Permaculture Design, Colombian Style (part 2)

Cathy Holt
7 min readDec 5, 2023
Tierra lights a ceremonial offering of candles

Madre Selva (Mother Jungle)

Tierra showed slides of a community in Argentina where he had worked intensively on the design. The site, 22 hectares, has had some 50 people working there for 3 years; it includes a farm, food forest, animals, forest reserve, restaurant, and personal dwellings. Some buildings feature “living roofs” with 30 cm. of sawdust to capture water, and insulate from temperature extremes. Shallow rooted plants grow there.

Greywater is filtered by banana plants (17 varieties!) and goes to ponds. Eucalyptus trees provide wood for construction. Water comes from a spring, also cisterns, because the spring dries during the dry season. Potatoes are grown vertically with straw added, level by level (a Mollison technique). Dry toilets: after three years of being composted, worms work it, then it goes to fertilize trees.

Mostly the men work in earthen building, the women do agriculture. Volunteers work 20 hours a week for a 3-month minimum, in exchange for room, board, and classes. Vulnerable women come and learn by doing.


Maps and visual aids concerning climate, water, and flora

In working with a client, the permaculture designer must present: prototype, site analysis, design, master plan, execution, evaluation, and redesign. Make a contract based on the first conversation, usually by phone. The whole design process can take up to four years. The designer must observe carefully and ask many questions: from which sector do the strong winds come? Which areas of a site get the most hours of sun? Where does the water come from? Know the limiting factors and natural patterns. Also know the needs and priorities of the client. Create a timeline.

Site Analysis

On Day 7, we broke up into teams to investigate all the variables of Ama-Gi. One group was responsible for investigating water (precipitation, watershed, capture, storage, purification, distribution, treatment), climate, and flora (what grows in the region, what’s endangered); one group for fauna, wild and domestic, as well as soil composition and current use; and a third group to look into geology, physiography, and sectors (sun, shade, heat, cold, wind). For a day, all the teams roamed the land and asked questions of the residents. Eighteen soil samples were taken and mixed with water to determine clay, sand, and silt content. We drew maps. One group collected clay to create an impressive 3-D model of the land with its slopes and contours.

In a “World Café” format, each group presented their findings. The birds included hummingbirds, guacharacas, chulos (vultures), tangaras, and more. Snakes, turtles, and frogs were on the land. Endangered species in Santander include the puma, jaguar, anteater, and deer. Besides the dogs, chickens and cows, there are horses and rabbits being raised. The soils are heavily clay, with much compaction, especially in the lower areas of the site. At the upper levels, more moist, dark, rich soil is found. The climate features 115 days of rain; it’s a cold, moist cloud forest. Water comes from a spring on a neighbor’s land above and goes to a tank. There’s a pond that will be used to grow fish. Already growing on the land are sugar cane, yuca, medicinal plants, papaya, lulo (a fruit), nogales, mora (like a blackberry), guava, potatoes, beans, corn, squash, as well as guadua (a thick bamboo relative excellent for construction) and eucalyptus. There are many colorful flowering plants as well. Maritza and I made a drawing of the site with all the buildings, campground, crops, gardens and woods.


Little Luan joins the hug

For the final report to the Ama-Gi community, we formed new teams: Basic functions of subsistence, Principal activity, Relationships, and Spirituality. I chose the Spirituality team, working with David and Hayley, Alberto, and Jivaku. The idea was to brainstorm, based on a brief interview with members of the community/family, how to enhance the spiritual life at Ama-Gi. Practices could be for individuals, nuclear family, or whole community. Some of our ideas:

  • meditation, yoga
  • having a weekly check-in for nuclear families
  • for a family to plant a tree and to circle around it regularly for ceremonies such as a monthly “circle of gratitude”
  • ceremonies for births and deaths with dignity and respect
  • making offerings to the earth before planting or harvesting
  • asking permission of the land before building
  • offering gratitude for meals, for harvest, for beauty, for ancestors, water, sun, Pachamama
  • ceremony for conflict resolution, calling on spirit help
  • ceremonies for healing
  • to begin all community-wide meetings, calling on the ancestors and future generations and all inhabitants of the land
  • creating altars
  • new moon and/or full moon ceremonies
  • practicing the ethics of nonviolent communication, non-judgment, no gossip
  • ceremonial fires

Fiestón (BIG party!)

Tierra and Paúl as spirits of the forest

With leadership from Carlos and Eva, the party was magnificent! All were invited to dress up as a “spirit of the forest”. I stuck a flower in my hair and put on my Code Pink scarf with peace symbols, and announced that I was “the flower of peace.” Paúl, with face paint and a tall thorny staff and his traditional embroidered poncho, looked the part of an ancestor. Daniel in black leotards and yellow cloth bands and a mask with antennae, was a marvellous bee. Liliana came as a field of flowers. Beto, black-face, all in black, was the spirit of the soil. Maritza in a green shawl was the protective Mother Earth. Another woman fashioned convincing bird wings out of palm fronds. Jivaku was the magician, and with the help of the little boys performed sleight-of-hand tricks.

Me, with Carlos

The talent show featured our teacher, Tierra, fire-dancing! There was a stilt walker, a juggler, and plenty of singing and guitar music. It was also the birthday of one of the little boys in the community, so we sang to him and ate delicious cake. Tasty vegiburgers made from part of the cacao plant were available, as well as beer. Greta, our DJ, provided fantastic music and the dancing didn’t stop until nearly midnight. Such fun!


“Will you trade me your bundle of cedar for this rose quartz pendant?” People displayed their handmade wares, extra seeds and whatever else they had brought, for a grand exchange. Every time an exchange was made, both partners yelled out “Trueque!”

David, the Ecuadorean shaman in training, was offering Tarot readings as an exchange. After Hayley mentioned that he was very intuitive, I proferred some liquid fertilizer being sold at Casa Comun, and here is the reading he gave me. My question was about staying in Barichara or seeking out an Ecovillage. He drew three cards: the first, he said, represents me; the second, Barichara, and the third, an ecovillage. The first card he drew was the Water Shaman; he said that is who I am. I was emotional over that, blurting out, “That’s what I always wanted to be!” “You already are,” he said. The second card, representing Barichara, was the Ally of Water. David told me that Barichara would be a helpful step in the right direction. The ecovillage card was Ancestral Shaman. That, he said, was my true calling…the ecovillage. “Let your mind settle, your waters settle,” he advised, “and you will have more clarity.”

Presentation to the family

Some of us prepared a map of how Ama-Gi might look in 2030, including elements from the “stories of the future” — a biogas digester, a chicken tractor, keyhole garden beds for Gladys, a special building for the children, 5 more geodesic domes for guest stays, more area devoted to crops, fruit trees and perennials, an extra water tank, a store, a soccer field, a kitchen for making value-added products, a library, a maloca (traditional ceremonial thatched hut), and a new house for Sergio and family.

Team members show our futuristic design

On the final morning, two members of the family who hadn’t been part of the course were blindfolded and led on a “tour,” with various members of our class whispering to them about the sights of the new features; then brought into the room, blindfolds removed. Each team presented their piece of the vision for the changes to the land. I saw tears in the eyes of the family. Andrea had worked long hours incorporating photos and text for an impressive document describing the vision, that was a gift to the family from the whole class. In truth, it was astonishing what our teams were able to accomplish: the site analysis, the development of each element the family said they would like to see, the broad visionary quality of what we presented.

And then it was time for breakfast, appreciations, hugs and goodbyes!

Although I was sometimes grumpy from lack of sleep, and challenged by frigid temperatures, rain, mud, my hearing loss and poor comprehension, I was pleased that I understood as much as I did. It was a profound experience of stretching past my limits, of teamwork, and of co-creation…and I am grateful that I signed up for the adventure!



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.