Eco Caminhos is an intentional community in Brazil with the goal of becoming more socially, culturally, economically, and/or ecologically sustainable. With the world in crisis, we decided to find a different approach to life. We, the Bijen Family (Hilaine, Bart and our children Nico and Lucas), bought a property near Nova Friburgo in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, about 6 years ago. I would like to share an alternative set up for communities and explain my reasons for why we decided on this approach.
Our experience living in a community prior to Eco Caminhos
My wife and I lived in a rural community orphanage project for 6 years in Brazil. The orphanage was a non-profit association with a board of directors. I was part of this board. A few families lived on the rural property where we received children. We shared a kitchen, an organic garden, and took care of 20 children. Big decisions were made democratically, but we were still dependent on donations. So I decided to start a Portuguese language school in Rio de Janeiro to generate income. The school recently became the largest Portuguese school for foreigners in Brazil.
The good/great things we experienced in the community
- Living simple and away from consumption makes one happier.
- Helping people in need is incredibly rewarding.
- Personal growth through community exposure.
- Realizing that organic farming is therapy and meditative for any human being.
- When we connected we achieved amazing things that would have been impossible to achieve as individuals.
- Age is not important. What matters is that you give into the community.
The community challenges we experienced
- It is really hard to live together with lots of people with different ideas and backgrounds.
- There are people who do a lot and there are people who do little or nothing, yet decision-making is democratic. This can feel unjust and cause tensions.
- Making decisions democratically is very slow.
- Depending on donations is impossible in a country like Brazil.
- I felt like our ecovillage was separated from the local community.
- We were entirely dependent on donations.
- Everybody wanted to decide on where to invest and spend money, but few were prepared to raise funds.
After 6 incredible years, we decided to leave as we were not able to overcome most challenges. If you realize how challenging it is to keep your marriage united and strong, just imagine doing so while living together with several families and their children, dogs, and cats. I realized we were simply not evolved enough yet to face such challenges. We went back to the Netherlands to spend time with family and to rethink our future. Meanwhile, our 2 sons were born.
Two years later we came to the conclusion that the capitalistic world was not for us and we decided to develop a different approach to ecovillage building – one that uses the best of both worlds.
So how does this alternative ecovillage set up work?
It is not, in fact, that complex. Take a normal rural village. Everyone has their own property and house with their own rules and privacy. In our plan, the big difference is that we try to collaborate more, share the permaculture philosophy, exchange knowledge, share resources, grow, and learn together. We also stimulate people with this view to join the neighborhood. There will be neighbors from the local community, of course, who will not want to be involved at all, while others some will want to be only somewhat involved, and still some will want to get really involved. And that is all fine.
We currently have 3 established families who came to live in the neighborhood to join our organization. We work together and exchange knowledge on permaculture, agroforestry and bioconstruction. We help each other, have events, do horseback riding trips, go hiking, and even share simple picnics. Everyone can benefit from the tourism program which offers a wide variety of accommodation, knowledge, and activity options.
Now, the success of this ecovillage will depend on the level of involvement of the community – stepping away from the “competitive society” into a more “collaborative society”. We have a good relationship with the local community as we contract people to work on our property, preserve nature, rent their horses, and accommodate tourists at their homes.
Income generation “a sensitive but necessary topic”
This is a sensitive topic if you follow permaculture and ecovillage social media groups. There exists this feeling that ecovillages are only for the elite. In some ways, these critics are right. As a foreigner in Brazil, I am considered elite. Still, people tend to forget how hard we’ve worked to get to where we are today at Eco Caminhos.
Some suggest that ecovillages should allow everybody to join without criteria. In my view this simply does not work. The same goes for people who say they want to live off-grid and do not want a capitalistic view. You can’t avoid the fact that we have basic needs and we are not capable of going back to live in the forest without any basic comfort and resources.
Here at Eco Caminhos we believe we should use the existing capitalistic system in a more conscious way. We generate income but reinvest socially, ecologically, and culturally. To achieve this there should be a balance between people who have the capacity to generate income for the ecovillage and people who contribute technically (permaculture, agroforestry, bioconstruction), socially, and culturally.
So far, 30% of our income has been generated through ecotourism, 60% through paid volunteer programs, and 10% through rehabilitation programs. This year, however, 30% will be generated through a contracted bioconstruction project we will do in the region. Our income is reinvested in improving the infrastructure, buying tools, seeds, seedlings, energy, food, etc.
Eco Caminho’s main goal is to offer learning opportunities for those who need and are motivated to learn. Eco Caminhos invests part of its income and time in a social program for apprentices (currently we have 3). We also received a couple of refugees from Venezuela. We offer accommodation, food, training in agroforestry and bioconstruction, English classes, school support, and a stipend.
The staff we hire are paid above average, get 8 weeks of holidays per year, food at work and some even get accommodation. We want to improve these conditions over time.
Of course we can not satisfy everyone. Volunteer programs, especially, are challenging because of the high turnover rate. This constant come and go of people makes it difficult to set a stable culture. With the recently hired staff, however, our programs are becoming more and more stable.
We allow people to be part of the farm and the community. And people are happy to see that their money is well invested ecologically and socially. This results in satisfied tourists who recommend us to their family and friends and give good reviews on Google and Tripadvisor. This results in increased interest in our programs. We are not profitable yet. Only last year were we able to cover all of our operational costs. This year was looking even better until the corona virus popped up.
The good / great things we experience in our intentional eco village.
- There is zero pressure; collaboration happens naturally.
- There is a feeling of independence and zero conflict on household matters.
- Decision-making is fast as each family has autonomy on their property.
- More families are joining us which feels like a confirmation of our community strategy.
- There are more income-generating possibilities allowing more community members to benefit and guarantee their incomes.
- The local community is benefiting from our presence. Besides preserving the environment, we contract local workers, attract eco tourism, rent horses, and train the youth.
- The best case scenario is a thriving eco community. The worst case scenario is that everyone has their own property to live on or sell.
- People who want to join can start off as volunteers (paid or unpaid programs) and experience before investing.
- Setting up an eco village is an incredible challenge which requires determination and persistence.
- The independence requires people to generate their own income. For people who lack resources and entrepreneurial skills, this is hard.
- We have not reached a mature ecovillage status yet. All families are still structuring their own properties. The real challenges for developing our ecovillage are still to come.
Want to join our intentional ecovillage?
Yes, there are properties for sale or rent in the neighborhood. Still we recommend to start off in one of our tourism or volunteer programs to allow you to get to know us and we you. Dace, Robert, Leo, and Nora came as tourists in 2019 for 4 days to Eco Caminhos. They got interested in joining our movement and came back for another 2 week experience. Recently they bought a property next door and are currently structuring their property. The family also wants to apply agroforestry and bioconstruction and collaborate in eco tourism to generate income.
If you want to experience life in our intentional eco village visit us. You can join one of our custom-made tourism programs which run for up to 2 weeks. Longer than that, and we suggest our volunteer programs that go from 2 weeks up to 1 year. There are paid and free programs depending on the time you can be involved, your skills, and your needs. Once you feel that you want to join, we love to help you find a place to rent or buy. You also get to know the region with all of its pros and cons.
Once you have chosen a program you can send us an online application form. We usually reply within 3 work days. If you make a nice proposal, we set up an interview to get to know each other better and to set some clear and realistic expectations.
Who knows ……Maybe we’ll get to know each other soon!