Francesca Vaghi goes back to basics in the Mexican rainforest and learns a radically eco-friendly way of life…
Ecology is becoming an increasingly important discourse in the Western world, and it often seems that people who lead a “green lifestyle” form part of a new kind of elite. However, having visited Las Cañadas, an isolated ecological reserve in the rainforest of Veracruz (Mexico) has shown me another facet of what it means to be eco-friendly.
The Las Cañadas ecological reserve extends over 306 hectares of rainforest land. Seventy-seven people live in this reserve, in a state of quasi-total isolation from the rest of the world; producing their own food and sources of energy, while fighting to reduce their ecological footprint as much as possible. The ideology behind the reserve was inspired by the owner who inherited the land from his father. Las Cañadas used to be a cattle farm up until 1995; an economic enterprise that had completely depleted the territory. With the idea of restoring this once pristine area of rainforest, the owner replanted 66 hectares of this land; the forest healed with minimal human input, and 15 years after the project started, it looked as though it had never undergone intense grazing. This kind of rainforest is called “cloud forest”, and in Mexico, these ecosystems contain the highest levels of biodiversity per square meter. Las Cañadas was an incredible sight of plants and flowers; the reserve boasts a collection of many different ferns, lichens, orchids and flower species.
After the reforestation process was started, more people joined; parts of the land are being used for agricultural purposes and some animals are also kept on site (although in a much more restricted manner!). The people here practice a new kind of crop production called “Agroecology”; it is a combination of organic and sustainable farming that doesn’t use chemical fertilizers (only compost), with production at such a rate that resources can be restored without harming the environment. Just as there is an abundance and variety of animal and plant species, their crops are very diverse and typically Mexican.
It was truly fascinating to spend four days in this place; we took showers with water collected from rainfall and heated by burning wood, we ate solely from the reserve’s crops and animal products, and we learnt about this radical and unusual way of life with each step we took. The reserve operates on the principle of a “closed system”. Energy flows in a cycle. For instance, there is a system for wood-burning that ensures that for every tree that is burnt, a new one will replace it, and the ashes of burnt wood are used as nutrients for the next generation of trees. Food production also functions under this principle; all that is ingested will return to the land. This is achieved through the use of the very unusual “dry” toilets, and to spare you the details, I’ll just explain that all the food that has come from the land and through you, will later be returned to the soil. To be honest, the most conventional green technology in the reserve is probably the solar panels; everything else at the reserve completely defied and redefined my view of what it means to be ecologically aware.
My initial idea that being eco-friendly meant being boring, minimalistic and technologically advanced was eradicated entirely. Regardless of the fact that I disagree with many of the things I learnt during my stay at Las Cañadas, what I did realize is that being eco-friendly should equal frugality. It was truly refreshing to learn about a way of life that based itself first and foremost under the philosophy of not being wasteful. Many Western lifestyles can only exist because people around the world do live under such frugal conditions, although, sadly, not by choice, like the inhabitants of Las Cañadas. Even if I disagree with the concept of “returning to the land”, I think the first step to being more environmentally friendly is implementing the clichéd idea of giving up some of our comforts, and being more aware of what we consume.