Earth & Us: Permaculture Design, Colombian Style (part 1)

Cathy Holt
11 min readDec 3, 2023
Permaculture designers at work!

Tierra Martinez, the teacher of the Permaculture Design Course I just finished taking, is well-known throughout South America; participants came from as far away as Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, with a large contingent from Bogota. He teaches not only traditional permaculture, but also social permaculture. His long gray beard contrasts with his patchwork jeans, which he wore every day but one. My good friend Paúl, at whose farm I took part in my first biogas digester construction, urged me to attend.

We rode buses for most of 9 hours, with one 3-hour wait for a bus. The final bus ride was on roads so bad that the vehicle lurched like a drunkard.

Ecomunity Ama-Gi

The 10-day class was hosted by an unusual “Ecomunity” consisting of one extended family: the grandparents, Neftali and Gladys, who had bought the steep rugged land outside La Belleza, a high-altitude cloud forest, plus their six children and their spouses, with seven or eight children of various ages, all boys. The community specializes in natural building with emphasis on sacred geometry and geodesic dome construction. A beautiful garden with flowers and kale is shaped like a mandala; the greenhouse next to it is full of ornamental succulents for sale, as well as some young trees ready to plant. Sugar cane appears to be a monocrop. The grandparents’ home, as well as the Café-Bar with a large open space where the classes were held, the building where three of us slept, a deluxe guest house, and another family’s home are all variations of geodesic domes. The guest house is attached to a bathroom via a spiral formed of guadua (giant diameter bamboo). Most toilets are dry composting toilets; no hot showers. Touring the land, a young boy was proud of the large snake he found, and didn’t want to put it down. The home of Sergio features a small food forest, a hummingbird garden, a small shed with two young cows, and a covered space for fire circles. Moving down the steep and muddy trail, we passed some of the key crops: several kinds of beans, corn, yuca, and other vegetables. We came to a steep, mostly clay slope ready for cultivation.

Field Work

Tierra, in yellow shirt, oversees building of a bed

Our physical project was to use an A-frame to mark contour lines, then to dig trenches nearly 3 feet deep, in order to loosen the hard clay enough to plant into it. These beds were lined with branches from the forest close by. On the hill above, we constructed a barrier of branches and leaves to help prevent erosion and to slow and infiltrate the flow of water. We returned to this project for six days whenever it wasn’t raining. By the end, we had measured off and dug some six large beds, broken up the clay, boton de oro and yuca planted, as well as some fruit trees, and a thick layer of mulch added. I was surprised to see no soil amendments or manure being used, but Tierra was following more of the Syntropic Agroforestry model. The next group of interns would be finishing the planting. It was encouraging to see a few earthworms turning the orange clay into black loam.

The theory part of the class began with existential questions: Who am I, what is life asking me to do, what do I love to do? As we take the role of the dreamer and the designer, we create a future; what is happening, and for what purpose?

We were invited to show up at 4am to begin reflecting and writing out our answers to these questions. Somehow I decided that my project would be to design a sewage treatment system using biogas digesters, constructed wetlands, and EMs (Effective Microorganisms), possibly for Barichara.


On our first day, we began with a rainbow mandala of candles, and a circle of self-disclosure: What do we do that hurts others? Where are we most vulnerable? After that, music and sharing gentle nurturing touch (recipients with eyes closed). The caring touch elicited tears from many, myself included. When people were sharing about their flaws and vulnerabilities, I could not make out what they were saying even with my hearing aids in. Twenty-five people in a circle with heads lowered and murmuring. Would I be able to get anything out of this class?

Some of my Classmates

Gladys, the grandmother of Ama-Gi, might be in her late 60’s and was always reaching out to me in such a kind way, urging me to come back and visit. She is quite a gardener.

Neftali, the grandfather who purchased the land, with a rugged, weathered, serious face, who worked harder than most of the young ones on the digging of the land.

Valentina, who shared her home with Liliana and me, usually attired in a red and white cape and matching Peruvian-looking hat, very kind and friendly.

Mari Alejandra, often seen with a child at her breast. Sergio, her husband, is tall with a long beard and ready smile; he has planted a small food forest and keeps two young cows as well as chickens and rabbits, and created a fire circle shelter.

Of all the children, the one who won my heart was little Luan, aged 5 or 6. He was curious to learn, and followed us out into the field, working with a small shovel. He also gave little shoulder massages to people! One day he came running to his mother so upset that he could barely gasp out the words between his sobs. His mother wrapped him in a warm blanket and held him as he calmed down. On the night of the party, his older brother’s birthday, Luan nearly fell into the fire that had been built in a big cauldron; but his screams were mostly terror, and luckily he was unhurt. On the final morning of our gathering, he sweetly gave me a little kiss.

David and Hayley are a young couple from Ecuador; he’s a shaman in training, who works with ayahuasca and tobacco, and drums a fast rhythm while singing the sacred chants; and Hayley is a blonde woman from England, speaking little Spanish as yet, who met David when he led an ayahuasca journey. Together they dream of creating a healing center and continuing their work with an orphanage. David whispered in her ear most of the time, translating for her.

Paúl is my friend with a farm near Barichara where we held the first biodigester workshop two years ago. He was very enthusiastic about the class and took good care of me, often checking in to see if I was OK, handling all the details of transportation. He was cheerful no matter what time in the morning we had to show up; he always let everyone go through the food line in front of him. He had a shirt that said “Amar es urgente!” (To love is urgent!)

Alberto is a tall, strong, young Afro-Colombian from a coastal town. He was gentle, quiet and very hardworking out in the field, always with a smile, and wearing shorts when the rest of us were bundled up against the cold.

Jivaku - Having a person with a high level of humor can change the dynamic of a group; the trickster or Heyoka. Jivaku talked a lot, played music on his boom box while we worked, sometimes played his flute, and made jokes often at others’ expense, like when he pretended to vomit on me. He brought three masks with him. During the talent show on the eighth night, he dressed up as an old-time magician.

Maritza is from Costa Rica, middle-aged, usually wearing pink, with curly black hair, and a sweetly maternal air. She was my partner in drawing a map of Ama-Gi.

Liliana, from Bogota, shared sleeping quarters with me. She was always up early and cheery. She showed me photos of her family, and invited me to visit her in Bogota.

Andrea, whose family is Mexican, lived in California for many years, but currently lives in the Sacred Valley of Peru. She dreams of a partner, family and permacultural homestead.

Carlos, with shaved head, always good-humored, creative and thoughtful, celebrated his birthday with us.

Daniel is a journalist. He took many professional photos and interviewed people on video. He expressed a lot of interest in biogas digesters.

Gabi is a lesbian with dreadlocks and piercings, who often sang with her guitar. One day she wore a T-shirt that said, in English, “Why do you say racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic things, when you could be silent?”

Greta — another lesbian, who created a fabulous dance playlist for the party.

Eva — a beautiful, affectionate bisexual woman with a partially shaved head and exotic earrings, often seen hanging out with the lesbian women.

Patterns and systems

Tierra taught us the importance of soil regeneration. Many indigenous peoples revere the soil and give gifts to it and to the trees. Care of the soil is important for every generation that follows. Mining and monocultures destroy it.

Profound observation means watching the full life cycle of flowering and fruiting, developing a sense of timing and connection. With observation, there will always be fine-tuning of systems. Take a step, pause, reflect; is this going in the desired direction?

Natural patterns repeat, such as the branching of rivers and of blood vessels and of trees. Energy flows along these patterns. When we design the right pattern, energy will flow easily; if not, less flow. Water does not want to flow in straight lines, but in sinuous curves.

More complex systems with high diversity are more resilient. Plant roots secrete hormones, giving messages to nearby plants. Diverse life spans and root depths, niches, make the most of a given space. More biomass means more microorganisms. Eucalyptus roots pump up water, which helps banana trees. Banana trees help provide shade for coffee plants. Coffee, mint, and pineapple each have different heights and root depths, different needs for sunlight and shade, and different times to harvest. Biomass might be considered “weeds” by some. Always have species such as canavalia that fix nitrogen in the soil, thus minimize the need for other fertilization.

Permaculture originated with Bill Mollison and David Holmgren of Australia, as well as Masanobu Fukuoka, whose “one straw revolution” in the 1970s gave the best yield of rice in Japan. Permaculture first came to Colombia around 2015.

Native forests, Tierra said, hold a high vibration; they offer food, shade, cooling, medicines, and peace. To the indigenous, these forests gave everything they needed. Conventional agriculture cuts down all the trees, planting crops usually in straight lines and in monocultures, using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Permaculture, by contrast, follows the ethical principles of care for the land, care for the people, share the surplus; a good business is sustainable, just, honorable, and helpful to the environment. A food forest will have medicinal plants, flowers, animals, birds and insects.

Stories of the Future

Music! Gabi on guitar, little Luan with dog

We were asked to consider a 5-part process to work with systems, in telling “Stories of the Future” about our personal project.

1. The team and its organizational structure: Is governance by sociocracy? Consensus? Is there a shared dream? Conflict resolution?

2. Regenerative functions for food, shelter, water, energy

a. How is water gathered, stored, purified, distributed, for people and land? How is it returned to the land after use?

b. Energy generation for cooking, light, heating, transportation

c. Food: growing, storage, preparation

d. Construction of dwellings and common spaces

e. Economics (often a weak link)

3. What is the principal activity, will it produce income? Education, tourism, production, healing, consultation?

4. Relationships: within the community, with clients, with neighbors, with government of region

5. Spirituality, individual and group: without that, nothing can happen!

This framework helped me reflect on what my ideal living situation might look like, in an ecovillage. We were invited to make a sketch of our project, including where the prevailing winds and sun come from. Multiple level thinking: what are the immediate yields? What about the future yields? Invest a percentage into improvements in the structure. Have more than one income stream. Collect data year by year such as: what percentage of seeds germinate?

Social Permaculture

Groups are complex, there is much going on below the surface. Groups need a shared mission, whether it be a family or a work group, while each person has a high degree of autonomy and authenticity.

Evolution of a group:

1. Creation, setting processes in place such as shared values and purpose and decision making

2. Storms and tests: discovering disagreements and conflicts; some people leave.

3. Professional, having needed tools for conflict resolution, achievement

4. Death of the group, if it doesn’t renew itself. “If I’m not well, you’re not well.”

Tierra invited us to pick a person we felt distant from, spend a few moments in silent eye gazing while touching hands, and then to share a secret with that person, perhaps something we had rarely shared with others. I had approached Jivaku the trickster, but others had as well; instead I connected with Eva, who by chance happened to have one of the same secrets as I did.


In a brief overview, Tierra emphasized the use of “rounds” because each member of a group holds an important piece. Time must be taken for people to register their feelings, as well as to suggest alternatives if what is proposed is outside of one’s “range of tolerance.” There is a 2-way flow of information.

1. Team or leader prepares a clear proposal for group

2. Servant-leadership: invite participation and questions

3. Round of feelings

4. Round of questions

5. Round of observations

6. Leader takes in observations of the group to improve proposal

7. Hear all objections, search for alternatives

8. Signal thumbs up, sideways, or down

9. When someone is voted upon and elected for a task, they can accept or give reasons not to; if accept, “It’s an honor.”

Sociocracy takes longer, but saves time by preventing a person from sabotaging the group because of being out of consent. All must benefit.

We practiced by discussing the 5 characteristics of people best suited for coordinating a party (creative, knowledgeable, respected, happy, proactive), and then electing a man and a woman for the task.

Conflict Resolution

Jivaku became the focus of conflict resolution. First, there was a round of appreciation for his gifts. Then a round of “thorns.” After hearing several complaints, mostly from women, he defended himself, weeping as he told us that he had an abusive childhood, was bipolar and had tried many therapies. After the confrontation, his behavior indeed improved.

Project Prototype

Tierra asked each of us to create a drawing of our personal project, along with a brief summary description followed by a more detailed plan of what we will design and the purpose it will serve. Thank goodness, it didn’t all have to be in Spanish! Mine was for a sewage treatment system using biodigester(s), a constructed wetlands, and EMs (effective microorganisms).

Death and Rebirth

Unexpectedly, Tierra gave each of us a blindfold. We were asked to put them on and let ourselves be led, barefoot, to a special place. There, we sat on the grass and were given something to hold in our hands. He told us that this was a potent poison that would kill us, but before eating it we could review our unfinished business and silently offer amends to anyone we had offended, ask/give forgiveness for any relationship that was out of balance. After we ate the “poison” (a piece of Brazil nut), we were gently led to another place where we sat comfortably and listened to music. Still blindfolded, we were told that this would be our last taste of some favorite foods: a piece of ginger, then popcorn, then chocolate, then guava candy was placed in our hands. Then it was suggested that we died and could now visit with our beloveds who had passed on before us. This was very emotional for many of us. The music changed to “Remember why you came here, remember your life is sacred.” With loving touches, we were invited to be reborn; to crawl on a soft blanket and to be welcomed back to the living world, with renewed purpose. In this way Tierra assisted us to see the importance of our commitment.



Cathy Holt

Cathy has been living in Colombia for 2 years. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.