I don’t know how to slaughter an animal. I don’t know which plants are edible and which will kill me. I don’t know much about gardening. Heck, I’m a barely competent chef. I eat out more than I’d like to admit.
Growing up as a kid in the suburban U.S., if I wanted something, the solution was always to buy it. If we wanted food, we bought it. If we wanted furniture, we bought it. If we needed a service provided — oil changed in our cars, say — we bought it. And usually, whatever it was, we threw it away soon after. I knew no other way of life.
That is not how they’re living here at Habla Ya Spanish School in Panama.
Panama is blessed with an incredibly lush climate, where things grow like mad. The seas teem with life, trees practically sprout out of the asphalt, and rain falls frequently. Here, the climate is basically perfect for sustainability. And yet, still, many multinational corporations have done quite well in convincing people here that they need to buy things.
But here in Bocas Del Toro, Habla Ya Spanish School is pushing back on that idea, bit by bit. Check out some of the cool sustainability and community building efforts they’ve got under way here in this tropical paradise:
They’re big into permaculture at Habla Ya Spanish School. When I arrived here in Bocas Del Toro, one of the very first things the staff wanted to do was explain their permaculture garden and projects to me.
What is permaculture?
The use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organizing framework to consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs”.
Confused? I don’t blame you. It’s a bit long-winded. Better to just show you how they’re putting permaculture at the heart of everything they do at Habla Ya:
It starts with first impressions
The first thing you see when you enter Habla Ya’s school on Bocas Del Toro is this beautiful courtyard and garden — a representation of how they’re trying to blend their ideals and vision into the business. The garden is built out of recycled and reused materials, uses composted material, and serves as a spot to grow many fresh herbs. Plus, it provides a fresh, green welcome!
Providing Utility to the Community
After first impressions, they need to create an incentive for people to pay attention to the sustainability projects. We all have our passions, but I don’t expect people to get that excited when I talk about climbing, because me climbing doesn’t benefit them in any tangible way. Habla Ya’s pursuit of permaculture does benefit their community, in several direct ways. As a student and tourist on Bocas Del Toro, the most useful thing for me is the access to free potable water at Habla Ya.
Elsewhere in the archipelago, tap water is not safe for drinking. Locals might drink it, but tourists stick to buying bottled water at the supermercados, which is 1. expensive and 2. incredibly environmentally harmful. If you’re studying Spanish or volunteering at Habla Ya, you can refill your bottle here. The water is gathered via a rainfall collection system, and then double-filtered to be safe for human consumption.
Que chevere, no?
It Doesn’t Have to Be Fancy
Here’s the rainfall collection system. It’s really not wildly complicated, is it? Some plastic tanks, some PVC, and a big funnel. It doesn’t look super sleek, but who cares? You go into the kitchen at Habla Ya, you fill up your water bottle with fresh, safe, clean drinking water that fell from the skies — that’s cool. That’s useful. That’s living sustainably.
You don’t have to pay anyone, you are using a renewable resource, and you generate no waste. The filters need to be replaced now and then, but the Spanish school and volunteering programs generate more than enough income to pay for that. That’s sustainable ecotourism.
Excess water from the rainfall collection is run off into a greywater irrigation system (held in the lower blue tank), and used elsewhere throughout the compound.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
They’re quite serious about their recycling here, as the above picture demonstrates.
In the U.S. (or even worse, in Asia), the philosophy is simple: buy things, dispose of things, and buy more things. But if you’re disciplined about it, you really don’t need to dispose of that many things. The staff at Habla Ya says they have reduced their waste from dozens of bags a week to only two bags of trash a week. Not a small task for a place with dozens of students coming and going every day, all week.
That’s especially important since Bocas doesn’t have a municipal trash authority, staff say. Just a guy with a truck, who charges by-the-bag. Now, community members have noticed Habla Ya’s major reduction in trash, and have come to the school asking for advice on how to cut down their waste. It’s the economic incentive that gets people interested, see, but by cutting down on waste, people are also contributing to protecting their environment — something which should be especially close to their hearts, living on a small island such as these here in Bocas Del Toro.
That’s awesome, and that’s the value of these initiatives.
Habla Ya is Making Change
In a world where the conversation is all about money, that should be commended. Sure, Habla Ya is a business, and they do make some money. With three Spanish schools, one in Panama City, one in Boquete, and one in Bocas Del Toro, business obviously isn’t bad. But when you put your profits back into the community, making change, and building a more sustainable future, that’s awesome.
They Changed Me
In the past I’d thought of sustainable ecotourism as kind of buzzwords that didn’t really mean anything. After coming here to Habla Ya and seeing what they’re doing to effect change, and how honestly they believe in their mission beyond profits, I stand corrected.
That’s at the heart of why we travel, right? To see new places, new ways of living, and maybe question that which we never thought to question back home. In that regard, Panama has been the perfect place to travel for me.
I”m glad to be able to say that.
Interested in Learning More?
Check out the permaculture page on the Habla Ya website. Or… you know… do some Googling. Youtube. Wikipedia. The knowledge is out there.
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