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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eco-Aldea Velatropa

Eco-Aldea Velatropa

          In an abandoned, unfinished pavilion, next to the University of Buenos Aires, lies Ecoaldea Velatropa.  Velatropa is a community of earthy-folk that recycle, re-use, and live off of what the city throws away.  Some might call them homeless, but where they live is indeed a home.  It has more character than many a house in our unconscious first world.

            I found out about the troop a week prior to the end of my semester.  I was bummed that I had spent five months missing Slade (the co-op I live in at home) while there were great people living right near by.  Better late than never, I suppose.  I biked over, introduced myself, and offered a hand in exchange for hanging out with them.  They were happy to meet me, even though they get a lot of visitors that come and go.

            The community’s goal is to lead a zero-impact lifestyle.  In Vermont, we strive to reduce and reuse, but this is by far the most impressive manifestation of such an ideology.  It’s inspiring.  It’s magnificent.

            This whole journey is best described through pictures.  I’ll elaborate on the photos, but you have to see to believe. 

            I’ll start with a map of the location:
I've labeled "Home," "Di Tella," and "Velatropa."  The Eco-community is in the north of the city, on the water, on the edge of a the city's protected wetlands.

After the troop slowly blocked off vehicle access, vegetation slowly returned to the once-industrialized lot.  Even in the strangest of soils, crops still grow.  Two photos from 2000 and 2012:

The reserve surrounding the area is now lined with paths and dwellings of the people that live there.

One of the most impressive homes:

A Colombian lives there with his girlfriend.  The fort is only accessible by rope.  Better than a lock on your door, eh?  It’s supported by the branches and suspended from two thick ropes that stretch between two other trees.  Not a good fort if you're a sleepwalker.

Many of the other homes and buildings are made of plastic bricks, and mud.  Glass and glass bottles are incorporated into the walls to let light in.  Many are nearly ten-years old, and still standing strong.  Maintenance is required, but with neither snow nor hurricanes, and a very mild climate, there isn’t much to worry about.

These are different types of “bricks” that are used to make walls:

Outside the main cooking area and community-library and living space, which you can see at the beginning of the video, Fé showed off his home-made recumbent bike.  The pedals were too short for my legs, but it was nonetheless impressive.

Inside the kitchen were several stoves and an oven made out of a metal barrel and clay.

Rain-water was collected from the roof for dishes:

Plates and silverware:

Pots and pans:

Inside the main building were beanbag chairs and a selection of books, along with art supplies and jewelry that some of the members sell at the artisan fairs.

            Fruit and vegetable stores in Buenos Aires buy more produce than they can sell.  Losing money from spoiled food represents a smaller loss than losing customers from not having what they want.  The members of Velatropa collect “expired” yet edible fruits and vegetables with spots.  With 20 people living in the troop, the turnover of the food is relatively quick.

            What truly isn't edible is composted and used as fertilizer in the gardens.

I visited in mid-winter, so the gardens weren’t flourishing with veggies, but in the spring, summer and fall they grow a decent amount of produce. 

This is a sun-dryer, drying ginkgo and other tea leaves:

The black charcoal at the bottom heats up the rest of the system.


Bathrooms.  They have an outhouse, or “dry-toilet.”  Solid waste is composted.

“Poop here, pee outside.”

Recycling is a huge part of what Velatropa does.  Everything is re-used.

“Recycling!  Nothing is trash!  It becomes trash when you throw it away!”

“Paper”   “Clean and dry cardboard”


Obviously, bicycles are where it’s at.  This photo was taken in the early morning when I went to visit again, but the previous day the rack was full.

Recycling route with the times that stores dispose of what they can’t sell:

Like at Slade, chores are organized and divvied up between everyone:

If you see a chore/task, it’s yours.

 It's a snake!

I helped them out for the day.  We ironed two plastic tarps together to make a covering for the greenhouse.

 Buenos Aires has no public recycling program.  Trash is brought to landfills, and left to pollute the water table.  What does get recycled is picked up by "cartoneros."  The unemployed travel around with large carts and pick up plastic, glass, metal, wood, and cardboard.  They bring their loads to private recycling companies and exchange it for cash.  They also live off of what the city discards, but in a much more roundabout way.

Only on the surface could Velatropa be considered a group of cartoneros.  Over 15 years, they've built a community where knowledge, chores, and companionship are shared consciously and sustainably.  The idea that people would choose to live like this is completely foreign to some.  To me, it makes perfect sense.  I'm far from being a communist.  However, on a small scale, communities thrive and carry on so much better than those who fend for themselves in poverty.  Planned economies are absurd, but depending on and helping your fellow man is something that should be much more common in western civilization.  In other cultures, perhaps Mexico, living in larger units is more accepted, but in the United States we dwell on the idea everyone should own their own large, single-family home, buy everything they need from one store, and forget about what they discard as if a garbage truck were a magical vehicle that solved with the first-world's waste epidemic.  Communities like Velatropa are at the far end of the spectrum in terms of sustainable living, but they make us stop and think.  Are we living it right?  

Do I, one person have an impact on the rest of society and our beautiful blue planet?  Can I change something if I don't like it?  Will I make a difference?


1 week after Buenos Aires

More posts coming soon...

Part I: Nature not in Buenos Aires

I’m sitting at a campground in Errol, New Hampshire, less than a week after landing in Boston.  This was originally written with a pencil and a notepad.  I do NOT miss my laptop.  After seeing some friends, spending  time with family, and eating some much-missed Mexican food, I headed into Maine’s north woods.  I took a new route to the mouth of the Rapid River, through some logging roads and across a nearly untouched, surrounded by DENSE forests, serene, difficult to access, pond.  I left one of my two kayaks at the top of the river, and then headed back down through the logging roads to the take-out.  It was complicated…take my word for it.

I fell asleep to the sound of whitewater, knowing that I was more likely to get robbed by a moose than by a human. 

Today I spent about eight hours on the river (whitewater kayaking, if you didn’t already get that).  I hadn’t paddled a boat for about eleven months, but it all came back pretty quickly.

            Last year after coming back from Madrid, I drove up to Vermont to go hiking with my friend Gretchen.  Even though cities are great and everything, after spending too much time in concrete jungles, I get wilderness deficit disorder.  I didn’t make that disorder up.  It’s totally real.  I think.  Go and read my Uruguay post.  I sort-of explain it there, but in short, humans do best when they’re surrounded by green, moving, non man-made environments.  When we stray from such places, we become less satisfied with our lives.

            Not to say that I couldn’t find trees and green things in Argentina, I just really like the biome I grew up in.  While I can’t ever get too much deciduous forest, I can certainly get too little.  After dodging taxis for five months, I’m now happy to be dodging potholes and rocks, and bombing down whitewater.

Part II: Nature in Buenos Aires

            While Buenos Aires can’t compete with the Maine wilderness, it’s certainly not bad on the nature front.  Depending on where you live, the Bosques of Palermo (parks in the north of the city) can get you a decent chlorophyll fix.  Running inside the golf course at night was also pretty nice, but after getting chased out by a guy on a bike (felt like Casino Royale), I limited my inside-the-barbed-wire-fence running.  Barbed wire does its job pretty well, both for keeping people out and keeping people in.

            Along with the Ecological Reserve on the southwest side of Buenos Aires, the city’s parks aren’t bad.  I ran 800 miles in them (that isn’t an exaggeration), all on soft surfaces.  If you’re reading this, and you’re still not sold on the naturaleza of the city, read my “Eco-aldea Velatropa” post.  Even if you’re not that into trees, it’s still WILD.  I promise you.  Go read it.