Since 2010, Kalu Yala has been encouraging people from all over the world to build a new kind of village. We speak to founder Jimmy Stice about the challenges he’s faced so far.

Since 2010, Kalu Yala has been encouraging people from all over the world to build a new kind of village. We speak to founder Jimmy Stice about the challenges he’s faced so far.

As we stroll through urban labyrinths packed with apartment blocks, gentrified neighbourhoods and giant commercial centres, it’s easy to start dreaming of a different way of life.

The impact these developments have had on our socio-economic environment, and on nature, has sparked a global spread of alternative lifestyle movements: all led by visionaries with a belief in a future based on conservation and community spirit.

One such visionary is Jimmy Stice, the CEO and founder of Kalu Yala – an educational institute and eco-camp built on 700 acres of land in the Panamanian jungle, set to become the world’s most modern sustainable town.

Jimmy is redefining the typical town model by aligning profit with developmental practises – “Real Estate 2.0,” as he likes to call it. The premise is simple: “A town isn’t a real estate project, it’s a platform for people to build on.”

Kalu Yala - Town Sketch Kalu Yala - Political Science

Since 2010, the Kalu Yala Institute has welcomed hundreds of students from 25 countries and 150 colleges to conduct research studies in fields ranging from Intensive Permaculture and Rainforest Ecology to Design Thinking, Outdoor Recreation and Farm-To-Table Culinary Arts. Throughout each semester, students are given the materials and space needed to create communal and personal projects that will serve to realise this town in line with their core values: to aid the local economy, minimise their carbon footprint and maximise a sense of community.

“Most towns were founded by young people because building a town is back-breaking work in harsh environments,” Stice tells Huck. “We started with an institute because it actually parallels how most towns were founded, but in a 2018 context.”

“Kalu Yala is funded through tuition; we don’t need a return on investment. Our whole model is based on job creation – if you’re going to be in the one per cent, you better make sure you employ 99 people in jobs of purpose and give them financial security in order for you to have yours.”

Alumni and staff work at local health clinics and four different schools in Panama and the San Martin County, which has allowed them to build a strong relationship with their neighbouring communities. While 80 per cent of the food at Kalu Yala is plant-based and grown on the premise or neighbouring gardens, beef, cheese and pork are purchased from small local businesses “across the river” (though students are currently looking into practical alternatives for animal proteins).

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Food is prepared and served by culinary arts professionals and students at the Public House, or Nueva Vista, Kalu Yala’s own farm-to-garden fine-dining restaurant run by Chef Brigitte Desvaux. Aaron Blaser, a student, opened the Curioso coffee shop – coffees are roasted on-site with biochar producing 81.6 per cent less emissions than a standard cup of coffee. A hiking company, Tres Brazos Outfitters – started by a former intern, Henry Heyman – offers guided tours through the Jungle of the Tres Brazos Valley.

“We opened the doors to the public this month and will be hosting 20 kids from Panama’s King’s College over the weekend,” Stice explains. “Within the coming months, we’ll start work on our first house.”

It’s clear Stice is passionate about everything Kalu Yala is set out to become, and he’s doing his utmost to drive the project forward. But it’s not always easy to convince others that the purpose of the soon-to-be jungle town is not to promote escapism, but a tangible, everyday reality. In last year’s Vice-produced documentary series, Jungletown, Kalu Yala was scrutinised heavily over the integrity of its ideals, with questions raised over the effectiveness of its ecosystem.

For Stice, this only emphasised the importance of creating an open, honest dialogue surrounding the topic of alternative lifestyles and communities.

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“The great challenge is to prove that it’s not just possible, but feasible and practical – that there is a narrative that is hopeful, that is inclusive, and that has a path to realising a socially, environmentally and economically fulfilling life,” he says. “I’m from Atlanta, I understand what it’s like to grow up around people who think these ideas are weird. But even independent thinkers and those at the opposite end of the political spectrum start to have a lot of strange overlap. That doesn’t mean that they’re not still in conflict ideologically, but if they’re willing to listen to each other they can dramatically improve both one another’s ideas and their outcome through dialogue.”

“I’m 35 years old and I live in a tent,” he adds. “I’ve been fighting the fight for 10 years now. I have no intention of quitting until we’ve proven that the model works. My goal is to make it a beautiful enough place for me to raise my children in – kids who can compete with anyone in the world but have the exposure of thought that places like Kalu Yala encourage through their practices.”

Learn more about Kalu Yala on the official website.

Follow Roxanne Sancto on Twitter.

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