Verdenergia: A community dedicated to sustainability that has thrived against all odds.
Set amidst lush green mountains in the Puriscal region of Costa Rica lays the community of Verdenergia. This 7 year-old community, initially founded in 2006 by Josh Hughes and his former partner Yemeya, was created with a firm vision; to discover what people are capable of when cooperation and collaboration meet the desire for a positive, sustainable future. Initially, the land on which Verdenergia now sits had been used for cattle and pig farming, a practice that left the 20-acre property degraded and bare. To take on such land with the ambitious goal of creating a highly self-sufficient community clearly shows a great level of determination, commitment, and a belief in what could be.
Verdenergia has some core principles on which the community has been based. It is firmly believed that ‘change comes from doing’; therefore, through practicing this philosophy as well as taking action that has a positive effect their own lives and the lives of the people around them, those at Verdenergia are living the change that they believe is so desperately needed in our world. Every person we encountered during our stay at Verdenergia was committed to improving the planet we live on, a practice that is understood to start at home, through one’s own lifestyle choices. Also essential to Verdenergia is the commitment to education. We were told that a large part of what Josh aims to achieve is for every visitor that passes through to leave more aware and informed about the world around them and how their individual actions affect it.
Following Josh and Yemeya’s initial purchase, eight others who shared their vision soon invested in varying shares of the property, thereby offering a means to begin the development of what would soon become Verdenergia. With sustainability at the core of this communities’ ethos, the 7 years that followed saw: reforestation of the land and surrounding area, construction of many ecological buildings, regeneration of damaged land, the planting of Permaculture food gardens, and the establishing of fair, democratic methods of community management.
This work has lead to a thriving community that has now successfully helped to plant over 500,000 trees in the local area, thereby regenerating soil, preventing erosion, offering a source of food, and re-establishing natural eco systems. Through hard work and commitment, a total of 10 properties have now been built using a variety of ecological methods with 2 more currently under construction. This has allowed for a higher number of residents and volunteers to stay that continue to enable the growth of the community. The land regeneration and Permaculture designed gardens are thriving so that approximately 40% of food consumed at Verdenergia is produced on the property. Relationships with other local communities are also flourishing, supporting local economies through offering employment and creating food co-operatives. Furthermore, the ever-evolving systems of management function with the intention that everyone within the community has the opportunity to voice their opinions regarding Verdenergia’s future. This is increasingly important, as the size of the community grows, with a current total of 45 shareholders.
All that has been achieved thus far at Verdenergia has not always been done with ease, far from it. Situated almost two hours drive from the nearest town, and only accessible via narrow dirt roads, the communities’ location makes it very difficult to bring in supplies, particularly for construction purposes. The tropical climate offers issues of its own. High humidity, torrential rain, and extremely hot sun severely effect property, workers, and access to power alike. Additionally, financial restrictions have meant that development has not always been consistent in particular areas and sometimes projects have had to be put on hold. Despite these potentially overwhelming hurdles, however, that which has been achieved at Verdenergia in a relatively short period of time is impressive to say the least.
Through the course of our visit, we observed not just a community coping with the various difficulties mentioned, but one that is embracing all issues it faces and working together to overcome them. It appeared clearly that it was the strong community cohesion that allowed for this to be done so successfully. The way in which this community collaborates and draws on all resources available was truly astounding. Also, and most importantly, every issue is overcome in a way that considers how that action affects the outside world, so that Verdenergia remains as sustainable and ecological as possible. Like any community, there of course exist certain aspects that need to improve and grow. However, so long as this is acknowledged and the willingness to adapt and progress is ongoing, as we found to be the case at Verdenergia, any problems that arise can be easily overcome.
On leaving Verdenergia, there was an underlying question that remained…What If? What if the techniques, passion, and attitude that have so successfully enabled this community to thrive in such difficult conditions, were adopted by wider society? What if the ideas of these people who are the minority, were those of the majority? What if these principles were to receive the full support of the resources we as a global society have at our disposal? What would our world look like then? The answers to these questions we cannot know for certain but we can find out. If this information and that of so many other functioning examples of sustainable development is spread to as many people as possible, we can really discover our true potential, something that can only happen with your help.
On With Life
If you would like to contact Verdenergia for more information about their community or if you are interested in volunteering at Verdenergia please contact the community via their website http://www.verdenergia.org/
Verdenergia: More Info
Verd Energia’s Top Tips
- Don’t try and know it all yourself. Taking on the task of running every aspect of a community is unrealistic and unsustainable, instead it is better to find technicians (skilled people) and give them ownership in return for their work. You will often find that those with little money have a lot of time. Ideally there should not be one ‘leader’ but several, all of whom are trusted to manage a certain aspects such as construction, food production, communal living space etc.
- Develop co-operatives. Co-operatives are an essential element to a more sustainable life. This practice efficiently utilizes the skills of all involved and reduces workload greatly. Additionally co-ops increase security by reducing reliance on outside help.
- Learn the cycle of production. Learning this process will allow for better understanding of its sustainability and empower your community to set up ways of generating income.
- 4. Create several small businesses, not one large one. Generating small amounts of revenue from several businesses is more sustainable and offers greater security to the community if one should fail.
- 5. Plan, but be flexible as conditions change. Planning is essential to community design and Permaculture as a principle. It is important however not to get overly attached to them, by doing this you restrict the potential for progression. As circumstances inevitably change always allow your community to change, grow, and evolve freely.
- 6. Plant as much as possible. Planting as much food as possible in the early stages of planning a community will allow a higher level of self sufficiency to be achieved more quickly.
- 7. Remain secular. Variations of spirituality are practiced at Verdenergia by many of its members, and no one is refused residency due to religious or spiritual practices. It is recommended however that the community itself remains unaffiliated to any particular religious or spiritual practice as it limits the diversity of its members and can lead to tension within the community. There is no reason why people of different beliefs cannot live together and learn from one another in harmony.
Positive factors that have enabled Verdenergia’s success
Founder, Josh Hughes told us the main factors that have enabled Verdenergia to succeed so far are:
Selflessness. People give a lot to Verdenergia because they are passionate about what it represents.
Revolution. The utterly unsustainable world around us is driving the push for developing alternatives. I cannot look my daughter in the eye in the future and say I saw it coming and did nothing.
Logic. It’s the intelligent decision to move toward a more sustainable way of life.
Good economic sense. It is important to be ‘economically just’ and remember not everything will happen just from the goodness of people’s hearts. If you just ‘hippied out’ you might not be able to send your kids to school for example.
Keeping involved with the outside world– This community is different because it does not cut itself from the outside world, we are all connected and the outside world effects us whether we like it or not.
Founder, Josh Hughes
There have been ten structures built on the farm of which 5 are living quarters.
Two more buildings are currently under construction and 8 more private buildings are to be built for people to live in.
The building methods include using local and recycled materials, tyres, timber, bamboo, earth and cob.
Cob and bamboo have proved to be the best construction methods at Verdenergia.
95% of materials have been sourced from within 50km from the farm.
It is very important at Verdenergia that as much building material as possible is locally sourced and/or recycled.
Cob is a great sustainable building method that has been successfully used where there is easy access to clay and sand throughout history. The buildings themselves in fact have the potential to last upwards of 500 years. They are an inexpensive, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to more common construction materials.
Cob is a building method that combines clay, sand, water, straw, and sometimes horse manure.
The components are mixed by hand (or foot).
Once ready, the mix is made in to fist size balls and applied one at a time by hand around a light wooden frame and/or recycled mesh.
Once the wall has dried it is coated with a layer of limestone that gives it weather protection and an aesthetically pleasing finish. Water is added by brush or hand to the limestone daily for a period of about 2-4 weeks depending on the climate, so that its does not crack. If the limestone does crack it will re-seal its self, making it a fantastic building material.
At Verdenergia, cob has been successfully used in combination with other methods such as bamboo, timber frame, and Earth ship (tyre wall).
Earthships are a very strong method of housing that offers fantastic energy efficiency and serves the purpose of converting the problem of used tire disposal in to an affordable and sustainable building solution.
The Earthship design uses reclaimed tires, each packed full of earth and stone as the base for the wall that is then covered in a layer of cob and limestone.
Due to the tropical climate at Verdenergia, the earth ship design is often used in combination with other building methods that are better suited to living in a hot climate.
The nicknamed ‘Smurf ship’ pictured here,
is a structure that incorporates predominantly ‘Earthship design’. The walls are built with stacked tires that are filled with locally sourced earth and stone, compacted in to each tire individually. The tire wall is covered with a combination of cob and cement, and then coated with limestone. The roof is a Re-bar dome, 3 inches of cement (sand for the cement is sourced onsite). The foundation is 1 tire deep, and more than strong enough to support the structure.
If it were to be rebuilt again they would use a Palm leaf thatch roof as this is more suitable to the environment and is a cheaper, more ecological alternative.
The structure you see in the picture is essentially the centre of what will be a larger, open plan house, which in the Costa Rican climate is better than having all solid walls. The solid centre however allows for very good protection from occasional tropical storms and the heavy amounts of rain that fall during wet season.
Bamboo is a fantastic, ancient building material that is 100% biodegradable and is used for construction in many places all around the world. It is a fast growing, incredibly strong material that has even been known to with stand earthquakes where conventional building have not. The use of bamboo in areas such as Costa Rica where it grows naturally is even better because it does not have to travel to reach the build site. Additionally bamboo has anti bacterial and anti fungal properties that further increase its usefulness. (modswad.com).
The Bamboo House at Verdenergia is, as its name suggests, made predominantly of locally grown bamboo, which is treated and prepared on site
The bamboo structure is built around half a reclaimed shipping container that was used to transport one large shipment of essentials to the farm meaning that there was no wastage.
Although in tropical climates bamboo is susceptible to weather damage over a period of about 5-7 years, at Verdenergia they believe it is better to repair more naturally built structures by using their own skills and employing local people, thereby supporting a local economy, than spending funds on more expensive, and less natural materials. The roofs are corrugated iron which, although they admit is not the most sustainable of building materials, is produced within the country and as the skills within the community develop they hope to move toward more natural roofing methods.
Rebuilding old structures
It of course logical rebuild old structures should they already exist on a community property as it saves time, money and resources.
At Verdenergia, old disused buildings have been developed using a combination of the methods already mentioned, turning them in to interesting and fully functional areas including volunteer accommodation and the main communal living space and kitchen.
All biodegradable kitchen/food waste at Verdenergia is composted and used in the gardens.
All glass, plastic or metal containers are recycled (or ‘upcycled’) and used for a number of different purposes on site.
Any non-biodegradable waste produced on site that cannot be re-used is stored and used for building material.
Human waste is all dealt with using compost toilets.
Human waste is mixed with wood shavings (a by product of the work-shop) or dry leaves, and left to rot down until it can be used in the gardens as a great compost.
Bio-swales are essentially long trenches dug into deforested hillside and have been a big part of the land rejuvenation at Verdenergia.
Their purpose of a bio-swale is to act as tree roots would, by retaining water, preventing nutrients from running off the soil, stopping erosion, and most importantly, providing a lush area to grow fish and plants for food and medicine. This form of food production is known as aquaculture and we were told that wherever a bio-swale was placed at Verdenergia, life then thrived.
Reforestation has been a large part of the work since Verdenergia was first established 7 years ago.
The people of Verdenergia have helped plant over 500,000 trees on their land and the surrounding area.
This reforestation has: allowed natural eco systems to re establish themselves, increased the biodiversity of the area, improved the quality of the soil, reduced the erosion during wet season, and has produced a natural and sustainable source of food and building material.
The use of effective micro organisms at Verdenergia (Mycellium) has lead to the soil being 15 times less acidic compared to that if its neighbours, providing a rich, lush environment for plant life to grow.
The simple process used was to create a mix by adding microorganisms to molasses and salt, allowing it to grow, and adding 1 part mix to 10 parts water before spraying it over the land.
To find out more about Mycellium, and the uses of fungus in land regeneration click here and watch the fascinating TED talk by Paul Stamens which highlights how mushrooms really can be used to save the world!
Verdenergia is managed collectively and decisions regarding the community are always open to discussion. There is however certain members who are in charge of running particular aspects, for example, Permaculture planning or volunteer management. These people will therefore have the most influence when it comes to final decisions both due to their expertise within said area and in order to avoid minor disagreements hindering progression.
For day-to-day organization of chores and necessary tasks a simple table (shown above) is used effectively and it is up to volunteers and community members to put their names down for a certain number of tasks per week. This system is efficient, and allows for a fluid and flexible structure of work.
The daily work schedule varies depending on priority and everyday volunteers and community members will work on the things that are the most urgent.
The general daily schedule:
5:30 am -1st Breakfast
9:00am -2nd Breakfast
1:00 pm -Lunch
1:00pm-5:30pm -Rest/chores/light work
5:30pm – – Dinner
Volunteers are an important element to Verdenergia and they are expected to do a certain level of work per day. This is somewhat flexible however and some days are of course harder work than others depending on task. No one has to do work they wish not to. Everyone has different skills and abilities and this is always taken into consideration when allocating work.
Verdenergia is run as a community and people who have young children are always able to dedicate time to their children. The communal nature of this place also means there is usually someone around to help look after the children.
Electricity at the farm is sourced from the grid. The electricity provider however is a state owned, socialist company called ICE, which uses predominantly hydro-electric means of generating electricity. Over the coming years Verdenergia hope to provide almost all its energy by means of a micro hydro system (stream Machine) which involves generating electricity through local river flow in a sustainable, non-damaging way.
Generally electricity consumption at Verdenergia is low. Founder Josh Hughes told us that lower energy consumption is the most important immediate solution to achieve greater sustainability. At Verdenergia only one box refrigerator is used for the community of 20-30 people approx. This cooperative use of things that consume a lot of electricity can save a great deal in cost and energy consumption.
Propane gas is used as the primary cooking method however as much care as possible is taken to conserve fuel.
Energy saving alternatives
The Bike Washer. Although there is an electronic washing machine at Verdenergia (used more often when there is a high number of guests), The Bike Washer is used a great deal and is very effective when combined with hot water produced by the solar heater.
The Bike Grinder is a very easy and effective way to process a variety of foods without using electricity.
The Rocket Stove, this quick and efficient way of cooking and heating water uses very little wood and is based on a very simple design.
The Hay Box is made using and old refrigerator and lined with hay for insulation.
The Hay Box is a great way to keep food and water hot for hours, removing the need to re-heat and thereby reducing energy consumption.
Approximately 30-40% of food consumed on the farm is grown there depending on the amount of people at the farm. A further 50% is produced very locally (in the valley) and 10 percent external (mainly beans, rice, and peanuts).
All salad, and a large proportion of vegetables are produced on the farm.
Foods that are readily available and therefore are commonly used at Verdenergia include Yucca, Chayote, Plantains, Rice, Beans, and a variety of salad.
Permaculture is the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing appropriate technology and community development. It offers a practical, creative approach to the problems of diminishing resources and threatened life support systems now facing the world. Simon Henderson, Cortez IS, BC
Permaculture is a tool that has been applied to all aspects of food production at Verdenergia and is predominantly managed my community member Dowe who has a qualification in permaculture design.
When Verdenergia was first founded, Josh had not heard of the term ‘Permaculture’ but found that many of its’ principles aligned with his own ethos. With further study of Permaculture Josh found the practice to offer an incredible degree of logic and common sense to both community planning and food production that has proven to be an invaluable asset to the development of the community.
Meat is consumed at Verdenergia but not often, primarily because of cost and the fact that it has to be bought from outside the farm.
Rabbits are bred at Verdenergia for meat however this project is not currently functioning properly as it is in its early stages and they have suffered losses due to dogs. In the future a new system will be implemented that is more efficient, ethical and sustainable.
There are 5 chickens at Verdenergia that are kept only for eggs. There are plans for more chickens in the near future. Typically 5-10 eggs are produced per day. The chickens have a great deal of space and several pens that they alternate between so they are able to naturally forage for food.
The much loved community cow Isabella is kept in large, lush pastures and usually produces several pints of raw organic milk everyday.
It terms of food sustainability Josh told us that co-operatives are very important. It is also important to identify what foods grow well in your local area and to be creative in terms of food preparation
Money production and ownership
Whilst there is certainly emphasis at Verdenergia on building a community that relies less on worldwide monetary systems, finance of course remains an important factor. This is true both for individuals within the community and Verdenergia as a whole.
Originally Josh Hughes and his former partner Yemeya purchased the 20-acre property on which Verdenergia sits. The selling of shares since has been the primary source of income to fund the ongoing development of the community.
In total, there are 45 shareholders, each of whom own shares ranging between 0.5 and 10%. Currently, Josh still owns 40% of property although the aim is to reduce this to 10% as soon as others wish to buy the remaining shares.
Selling shares rather than plots of land is a practice designed to ensure greater stability for the future of the community. The intention is that this practice will prevent individual differences from disrupting the communal structure.
Residents at Verdenergia are both encouraged and supported in pursuing their own independent businesses so that they are able to earn money independently. These businesses take different forms including: making and selling tinctures, offering massages, running a laundry service for volunteers and guests, hosting motorbike and horse riding tours and hosting yoga retreats. Additionally, these offer an opportunity for money to be made that can be re-invested back in to the community.
Many members of Verdenergia also get involved in the hosting of food booths at annual events such as ‘Envision Festival’ that utilizes the culinary talents of many of the residents in order to earn additional funding for the further development of the community.