Building a permaculture community at Bosque Shambala in rural Mexico

In Mexico, as in pretty much the whole world, there is a continuous flow of people moving from rural areas to the cities in search of a better life. But with growing awareness of environmental issues, a few people are doing the opposite, moving away from the cities in order to live a more self-sufficient life in tune with nature. Last month I met a couple from Mexico City who had decided to do just this. This couple has founded Bosque Shambala, a permaculture based future community that shows an alternative way of living in the Mexican rainforest.

I spent two weeks living and volunteering at Bosque Shambala. During my stay I could learn about the technologies my hosts are using to live more sustainably and I could even help them with some architectural design. But what was even more interesting was hearing how my hosts’ alternative lifestyle is viewed by the surrounding village community. After these two weeks I can’t help but ask myself: could this alternative community have the potential to improve lives in the surrounding village?

View of Bosque Shambala
Bosque Shambala is a permaculture project that is transforming an old coffee farm into a self-sufficient community that offers natural therapies and knowledge sharing.

Food forest, natural building and community life at Bosque Shambala

Bosque Shambala is located on the site of a former coffee farm, a 20-minute hike from the village of El Sabino in the rainforests of Huasteca Potosina. My hosts have been living at Bosque Shambala for over two years now, and they are living off the grid with solar panels, a solar water heater and a local water source.

My hosts want to turn the surrounding jungle into a food forest so that they can be more self-sufficient. Water is not a problem thanks to the wet climate, and the site has three natural springs with drinkable water. Today my hosts grow some vegetables, fruits and herbs but the scale of food production still needs to grow in order to be even close to self-sufficient. Animals are part of the cycle, and a composting toilet also helps provide organic fertilizer and close the food and waste cycle.

Garden at Bosque Shambala
This garden at Bosque Shambala provides some food, but the scale of food production is not yet sufficient. In order to be more self-sufficient my hosts want the surrounding jungle to become a forest full of food.

The original coffee farm had a concrete house, and my hosts use this house today as a kitchen and space for hosting volunteers. My hosts themselves have recently moved into a newer house they have built using mostly natural materials. The structure has some concrete but the house mostly consists of bamboo that is covered with a mixture earth and donkey manure. The house is not quite finished yet, and during my stay I helped add another layer of earth to this house, learning the technique hands-on. I also helped my hosts design another building which is to be a guest house. In this design I used the same materials but tried to improve natural ventilation with different types of openings.

Earth house under construction at Bosque Shambala
My hosts have built this earth and bamboo house with the help of volunteers. The local earth used contains a lot of clay and it is mixed with donkey manure for added strength before being applied onto the wall by hand.

At the moment my hosts are the only two people living permanently at Bosque Shambala, but their vision is a community with about six families, or as many as the land can support. The reason is that a community is stronger than individual people since community members can help each other and provide different skills. My hosts are not actively looking for people to join the community but believe that the right people will find the place. Indeed, it seems like during my stay they found one such person, a shaman who came to the site to conduct a ceremony. Meanwhile, there are almost always volunteers like myself staying at Bosque Shambala, and these volunteers bring with them different ideas, skills and points of view that help develop the site.

Gaining acceptance from the local community

Just like with the people I met living off-grid in New Mexico, it is practically impossible and actually undesirable to be completely off-grid. A small community can’t be completely self-sufficient or isolated from the rest of the world. And in this case, the community at Bosque Shambala certainly can’t be isolated from the village community surrounding it. The interesting question is: how can Bosque Shambala and the village of El Sabino benefit from each other?

The villagers don’t understand why people from the city would want to live in this village of 700 people. In fact, the locals were quite suspicious of my hosts when they first arrived. One of the things the villagers find strange is the fact that my hosts want to build with earth. People in the area used to live in houses built with stone, clay and straw, but today people want concrete houses that last longer, require less maintenance, and above all have a higher status in the eyes of the people. However, using local, natural materials would be cheaper, more comfortable and better for the local economy, and status can be created instead with the help of detailing and beautiful design. These principles were guiding me in the design I made for the guest house at Bosque Shambala.

Houses in El Sabino
People in El Sabino used to live in houses built with locally available natural materials, but today the villagers prefer to spend a lot of money on concrete houses.

A central part of the mission of Bosque Shambala is to offer natural healing and alternative therapies to people, including the local villagers. As more and more people come to the site and experience this part, more and more people are starting to accept and maybe even understand why my hosts want to do live the way they do. The process is slow but as the word spreads and more people get to know them, Bosque Shambala is becoming more accepted by the local community. After acceptance comes the potential to change people’s minds and then their lives.

Inspiring a sustainable village

People in El Sabino have a hard life and it is no wonder they see city-life as a desirable alternative. One of the necessities of everyday life is of course water. The village has clean water thanks to natural springs, but fetching water from the spring every day takes a lot of time and energy. The government is planning to build a tap water network in the village, but only the most well-to-do families will be able to afford it. At Bosque Shambala my hosts have piped water from a spring to the house themselves, and while this may not be possible in most of the village, there are other alternatives such as rainwater harvesting that would work well in the rainy climate.

Another daily activity that takes a lot of time is cooking, since cooking is done with wood and collecting and cutting firewood is very time-consuming. At Bosque Shambala there is also a wood stove, but on sunny days my hosts use a solar cooker instead which saves a lot of time and also helps prevent deforestation. My hosts actually have two solar cookers and the second one has been homemade out of an old satellite dish and pieces of mirrors – showing that it is not necessary to buy expensive equipment to use alternative technologies.

Solar cookers at Bosque Shambala
My hosts at Bosque Shambala have two solar cookers: the one on the left is a purchased one and the one on the right a homemade one. These solar cookers safe a lot of time by eliminating the need to collect and cut firewood and build a fire.

One of things that surprised me was the lack of local food in the village. Apart from some bananas and other fruits, basically only two crops are grown in El Sabino: corn and coffee. The corn is eaten locally in the form of tortillas and the coffee is sold in order to make money to buy more foodstuffs and other necessities. The couple shops in the village only sell dry produce that’s been produced elsewhere, and in order to get fresh fruit and vegetables one has to go the town of Xilitla 40 minutes away. Thus the money that enters the community leaves it just as quickly.

And yet the tropical climate in El Sabino is suitable for growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables all year which would add variety to the local diet at little or no cost. By creating a food forest at Bosque Shambala, hopefully my hosts can help show the locals the potential that the village has in growing more food and creating a more local food economy.

Papaya trees at Bosque Shambala
The tropical climate in El Sabino is good for growing all kinds of fruit and vegetables, like these papayas.

In the future my hosts plan to host workshops at Bosque Shambala, inviting people from the village and elsewhere to come and learn about things like natural building, self-sufficiency and natural medicine. By inviting people to come see and learn how they live, they can show people that there are alternatives to the common dream of moving to the city. One person at a time these kind of smalls steps can help improve lives in rural Mexico and even slow down migration to already crowded cities.

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