The permaculture solution: Interview with Pepe Blanco – I’LÊ Permacultura

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June 26th., 2013

We met Pepe for this interview at the Ki’Bok coffee shop in town. An enthusiastic 48 years old man in a beard with a youthful energetic look, Pepe has been living in Tulum for the last 12 years of his life, doing permaculture projects and construction at his company I’LÊ Permacultura. Originally a musician and a drummer for Que payasos!, a popular kids rock band back in the 80’s, Pepe’s green eyes have seen a lot, including failed ecology citizen efforts in the past. “They did so because the group objectives were to big and could not be met. People get discouraged by the lack of results and leave”. But he has never left since he arrived from Mexico City with his stuff in a U-haul tow trailer back in 2005, and continues strive as an individual and professional for Tulum’s alternative  offer to remain true, that of being a real and preferred, sustainable eco-tourism destination in the world (see “Can Paradise be Sustainable?”) , that does not go the way of large hotel chain and cities that other places in the Maya Riviera have turned into in the recent years.“It is better to be clear and recognise that we have many challenges and opportunities to tend to in Tulum, than to try to hide the sun with a finger, you know”, he says.

How is it that you came to Tulum to live?

In addition to having played ten years in a band, I did radio and TV production in Mexico City and got into advertising as well, where I worked for several years until I realised I did not believe on it anymore. We were putting all this creativity into campaigns meant to create needs that people did not have and letting them buy stuff that was useless. We started talking in a group of friends about buying some land and moving out of the City and the Matrix. I did. After 5 years of dreaming, I finally closed all my circles and attachments back in the city, picked up all my stuff and simply drove all the way to Tulum.

Why permaculture?

Several years prior to moving out of Mexico City, I got into an International Permaculture Design Certification programme that was given by no one else than Max Lindegger, who had in turn worked with Bill Mollison in building the Habitats Award winning Crystal Water Permaculture Village.

Permaculture is a design system for a permanent culture that was developed in the 1970’s by the Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a creative design system and as a practical philosophy for the creation of human settlements that are ecologically sustainable and economically viable.

Observing and interacting with nature is permaculture’s first principle: care of Earth, care of people, and fair sharing are its ethics.

Permaculture works with plants, animals and structures (constructions, roadways, water, energy, communications), but does not focus on these elements in particular, but rather in the healthy relationships between them and on how we can promote and support them through design and location of each component in the landscape.

For every region under study, permaculture is based on a careful observation [The name I’LÊ in Pepe’s brand comes from Maya to “observe] of its natural resources and on traditional wisdom of ancient cultures when available. These observations are combined with modern knowledge and technology, that enable us to take into account prevailing sun radiation, rainfall, soil characteristics and its flora and fauna, in order to generate live self-regulated systems that increase people’s quality of life and that contribute to preserve the natural environment of that region.

Once you understand that everything is connected, you never stop finding connections everywhere. Permaculture has a body of well proven techniques, some of which have been around for centuries. I keep on studying and discovering new stuff everyday.

Personally I am passionate of water and construction, and that has being my expertise area, but permaculture is not only about growing food, managing water or building structures, is also about social relationships, called invisible structures, which I believe are the most important issue to address and permaculture does this well.

The cities development and growth have great impact on the natural environment; permaculture’s objective is to reduce such impact by designing and building habitable spaces and sustainable developments that protect the ecosystems and that ensures the conservation of resources for present and future generations.

By merging contemporary architecture with traditional building forms and techniques to integrate the landscape with energetic productivity and efficiency, technology, functionality and aesthetics in harmony with the natural environment, sustainable projects can be developed; projects that will satisfy human needs such as: health, education, employment, personal development and social justice, on self-sufficiency conditions.

With these concepts we are trying to change the way in which we design and build habitable spaces in Tulum, creating sustainable and profitable projects that offer the certainty of design and develop living spaces for a healthier lifestyle that are committed with the planet’s future, which is without doubt, the best alternative to develop the XXI century’s human settlements, promoting a more intimate, productive, understanding and interactive relationship with our own home: Mother Earth.

So what do you believe are Tulum’s challenges?

Lack of roots or sense of belonging is one of the challenges, for sure.

We are a town of immigrants really, and have been so in the last years. But this fact is also changing as it gets populated by multicultural kids all over. It is also changing due to the minded citizens that get together to preserve Tulum and its biodiversity, like “Red Comunidad Tulum” movement and others are doing now. We cannot afford to stop.

One thing I’ve come to learn out of previous experiences with ecology movements is that it is better to have small practical goals that can be achieved with ease and measured, so participants get the sense of achievement needed to keep on doing it. And this is exactly one of permaculture’s principles: small & slow solutions, that is, have small improvements and allow time enough for them to happen. This is why nothing was executed out of the citizen working tables organised back in 2006. Too many people, too big unachievable goals.

I consider the very fundamental area of opportunity in Tulum to be water. The quality of water cannot be kept safe in the absence of rules and law regulations and current population growth trend. Other factors that further complicate matters are the lack of a water culture and an early-on education programme to raise awareness, and that composting toilets and other alternative and more efficient eco techniques are not approved at present time in the State of Quintana Roo, mostly due to poor early implementations.

We are also working to revert this with hard data on our integral composting systems performance running water quality lab tests.

Could you tells us more about your recent projects?

Sure. We have been designing and building houses with my business partner architect Carlos Alamillo and developing integral water management solutions with a sister company called Kuxa’an ha (Maya for “living water”) for household use, from rain water collection to composting toilets and constructed wetlands, “From the clouds to your garden”.

These are operating well in several projects in the jungle surrounding Tulum, such as in the “Los Arboles” development, a 520 ha gated area West of Tulum, with 220 lots, 2 Ha each where only 5% can destined to construction; 95% of the whole project is about conservation of the jungle.

We have being improving composting toilets designs. Now we are evolving into flush toilets along the design lines of the clivus type of composting system that separate solids, soap and grease to be composted, leaving just water to be treated by the constructed wetland thereafter, finishing the cycle in a surface irrigation system over a mulch garden creating a beautiful and healthy landscape

The design is working really well and we are tuning it better as we monitor water quality along every stage in the constructed wetland. Key factors of success are a steep gradient, the proper type of plants and the substrate itself.

The following diagram shows how:


click for a full view image


Our designs are inspired on Danish Clivusmultrum (Clivus for inclined in Latin and Multrum for box in Danish) company ideas, which have been around in Europe since the beginning of the 20th century.

You can through toilette paper into the bathroom and also use it for both, urine as feces.  These concept works with cold and slow composting, that creates fertile soil at the end of the healing process (sun drying and adding ash to correct pH).

Flush composting toilet’s costs are very similar than the standard commercial flush toilet, when you consider that a septic tank has to be built anyway for the latter.

Is sustainability a luxury item?

No. it is not. I believe this is actually a focus problem that our current consumer society has. The same system that has turned poor people into people that feel miserable [by not being able to have all the goods they would like to but do not need to own].

Before the urban poverty-miserable situation, people worked the land and had all they needed to sustain themselves in a healthy manner. In a sense they were richer. To my 95 years old grandmother who still lives in her land in the State of Michoacan where my family comes from, permaculture is just another fancy word for what she has always been doing there to live well, among crops, chickens, etc.

Town citizen’s sustainability can only be brought about by education.

Our current education system does no good either. Some schools prepare kids to be workers and other institution to be owners, but neither are changing the education paradigm in our country. We need to teach people to learn on how to think instead of memorising everything. If we do not change this, we will continue lacking a vision of the future.

Tulum has had its go of new alternative thinking schools. Some have not been able to endure, but others have managed to do so. One recent example is the little summer school at Ik Balam sustainable development (15 Km West of Tulum) where children are discovering themselves, their senses and their relation to earth, soil, crops and what they eat.

So how do we do it then? How can we achieve the common citizen’s sustainability? No proper education, no roots, consumer society, less than 11.5% sewage town coverage…

Well, the only mid term solution, say at a macro level, is to continue laying out the classical sewage network and attain 100% household connection to the network that pumps this into Tulum’s town central waste water treatment plant [now operating at 1% of its 120L/s capacity according to “Foro del Agua” June 18th., 2013 meetings in Tulum]. This has to happen in all neighbouring towns in the Municipality [there are 3 more plants at different towns but they operate marginally. source: same “Foro del Agua” meetings] for the solution to work, since underground water is completely interconnected.

Unfortunately the water treatment solution does not address the change of mindset and culture that needs to take place in Tulum’s inhabitants if they are to keep this place healthy. Citizens are not aware of their own responsibility and accountability for underground water pollution. It also does not solve the fact that most rainwater is not seized and gets mixed immediately with waste water as it falls.

Citizens at home should be doing rainwater collection, using this resource wisely, treating waste water on-site and reutilising it – not pouring down straight into the aquifer again.

Rebuilding a town that was not originally thought to be sustainable is out of the question as a measure that can be viable at all. But rebuilding is an option that should complement the citizen efforts per household I mentioned. This can be done by state or federal tax incentives, financing to the town and, education.

I have seen it many times; People change their attitude and take hold of their responsibility wherever I put a composting toilet. It is like they suddenly get it!

Pepe, if you were to bet in only one solution, which would it be?

Declaring the Peninsula a Permaculture’s Zone 5, that is, making it all a reserve.

Since this is not going to happen. I’d say Education is the only way.

Final thoughts?

Water is our most precious asset. The way people see water when dealing with housing is as a transport to get rid of waste. This is a common belief and it is also a serious misconception. We need to change this. The least water we use for this the better and, water needs to be recovered out of waste, treated and re-used, not injected or drained back directly.

Every time we flush a standard toilet we do it without any remorse. It’s like water makes us forget anything we throw in there.

We cannot change this consumer system. Money rules. But we can change what do we apply money in. We can choose to invest in education, recycling, clean energy, bettering our environment or buying fancy cars, weapons, drugs and the like. It is this we need to pay attention to.

I believe in sustainable regeneration rather than sustainable development, which to me is an oxymoron. We need to develop business models for the sustainable regeneration of our environment. This is investing to make profits out of pollution, trash and associated remediation.

Separate, and through into the dump? No. Separate, re-use, re-cycle. More ideas? Have community projects where plants grow on compost soil and are used for our town streets and gardens.

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“The permaculture solution: Interview with Pepe Blanco” by Mona Deutschmann & Juan Ayza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License


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