Sustainable Living in Kalu Yala

Alexandra Romero-

My passions led me to a unique journey this summer; I spent nine weeks living in a valley hidden in the middle of the Panamanian jungle with the hope of building a sustainable town. I lived in a small town called Kalu Yala that focuses on sustainable living practices, environmental studies, preservation of biodiversity, and education, all while striving to be socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. The town itself consists of wooden structures called “ranchos” where all 120 of us slept (we chose whether we wanted to sleep on hammocks or air mattresses), a farm that sourced most of our food, a river where we got our water, a few solar panels, outdoor bathrooms, and the biodiversity that surrounded us. I was working with the Design Thinking team to design the future of the town and build communal living spaces made from recycled/up-cycled scrap material.

Routine life in Kalu Yala was very different than my life at Davidson. Imagine waking up to the sound of chickens just as the sun is rising, making your daily trek to the compost toilets, eating meals made from ingredients that had just been picked a few feet away, having daily lectures about global issues with community members, learning by doing, being surrounded by snakes, monkeys, and insects, living completely outdoors, and sleeping under the stars. It is not for everyone, but I would do it all over again if I could. It felt surreal. I adapted to the lifestyle quickly and tried to get outside of my comfort zone to gain as much as I could from the experience. A few of us joked around and always repeated, “Imagine telling our grandchildren about that one time we lived in the jungle!”

However, the real experience came from the people I met along the way. One such person was the man in charge of the Political Science program, who also works for the U.N. Environment Programme on reforestation efforts in Panama. He helped a friend of mine plant the town’s first bamboo farm that will someday be the source of infrastructure and materials to be made on site. He kept us up to date on global issues, communicated with local communities, and tried to help without imposing his beliefs on us. He shared his reasoning as to why he thinks the work we did as a town is important.

I learned how to implement sustainable practices into everyday life and saw the feasibility in changing so many rudimentary practices to ones that have a positive impact on the environment. I was surrounded by researchers, biologists, UN workers, entrepreneurs, designers, chefs, farmers, etc. who taught me how their current fields of study are impacted by climate change. This gave me hope and a vision of what a more sustainable future could look like. On the other hand, I realized the incredible amount of privilege that allowed me to discuss those issues in such immense depth. I knew an experience like that was not feasible for many people because of cost, time commitment, and accessibility. I felt guilty to be able to discuss those directly affected by climate change while sitting in the middle of a beautiful jungle eating an organic meal. Although our purpose was to learn about these issues and design a blueprint as to what future towns could be like, I still strive to make social sustainability a priority in the future of sustainable development.

While living in Kalu Yala, I started to question how Davidson’s campus can make sustainability a top priority. It is no doubt that climate change is affecting us, and we, as a top ranked institution should set an example as to how we can make a positive impact on our community and the environment as a whole. Sustainability is a complex subject that doesn’t have clear-cut answers; we can talk about solar energy being great for the environment but forget that it is unjust to communities on the other side of the process who mine and produce materials we call “sustainable.” It is difficult to consider how we can minimize our impact while taking into account the ways in which decisions we make have an impact on others. However, that should not scare us into doing nothing. At the individual level, we should make conscious consumer choices such as deviating away from animal proteins, using our own mugs and water bottles, supporting the local farmer’s market, attending local environmental events, composting, and reducing overall consumption before getting into reusing and recycling.

Many of us dream to see Davidson powered by renewable energy and considered one of the most sustainable campuses; however, we need to start somewhere. By voicing the student demand and need for more sustainable initiatives and practices, we can give light to changes to be implemented. We can all start by offering climate change as the subject of classes, educating ourselves on all the ways people are affected daily (especially with recent hurricanes and earthquakes), and by supporting student organizations that work on environmental activism on campus. It is saddening to hear some students aren’t even aware of our Office of Sustainability!

Our administration should actively work on and voice the ways in which they implement sustainability. I am proud of achievements we have made such as some of our LEED certified buildings and our Climate Action Plan, however, those are not enough; we should push towards creating the changes many of our peer institutions have made. For example, our campus can improve composting, offer more sustainable food options, and invest in more sustainable energy means; we need to make sustainability more visible. We have a long way to go on this campus, but I know it is possible to change.

My first few weeks back in the US were very strange. I was overwhelmed by the waste I noticed all around me, and couldn’t justify taking long warm showers. Thankfully, my classes and friends made this transition easier than I thought, and the education I am receiving pushes me to continue my understanding of the topics I was exposed to while at Kalu Yala. I can’t live in the jungle fairytale forever, but I can always remind myself to take risks, follow my passions, and grow from every experience I am given.

Thank you to the Center for Civic Engagement and the Cochrane family for giving me the opportunity to go to Kalu Yala. I am forever grateful.

Alexandra Romero ’20 is an Environmental Studies major from Miami, Florida. Contact her at alromero@davidson.edu.