Costa Rica's Kopali Going 'Beyond Local' to Build Sustainable Communities

Kopali Communities Garden photo

Pumping gardens at Kopali.

There's a debate at Mother Jones that slings some mud and arrows on our collective idea of local, organic food and the problems with scaling up sustainable production.

Instead of slinging words, Stephen Brooks and his compatriots at Kopali Communities are slinging dirt, doing their best to make a lush patch of Costa Rican riverside land into a self-sustaining tropical community. TreeHugger caught up with Planet Green's G Word contributor Brooks to get a better idea of the commitment and toil it takes for a group of farmers and artists, architects and dreamers, entrepreneurs and and teachers to sculpt a livable eco-village.

Kopali Communities Clubhouse photo

No golf course abuts Kopali's clubhouse; just greenhouse and gardens.

Kopali, though it has been in the planning stages for over a decade, is really just beginning to be the functional permaculture farm that Brooks and others have been nurturing in their mind for some time. Forty lots are for sale on parts of the 45 acres destined to be Kopali's first site; fruit trees, gardens and a wastewater treatment plan are underway.

TH: Where did the initial impetus for Kopali come from?

Brooks: In 1995 while on vacation in Costa Rica, I witnessed children getting sprayed by a crop duster while playing soccer. In order to grow cheaper bananas ecosystems and lives are being destroyed. This realization changed my life.

I couldn't believe my eyes. We can zip around the world on jets and video chat on cell phones, and yet most of the food we eat is grown with harmful chemicals. Sustainable farmers are less and less able to stay in business. So those who should be showing the world how to become sustainable are being lost to unsustainable global trends.

I can't think of anything more important than devoting our lives to the development of sustainable communities or marketing products grown and produced by sustainable farmers (Kopali Organics).

TH: It's hard to imagine how much work a project of this magnitude takes. What keeps you going?

Brooks: It is always hard to imagine just how much work it takes to go from a dream to a real project that actually works. But after we experienced what it was like to live in harmony on a sustainable farm, we realized there are few things more important. This is a race against time. Every day thousands of acres of irreplaceable rainforest are destroyed forever. All the while, real estate developments and planned communities are being developed, sometimes even claiming to be 'eco-friendly.' Creating successful and viable communities is the work we are called to do. What else can we do?

Kopali Communities River photo

Christian takes a dip in the Machuca River slicing through Kopali.
TH: How are you self-sufficient or getting there?

Brooks: Many people have a strong desire to live in a sustainable, farm-based community. But finding and securing land with good weather, water, fertile soil where it is legal to live and farm are obstacles that very few have overcome. Setting up the basic infrastructure to start living on the land is much more difficult than people can imagine. With Kopali, even though we are just getting started with the actual community of people who will live on the land, what's already in place is a farm that has eternal spring weather, countless varieties of tropical fruit trees dripping with fruit, a river you can dive into and swim in crystal clear water, lots that have a legal title, communal gardens, a greenhouse, ponds stocked with tilapia and fresh water clams...the list goes on.

TH: What's the rationale for creating something new instead of remaking communities where you came from?

Brooks: Working wherever you are doing whatever you can to live more sustainably regardless of where you live is critical. Because of its unparalleled biodiversity, eco-friendly laws, absence of military, perfect weather and a 'good life' culture, make Costa Rica important. And foreign interests and investments are already affecting the country in not so good ways. Working in Costa Rica to create alternatives to the otherwise destructive development practices (that are becoming more and more prevalent) is critical. Kopali will be a community where people of many nationalities (including the local Tico community) will be able to practice and teach sustainable living at its best. That doesn't mean Costa Rica is the only place - we have to learn to live in harmony with our communities and with the planet we all share.

TH: Have there been attempts to reduce residents' trips back and forth and also the CO2 that entails?

Brooks: We do our best. We are looking into carbon offsetting as much as possible, and still look forward to the day when we travel less.

TH: What would you say are the biggest successes and failures thus far?

Brooks: I am blown away by the quantity and quality of fruit trees. I have lived in Costa Rica and been collecting useful plants since 1995 and finally have a template in one of the most ideal climates on Earth to grow all these plants.

I would say permitting has been SUPER challenging. The initial money we raised for the project was not all "super green" and that piece has been somewhat difficult but we have overcome it.

In permaculture, everything not physical about a project is called the invisible structure. That includes decision-making, legal, bylaws, etc., [and] is always the most difficult part of any project and has been crumbling the walls of sustainable communities for centuries.

TH: What does 'beyond local' mean to you at Kopali?

Brooks: We live in an interconnected and globalized world. This is not going to change. There is so much talk about eating locally-grown food. How local can it be? Can the land we live on also provide the food that we eat? Can a planned community be created that takes this into account and works this into the very design and make up of the land it sits on?

That is what we have done here. I have yet to experience this anywhere in the world. I have seen a family or a few families living on land where they are able to grow most of the food that they eat, but a whole community or village striving to do this together? Kopali Communities is the first. Via: Kopali Communities
Note: All photos via Stephen Brooks.
Read more about Brooks and sustainable agriculture at TreeHugger
Ethical Eating: Our Endangered Food Supply
Permaculture: Spreading the Green Gospel
Beyond the Supermarket: A Global Food Exporation
The Diaspora of Food
and on Planet Green
Urban Foraging and How With Stephen Brooks

Costa Rica's Kopali Going 'Beyond Local' to Build Sustainable Communities
There's a debate at Mother Jones that slings some mud and arrows on our collective idea of local, organic food and the problems with scaling up sustainable production.

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