PermaTree – Sustainable living in Ecuador, with educational aspirations

In search of a sustainable way of life in harmony with nature, the two Swiss Citizens were interviewed by PonderingTime about their new life and their project PermaTree.

With PermaTree, Btina and Santi created more than just a sustainable farm. With this non-profit organization, they not only advocate an original way of dealing with nature but also want to show local people new perspectives and win comrades-in-arms from all over the world for this idea. In an interview with PonderingTime, we asked them about their vision, their plans, but also what it is like to change from the western society of Switzerland to the entirely different culture of South America.

Btina and Santi

PonderingTime: The name PemaTree is composed of the English words “permanent” and “tree.” What’s this word creation all about?

PermaTree: Yes, the term “PermaTree” combines the words “permanent” and “tree” into permanent trees. Trees produce oxygen that we all need to breathe. Trees create habitats for a diverse animal world, which is essential for our environment. In many cultures, the tree is the symbol of life. Their roots and branches show where we come from and where we want to go. Trees not only support us with food, they also give us what we are all looking for, namely inner peace.

PonderingTime: Just tell us a little bit about your project? What made the difference?

PermaTree: The change we experienced in our personal life took place around 2014 and came from different sides. We realized that there has to be more to life than just having an office job looking forward to the weekend or holiday on day by day basis. There were also health reasons. Btina has developed an allergy to modern diets. We couldn’t eat out together in the restaurants anymore. For example, ready-to-eat sauces, products that have been “improved” to have a longer shelf life, such as meat packaged with gas, so it does not turn blue, was a no go.

We also noticed at the time that many of the products we use every day are not local at all – it came from Switzerland or Europe. For example, there were “BIO” pine nuts with which we wanted to make our own pesto, they came from China … it’s a little weird, isn’t it? We also visited Swiss organic farms, and asked a lot of stupid questions, for example: What do organic chickens get for food? The answer was significant, I think it was 40% local corn and 60% soy. Unfortunately, the organic farmer did not know exactly where the soy came from. Most likely from South America, Brazil, former Amazon region, where today no jungle stands anymore, but soy and cattle are “harvested” …

For us, it became clear that we have to grow everything ourselves or know the origin of the components of the products we consume. Otherwise, our health problems would not improve. That was our NR-1 motivation.

A 4-week vacation in Costa Rica confirmed our decision. Before that, we were once in Mexico, but this time we explored the country from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast with our own car and were thrilled. We came back to Switzerland and realized how much Latin America had enriched us, and we wanted to see more.

We left Switzerland in August 2014 and started to explore Paraguay with our young dog Asterix. After Paraguay, we drove to Bolivia. Asterix was, unfortunately, run over in the mountains of Bolivia in Samaipata… Later we traveled through Colombia. And then we finally visited Ecuador, although at first, we thought it was too small. But here our dream came true! In May 2016 we found a plot of land in the beautiful Amazon region of southern Ecuador. Compared to Costa Rica and Colombia it was not so “sexy” in Ecuador at the beginning. But it was also like a little time travel, that inspired us.

PonderingTime: And now that you have arrived, what do you want to achieve?

PermaTree: We don’t want to save the world, that’s not the point. Planet Earth doesn’t need people at all. After the day humans die out, planet Earth will continue to exist as it has for millions of years. If the Earth were only one day old, the dinosaurs would have colonized the planet at 11 pm and died out 20 minutes before midnight! And we humans are barely three seconds here. 23 hours 59 minutes 57 seconds, so 200,000 years ago modern man appears!

PonderingTime: In your self-portrayal, you describe yourself as a non-profit educational organization. At first glance, that raises questions. From the outside, one might think that PermaTree is a community of organic farmers who want to live in harmony with nature. How do you see yourself as an educational organization?

PermaTree: Yes, our focus is absolutely not on making money itself. We want a simple life, an alternative, positive and healthy lifestyle. Best with the local resources here on site. It is also important to us that the region can grow, and we want to give it positive impetus. Of course, we have a different mentality than the people here. In Latin America, people often copy what goes well. For example, a bamboo industry or the cultivation of Guayusa. We don’t have any glass windows, only some made of bamboo and wood. They bring fresh air into the house, and no birds die either.

PonderingTime: And the educational aspect?

PermaTree: Why educational organization? Well, because others, local and international, can be inspired by us and what we implement here. Or learn from our mistakes. And we are happy to pass on knowledge. Ideally, we also want to acquire new knowledge, a win-win situation.

Our hope for the future is to have like-minded people in PermaTree or the surrounding area to start some kind of positive transition network effect. But unfortunately, it can take a while until you find the “right” people who have the same goal in mind. A real platform should be created. A place where people come together and enrich each other. We want to keep alive the otherwise lost know-how of people who share the relearned skills and experiences with other people. Bring long forgotten rituals to life.

PonderingTime: But you already have concrete plans for education.

PermaTree: If everything goes as it should, we will start a small kindergarten on the farm in a few months. In which there will be no sugar for the little ones, unlike the other daycare centers. And we hope to be able to build a kind of Waldorf school later, but first comes the kindergarten.

PonderingTime: Your home is in the south-east of Ecuador, on the edge of the Andes and the Ecuadorian Amazon region. The farm is basically already part of the Andes and has a difference of 300 meters from the lowest to the highest point. The nearest big city is 100 kilometers away. How did you find this place?

PermaTree: Strictly speaking, the lowest point in PermaTree is 800 meters above sea level and the highest point 1300 meters above sea level, which is a full 500 meters of difference in altitude! That was one of the reasons why we chose this property. We also wanted to leave the coast, also because of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Every day, tons of radioactively contaminated water flows into the Pacific Ocean. The currents bring some of it to America, too. In Canada in 2012 after the tsunami in Japan, a Harley motorcycle with Japanese license plate appeared on the beach of Graham Island in British Columbia…

At that time we explored almost all of Ecuador, the coast, then a mountain village called Mindo near Quito, but we would not have been able to set up a fruit farm there because of the heavy rain. Initially, we were looking for a farm with primary forest, but we had to learn quickly that after 1960 a law came into force that gave people land rights when they cleared the trees, there was hardly any primary forest left. At that time, they deforested like world champions to give people legal land rights. Behind this was the USA, which at that time was afraid that paramilitaries and guerrilla groups could hide in the jungle in Ecuador… Well, goal achieved: On the coast of Ecuador there is still 3% primary forest! In the Amazon, where there are roads, it doesn’t look much better. Only where there are no roads, and where it is challenging to get there, there is still primary forest. So from then, we had necessarily other search criteria.

PonderingTime: Let’s get to a topic that always interests me personally: Food. You manage a so-called “Food Forest,” what exactly is behind this concept?

PermaTree: Yeah, it’s part of the classic permaculture philosophy. This is a kind of 3D cultivation. Something edible is grown on every level of the forest. Polyculturally, i.e., everything is mixed, ideally plants that support each other. In the end, you can imagine it as if you were in a supermarket, you just walk through a forest, and berries, bananas, avocados, salak, passion fruit, cocoa, sweet potatoes, papayas, etc. can be harvested fresh or you can eat them right away.

The various Food Forests are still under construction. Everything is only 1 to 2.5 years old. Even the bananas need 12 to 15 months to produce these fruits. And the bananas are fast. Rice lasted 6 months with us. Over time, however, we will be able to tune these Food Forests even further. Ideally, a Food Forest is merely a copy of the natural jungle.

PonderingTime: The plants you grow include coffee for your own needs. In your region, however, the coffee plant does not have it easy, so you also grow Guayusa. As a journalist, I’m also very interested in coffee, but to be honest, I’ve never heard of Guayusa?

PermaTree: Yes, the Guayusa has extreme potential. It is still virtually unknown in Europe. But it’s a fascinating plant. It grows almost by itself, the plant needs the tropical climate and sun, but no care, not even compost.

PonderingTime: And you can turn it into a substitute for coffee or tea?

PermaTree: Guayusa is even healthier than coffee or tea. For three reasons. First, Theobromine, which contains antioxidants, it stimulates and opens the lungs. Second, Guayusa contains caffeine, less than coffee, but more than green tea. And three, L-theanine. This is also found in green tea, it helps against stress, strengthens the heart and works together with caffeine.

PonderingTime: I haven’t discovered any farm animals, like goats or pigs, PermaTree is designed solely for fruit, right?

PermaTree: Correct, it’s still too early for many farm animals. We first need our own production of fruit and vegetables, and then we can start with the farm animals. At the moment we only have a few chickens so that we have eggs, and from time to time we eat the “superfluous” cocks. There may be at most two cocks. Otherwise, there is too much fight among them. But we still have to buy eggs. Slowly we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

PonderingTime: Everybody can practically participate in your project, you have a volunteer program, what does a volunteer have to bring to be part of PermaTree?

PermaTree: Yes, absolutely. This is an integral part of our project. But also not as easy as you might imagine. Definitely, no classic volunteer work where you sit 3 hours a day at the reception of a hostel, or just feed wild animals.

We had to learn a lot in dealing with our volunteers. There were no rules at the beginning. Now after almost 2.5 years, with the most diverse volunteers, we had to adapt some things. The trick is to choose the “right” volunteers. Out of ten, we can generally take a maximum of two volunteers at the moment. Not because we don’t have space, we can accommodate four at the same time, but because many volunteers are looking for something completely different. We are looking for volunteers who are willing to change and share their reality with a different reality and who are independent and have social skills. We even had to increase the costs for the volunteers because the last two that came to us were motivated to save money and not because of the project itself, or the tropical fruits, or the healthy environment. We are of the opinion that PermaTree is an extraordinary place and project, which can grow as a platform in the desired direction and the right participants.

PonderingTime: How else can you be supported?

PermaTree: This is a super important question, there are many possibilities. We are looking for like-minded people who are willing to do something in this direction but don’t know how and where. The larger the community, the faster we can move forward. But you can also support us as a digital volunteer, i.e., help with specific digital projects from home.

We also need support in setting up a distribution system for Guayusa or bamboo shoots in Germany and Europe. We want to establish direct trade so that local farmers can earn more from their harvest. Once the direct trading system has been installed, it could be introduced throughout Latin America and perhaps only adapted here and there. This would mean that agriculture would be of interest to the young because it would be worthwhile again. Not like today, when, for example, in our region, no young people want to farm anymore. They all went to the universities to study, and later they just look for some job in the city, and the food then comes from the remaining farms or is imported immediately.

PonderingTime: You two actually come from Switzerland and have been living in Ecuador since 2014. How did the locals welcome you there, somewhat skeptical, rather cordial? What do people who are neighbors of “Los Encuentros” think about PermaTree?

PermaTree: We left Switzerland in 2014 but arrived in Esmeralda, Ecuador in November 2015. We’ve seen practically everything. We were warmly welcomed, like a part of the family. People warmhearted in South America. The people here like to share their things with others, that is something that has unfortunately already been lost in Europe. But we were also attacked, gagged and robbed by a group of five armed people with ski caps. There seems to be a general problem with security in Latin America. Besides, otherwise it’s a real pearl here. A lot of people here talk about us, too. Half of it is then indeed invented and added to the real story, but one comes quite often into the conversation

In Los Encuentros we have some good friends, they help each other. When they need help, we try to help, and when we have a problem they try to help us, and that is something of the most important.

PonderingTime: You found your sense of life in Ecuador, but do you sometimes feel homesick for Europe? Or is the world, where fruit, salad, and meat come from the supermarket, the clock rules and you only see the rainforest in a streamed documentary at Netflix in the evening, a closed chapter of your life?

PermaTree: The great thing about being able to rebuild everything from the ground up is that you can take the good with you and let the other be. We are here because it is remote enough that we can become one with nature again. Back when we lived and worked in the city, we were completely disconnected from nature. The meat, for example, could only be bought pre-packed. You lose the connection to the animal. Here the pig is first kept for a few months or years and then slaughtered. The same thing happens to the chicken and so on. Funny enough, many of our acquaintances want to eat meat every day but cannot imagine slaughtering an animal. One’s part of the other. Everything else is just because people no longer see the whole process.

But since we have a daughter, it would be nice to have the family a little closer than 10,000 kilometers away. We have Internet on the farm. Otherwise, the communication would not be possible, also for this interview.

PonderingTime: What developments or projects are planned for PermaTree in the near future? And where do you see each other in ten years?

PermaTree: Hopefully, in 10 years, we’ll have more than enough to eat on the Finca. We’ll definitely have more than enough bamboo! Because a bigger project that we will start is to show the value of bamboo in an economic sense. That would be a beautiful and clean future industry compared to the mines that now dominate the region’s economy. There’s almost no lumber today. That’s why most constructions nowadays are built with concrete or steel girders, which makes no sense especially in the coastal region and in the Amazon region, with so much humidity. Bamboo is regarded here as the building material of the poor, but bamboo is much more. Many different varieties have to be cultivated. Depending on the application: building materials, textiles, pharmaceuticals, food, crafts, paper, cardboard, car/aircraft industry, coal, improving environmental air-water, etc. You have to show the population that bamboo is anything but the building material of the poor.

PonderingTime: And how do you see the development in your region? Is there not also a danger that it will be affected by the spread of the modernizing Western way of life? Eventually, the meat comes fried between two buns from McDonald’s?

PermaTree: Here with us in the region and also in South America everything is more extreme than in Europe. We have mining companies from Canada and China on the other side of the river. And anyone can operate a small mining operation with all the toxins that flow directly into the river. Politicians are often more corrupt here then they are over there, which is not so apparent in Europe. But there are also many positive things here. The MAG (Ministerio de Agricultura) tries to support all farmers as far as possible with knowledge and material. This is really amazing. We also collaborate with a program called BAP (Buenas Practicas Agricolas), which is a kind of government organic label. There is also a cooperating procedure with the local cooperative APEOSAE. In Ecuador, organic agriculture is called “organic,” and it is primarily intended for international export because the domestic markets almost do not yet accept organic. Everything takes time.

But modernization is also in full swing here. What took 25 years in Europe will be done here in five years. 10 to 15 years ago, there was no Internet here. Today, almost everyone has a smartphone with Facebook and WhatsApp. Okay still the potential of the Internet is not really exploited, but at least it is already there.

Television’s been here a long time. That’s why the U.S. is so deified. New York is considered the center of the entire planet. People dress the way they see it on TV on MTV and Co., with a baseball cap, T-shirt and sneakers. Even if they can’t afford it. Often we are asked from which US state we originally come. When we explain coming from Europe, then we hear an “Aha, Europe” … mostly completely unknown.

You liked this article? You can support us with PayPal!