». Marta, 61 years old, adds: « Our goal is above all to be a meeting place where we can share knowledge about the land, food… In this sense, our proposal is to offer people other ways of feeding themselves, of functioning, as far as they are able. And let them see how this system is destroying our whole life, our daily life ». In La Huerta’s kitchen, there are dried plants on the ceiling and militant posters on the walls. And on a large board, a schedule of workshops well filled. 

permaCulture… in the city? 

Both spaces are inspired by the ideas of permaculture. At Huerta de Saavedra, it willingly overflows from the vegetable garden, which is limited by the walls that surround it. « We have a permaculture focus beyond the vegetable garden itself. With natural constructions for example, like the big room that we built ourselves with clay walls. We are therefore oriented towards permaculture as a search for alternatives that are not contaminating, such as using and reusing what we have, without necessarily having to buy everything ». Members of the space have incorporated permaculture principles into the way they solve every problem that arises. « The latest? We had recovered a set of wicker chairs for the great hall. But without cushions, after three, four hours of assemblies, it was a bit hard. We discussed it at the meeting, almost in spite of ourselves, excluding the idea of buying it. We were looking for a solution that would build on the resources we have available.« says Frank, who has been in the space for five years. Two weeks later, pieces of mattress surrounded by plastic milk bag covers sewn together served their new purpose. 

In Velatropa, a little further away from the cement, permaculture can be seen everywhere: in the plants and vegetables that grow on all sides, in the bio-constructions made of clay, in the thousands of reused objects…and even in the meetings between the inhabitants of the eco-hamlet, which always take place on the days of the full moon and the new moon. 

In general, it’s all about recovering, recycling, thinking and doing daily gestures differently. In Velatropa as in La Huerta, hands and dishes are washed with ashes. What can be composted is composted, the rest of the small waste is compressed into plastic bottles and used as bricks in bio-construction. Glass bottles can be found in mud walls, to delimit vegetable gardens, among the decoration. 

But in the city, harmony with permaculture — living in harmony with the environment in every respect — is no small matter. Even for Velatropa, dependence is inevitable. Members of the space get much of their food from stores in the city, visits and interactions are constant… Without these still strong ties being necessarily negative. Marco explains the paradox of Velatropa. « Here, we are in the veins of the capital. Right behind it, we have all the arteries and avenues that lead out of the city. For me, this is the most interesting aspect of the project. If we talk in terms of permaculture, maybe there are weaknesses. But when you consider that this is a permaculture project in the middle of the capital, with all the movement and synergy going the other way, I think it’s spectacular. The polarity that happens when you walk in here is awesome. At first it’s strange, then you get used to it, and finally when you go back to the city, everything seems very strange. It allows us to highlight all the habits we have and to rethink them ». As a place of transition, between the city and a more natural environment, Velatropa allows many to discover a whole unknown universe. It is a construction space close to the capital, where everyone can come and experiment, bring their questions, and then take what they have learned elsewhere. Yasmine, who comes from the city like the majority of « velatropians », sums it up as follows:  » We are experimenting with permaculture, but there are things for which we still depend on the city. But it’s not like being in an apartment either. It is an intermediate space. In a physical way, it is also that, we are between the big city and a natural reserve. We are in the transition, in the process. ».

At Huerta de Saaverda, even further into the Argentine capital, Marta supports the same idea. « In the city, it is sometimes a bit impossible to reach a total permaculture objective, which could be reached by going to live in the countryside for example. But I think that from this permaculture thinking, it is possible to change a part of the city. Live in a different way in the city. Not everyone is pHe is ready to move to the countryside and cultivate his own plot of land. Cristobal takes care of school visits to the vegetable gardens of La Huerta. For him, the meaning of a permaculture space in the city becomes very concrete if we look at the ecological footprint of each one. « Permaculture is also about thinking about how to source from local production, and with what is available within 70 km of us. There is a permanent transformation through these questions. And even more so when schools come and the children see that the vegetables come from the earth and not from the supermarkets. Already there are social changes in the way of thinking about how the land is worked and the food that everyone consumes is obtained ». 

to Change Things 

As its name suggests, the Haedo Transformer is a space that aims to transform both the people themselves and society. Their instrument? Culture, and a welcoming space for all those who want. Their lair, located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, is the former residence of a governor, half house, half castle. In the reclaimed house, the young people of the Transformateur offer workshops of all kinds, a day center for street youth, a popular library. Recently, they would like to get closer to permaculture. By starting a vegetable garden, but also by changing their habits in the house. Guille unfolds their reflection:  » Until now, we have always been very outward-looking, organizing shows and events. But we realize that we should also think about transformation and change from the house itself. Reflecting on how we workhow we use the resources we have… Start by transforming our space and ourselves before transforming society ». Ilona, a teacher in the swing workshop, completes it:  » And it would create the possibility of change beyond these walls as well, via the relationships we each have outside the Transformer with other people. It’s changing relationships little by little, starting with each other. ».

For Frank, de la Huerta, they work just as much on permaculture in human relationships. It’s about cooperation, trying to get things done as a group in the best way possible, and in a horizontal way. « The thing is, permaculture is everything! It’s not just making a vegetable garden and building a mud house, all of which would be lifestyle alternatives. Because there are people who do this but don’t live permaculture. Permaculture is a way of thinking, of living, of relating to each other« explains Marta. 

In La Huerta, as in Velatropa, and as in dozens of other alternative spaces in Buenos Aires, change in relationships is essential. For the thousands of people who participate in these spaces, horizontal and egalitarian relationships are the basis for any larger change. Grisella explains how they work. « We hold meetings every ten days or so, depending on the need or urgency to resolve certain issues. All decisions are made by consensus ». Cristobal, a giant bearded man with his one-year-old daughter in his arms, continues: « The assembly is also a way of learning. Learning to talk to each other, learning how to make decisions about the things we do. And these are very rich moments because we all learn to listen, to understand the other and to rethink our cultural background « .

Paola is Spanish and has been living in Velatropa for four months. « I came here with the idea of making herbal ointments and lotions. But it was the question of people and human relationships that hooked me the most. ». For her, the permaculture they practice in Velatropa has three bases: food and food production, natural building and building a society. This society is achieved through the meal circles, that is to say the multiple discussions they have every day during the common meals, where they discuss possible problems. It also involves consensus, attention to each person and encouragement for everyone to express themselves, « a collective awareness of the environment and of people », Paola summarizes. 

Cristobal is convinced that they are helping to transform society. « In a way, yes, we are transforming society, because we propose another way of consuming, another use of resources. Here, it is a place where permaculture is constantly in motion. And permaculture has to do with an ideology of changing the way we consume in the system we live in. Through recycling and reuse, through the fact of transforming waste into useful things, we try to transform the society from another knowledge, shared, collective « .

For all these spaces, permaculture appears as a tool to be able to carry out these changes. Whatever their concrete goals, whether they are cultural centers, experimental centers or community gardens, they are all spaces and people who believe in other ways of operating. And who put their hands in the ground to start building them. 

Edith Wustefeld and Johan Verhoeven 

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