Walking the talk
20.03.2008 26 °C
For many weeks I had been planning to visit the Black Sheep Inn (BSI). This oft-mentioned hostel is on the backpackers' trail south of Cotopaxi, round the supremely beautiful Quilatoa loop. The Black Sheep Inn is a fairly expensive place to stay in, by Ecuadorian standards, but there are cheap bunkrooms too. For an experience which made a very deep impression on me, not to mention the great organic food; friendly communal atmosphere; tactile natural building materials in the imaginatively laid-out and situated rooms and sauna; and of course the stunning location, it was more than worth the extra dollars. I stayed two nights and met some interesting people. I chatted a lot to Andres and Michelle, the U.S. owner managers who have a total hands-on approach to running the BSI, essentially sharing their home and their vision with many travellers.
Rather than writing a second-hand explanation of Andres' and Michelle's philosophy and goals (many of which they have achieved in the 13 years they've lived in Chugchilan), I'll quote from their beautifully printed-out signs and documents. which are used all round the property so that guests are fully informed about all they see and eat. I use quote marks whenever I am relaying their words. They happened upon Chugchilan while backpacking in 1993. They stayed with a family, as there was no hotel in the area, and fell in love with the place. They didn't want to leave, and were blown away when a local farmer offered to sell them a sizable chunk of land. I continue in Michelle and Andy's own words:
"We had to ask ourselves if this was a dream come true - an opportunity we could not pass by. Here in the heart of the Andes, we could tread lightly and live sustainably. We could own our work. We could create a home and realize our ideals: organic gardens, happy animals, ecological toilets, recycled waste, wastewater systems caring for the earth and fostering our talents. Here we could have the freedom to be creative, to experiment and to learn from our mistakes"
"The idea of the Black Sheep Inn was born in 1993. The name was created before the place. We chose The Black Sheep Inn & La Posada Oveja Negra because everybody recognises the symbol of the black sheep, because it sounds great in every language, because there are many sheep in the area and because many world travellers, like us, are 'black sheep' that have strayed far from the flock. We welcome the Black Sheep of the world!"
So Michelle and Andy returned to the U.S., each working three jobs until they had sufficient earnings to return in October 1994, purchasing the land in April 1995. The first guests were received in 1996. They write "BSI is a work in progress. We strive to improve the facilities and nurture the land. We've designed buildings using permaculture ideas, building with materials and renewable resources such as adobe and straw, with local labour. We harvest rainwater and humanure (abono turistico) (!). We have and continue to reforest our property with native trees in terraced rows called swales, and we involve ourselves with the community in the most positive ways we think possible. Every day we learn more from the land, the neighbours, the animals and the guests. We try to live in harmony with and respect our surroundings. We welcome comments and suggestions."
BSI's Famous Composting Toilets
"The most popular question asked about eco-friendliness is on the subject of the composting toilets (and somehow the topic always becomes dinner conversation!). The toilets work wonderfully. The developed world thinks it's normal to defecate in a toilet bowl filled with clean water, while many people in the third world still 'poop' in the fields and walk miles for potable water. In order to bridge the gap between two very distinct norms, we built composting toilets that are attractive, educational and productive."
All toilets take advantage of spectacular views across the canyon.
Inside the rooms are beneficial flower/vegetable gardens fertilized with finished compost from the toilet.
"Roofs are transparent, allowing natural light for the bathroom and gardens. Roofs also funnel rainwater to small tanks used for handwashing. Using biodegradable hand soap, waste water from the sink irrigates interior gardens/ The book 'The Toilet Papers' by Sim van der Ryn explains the design and process of the composting toilet"
"The condensation that accumulates around the seat overnight is proof that waste is heating up (thermophillic) and decomposing. Faeces and urine are extremely nitrogen rich - in order to balance the mixture, we add 'dry stuff' with every use. This is a mix of sawdust and pods from the cultivated lupin (chochos) which are high in carbon content. A good ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. That's a lot of dry stuff!"
"The dry stuff is the 'flush' and helps keep insects and odour at a minimum. We also add kitchen scraps. (BSI is a vegetarian inn). Occasionally the toilet smells of ammonia, which means we are not adding enough carbon. The recipe is actually simple and the toilet needs very little monitoring. The finished 'humanure' is used when we plant a tree or shrub, and eventually in the vegetable garden. It's a high nutrient fertilizer that helps everything grow."
This document goes on to describe permaculture and how BSI is becoming a permaculture demonstration site, with the dry composting toilets, recycling systems for grey water ane recycling of plastic, metal, paper and glass. Over 800 native trees have been planted in terraced swales so far, and all gardens are fully organic. There is a combination greenhouse/chicken house in keeping with BSI's permaculture ideals. In 1998, Andy and Michelle sponsored a two week permaculture design course for their neighbours, closing the BSI during this time. Their document includes a useful definition of permaculture (which one of the volunteers I worked with at La Hesperia introduced to the management of the vegetable garden there also):
'Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way'. This is a quote from Bill Mollison, an Australian who co-founded the permaculture movement.
"Further eco-awarness at the Black Sheep Inn includes the recycling of wine and liquor bottles by building 'bottle walls'. The (wonderful) sauna, bunkhouse shower and upper bathrooms are examples of this eco-architecture. The hardest part of building a bottle wall is all the drinking you have to do first.... Large plastic containers are re-used as planters or to store milk and water. Paper makes a good mulch for the gardens as well as an alternative non-toxic window and mirror cleaner. Food scraps are composted or fed to animals (BSI has 3 huge adorable dogs) as well as chickens, guinea pigs and goats."
In 2005, Andy was elected 'King of Garbage' by Chugchilan. He is working with public officials and has purchased a small property to use as a separate facility, tree nursery and mini-landfill.
See www.EcoClub.com for information about BSI's 2006 Ecolodge Award for building a community recycling centre.
BSI manages water from four sources with admirable efficiency and zero waste. In fact there was no running water in Chugchilan until Andres and Michelle made it possible with their expertise. They use on average 2000 litres of water daily for the entire hotel. They have built ponds to increase biodiversity and to retain water on the property.
"Because of the dry composting toilets, there is no 'black water' produced at BSI. Grey water is much easier to treat and re-use. All water from showers, sinks, laundry etc is recycled. It is collected in a settling tank and put through a charcoal/rock filter system. The filtered water is then channeled through a reed bed for further nutrient absorption.The reeds produce fodder for guinea pigs, llamas and sheep. There are two 85 watt solar panels that directly power(without batteries) a shurflo submersible pump mounted on the bottom of a raft in the main pond. Even on cloudy days the pump pushes pond water over 200 feet up the hill to a reserve tank for irrigating the organic gardens. This pump also powers a 'fountain of youth' and a (very scary) 'waterslide of death' (down the hill, into the big pond, only for the brave or foolhardy! hr).
See the BSI design for a complete Alternative Energy System at http://www.blacksheepinn.com/HybridSolarWindDesign.htm"
"It is safe to eat salads at BSI" (something which is music to the ears after months of avoiding raw food in Sth America, unless personally prepared). "The terraced gardens are fertilized with animal manure and compost/red worm castings/ Plagues and insects are combatted with natural remedies such as aji (red hot chili peppers), garlic and tobacco sprays. Predatory insect repelling species (nasturtium, chamomile, cultivated lupine, calendula etc) are planted around the gardens. Inter-cropping and companion planting are continuously experimented with in true permacultural method. The greenhouse allows for warm weather vegetable production. also providing shelter and warmth for the chickens at night. The greenhouse is heated by passive solar power. 150 gallons of water are used along with think adobe walls for thermal mass. The chickens also produce heat during the night, and lay eggs first thing in the morning."
"All vegetables served in the kitchen are treated with concentrated ozone and a natural disinfectant made from grapefruit extract to kill bacteria. BSI's kitchen is safe for the most delicate of digestions. One of the goals of BSI is to increase onsite sustainable food production."
"We only use compact fluorescent lightbulbs at BSI. Conserving energy is the first step towards converting to solar and wind power. In 1994, when we purchased the property, we were already connected to the electrical grid. Our goal is to get off the grid and showcase alternative energy technologies".
(note: as I write this entry, I am in rural Nepal, where 'load-shedding' (ie. powercuts) takes place for 8 hours of every day, country-wide, due to massive overloading of the supply. Many Kathmandu homes have invested in solar panels for water-heating, but how wonderful BSI's methods would be, transported halfway around the world. I hand write this entry by candlelight, in preparation for when I can next access a computer, outside of load-shedding hours - hr)
Tree planting, reforestation & forestation at The Black Sheep Inn
"When challenged by choices of how to manage our property, we found that our problems often became our solutions. Terracing can control erosion. All over the property we dug swales (water filtration ditches built along the contours of the land) and planted the lower side of them with native trees, bushes and shrubs. The purpose of these trenches/swales is to prevent erosion and water run-off inevitable on steep slopes. Trees are planted on the bottom side of the trenches so that the root systems help to hold the swales in place while 'drinking' the water that collects in the trench. Leaves and branches which fall into the swales provide valuable organic material and help build up and create soil. The Incas terraced with rocks because they had them in abundance."
"The most common native trees planted at BSI are:
Capuli (Prunus serotina); Quishuar (Buddleia Incana); Samil (Rapanea Dependens); Yagual (Polylepes Incana); Pumamaqui (Orreopaanax spp); Racemosa (Polylepis Racemosa).
These have been interspersed with a few pine and cypress as well as Alder (Aliso), Black Walnut (Nogal) and Broom (Retana). We also have young fruit trees: apple, pear, tamarillo (tree tomato) and Black Cherry. We are experimenting with planting sub-tropical trees in microclimates, such as avocado, papaya, lime, tangerine and passion fruit."
Of particular interest is the next section from the BSI documents, especially to those of us who have noticed that Eucalyptus is an invasive tree which is making an appearance all over the planet, from its native Australia to Asia to Europe to North, South and Central America.
"The Eucalyptus trees which dominate the region were introduced to Ecuador in the late 1800s from Australia. We use Eucalyptus for construction and for firewood. We do not reforest with Eucalyptus. It can be invasive, taking over large tracts of land. It grows back like a weed from the same stump and seeds itself very easily. Eucalyptus leaves are highly acidic, damaging soils around the tree's base for years after it is gone. They also have long shallow roots that suck up all the water surrounding the tree. For these reasons, Eucalyptus makes good firewood that burns without much creosote build-up."
I could write a lot more about Andres and Michelle's life work in Chugchilan, but I think I've given some idea of the extraordinary and exciting challenge they set themselves 13 years ago. A place like The Black Sheep Inn is a lesson to us all, especially to those of us who want to 'tread lightly' and live sustainably, but cannot see our way to getting out of the system. Michelle and Andres started by jumping so far ahead of a virtually non-existent system that perhaps in one way their choice of underdeveloped location was an advantage. They are now ECO certified by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism and Ecuadorian Ecotourism Society as an Ecological Hotel. In 2006 they won an Ecolodge Award.
Horse-riding (sort-of) above the BSI
I include the BSI's mission statement and vision:
"Black Sheep Inn aims to provide a comfortable, educational experience for guests, informing them about the local area, local customs and permaculture, while contributing to and improving the local community and the natural environment. Our goal is to be a leader in environmental stability and ecotourism. When guests first arrive and walk up our driveway, our goal is to surpass their expectations." (They not only surpassed mine, they made a life-long impression on me - hr)
Land, people and culture
"Historically, people and the land they live on are inherently tied together. Native american tradition believes that people cannot own land; in fact they believe the earth owns the people who temporarily live upon it. When starting BSI, it was the first time in our lives we owned property. We knew that we must care for the land if we wanted it to sustain us."
"We believe it is important for people to maintain a connection to the planet that sustains them; to know where the foods they are eating come from; to value the resources they are consuming; to appreciate the different foods, art, music, buildings and ways of life around the world."
"Everyone on earth lives in some type of community. The particular community and world we live in sustains us and therefore we must sustain them. We are neither fanatics nor purists, yet we have become conservationists. We respect our community and the earth. We choose to tread lightly whenever possible."
To be clear about the criteria ecologically aware travellers should look for in hotels and other places claiming to be eco operations, Andy and Michelle have listed five facets which they feel represent true efforts at being ecological:
2) Low impact or 'Green' hotels
4) Meaningful community involvement
5) Environmental education and interpretation
Some readers may be interested to know that BSI welcomes volunteers to live and work at the inn.
I finish this entry with a piece of advice from the inspired creators of The Black Sheep Inn, Chugchilan, Ecuador:
"We've only got one world: care for it. Tourist - Be Aware."