An hour and a half from Panama City and nestled within 7,000 acres of dense jungle lies Kalu Yala, the world’s most sustainable town. Well, it will be once it’s finished. The town, which will, on completion, serve as a model for sustainable urban living, is the brainchild of Jimmy Stice, an entrepreneur with a background in real estate and marketing. Troubled by the devastating toll real estate takes on our planet’s resources, Stice embarked on an ambitious 30 year plan to show the world how to live in a regenerative fashion.
“I just want to build a place that makes sense to me,” explains Jimmy, who, backed by a slew of investors, bought the land from a cattle farming family in 2007. “Being from a real estate background, I thought, wow, there’s got to be a way this ends up making the world a better place and bringing communities together and rebuilding environments so we’re down here in Panama trying to create a model for how to build a sustainable, modern town.”
In 2009, Kalu Yala’s first college interns descended upon the site, which has since proved to be an integral part of the town’s development. Kalu Yala, which means ‘Sacred Village’ in the indigenous Kuna language, now offers multiple different internship programmes, including agriculture, biology, business, public health and wellness and community development. Stice enables the students to apply what they’ve learned during their studies into practice, and in return the students are literally helping develop the town from the ground up; designing and building compost toilets, running water showers and “ranchos” – open air thatched huts, to name but a few. Indeed, thanks largely to the internship programmes, the site is now fully solar and hydro powered and 85% of the food they consume is sourced within footsteps of the camp, decreasing the need for importation.
“We say, ‘what are you going to do? What are you going to contribute? How are you going to do it?’ We really facilitate you accomplishing your goals for our community,” says Stice, who gives the interns a free reign but helps make sure they make the right decisions along the way. “We’ve got this very innovative spirit,” adds Brigitte Desvaux, operations director, chef and former Kalu Yala intern. “Different backgrounds and skill sets are coming together to figure out what sustainability means in this environment, and how we can understand the land before anyone develops on it.”
Indeed, the plan is to build just 20 houses per year on the site over the course of 30 years, with the team focusing on quality as opposed to quantity. “We’ve designed our company and its finances to not be in a hurry like everyone else’s, choosing to do things well instead,” reads the website.
Ultimately, Stice’s missions is for Kalu Yala to become the hub for sustainability in the tropics, and become a ‘tropical laboratory’ to experiment and develop products that can be exported to the entire tropical belt around the world. “There’s that old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ he concludes, “But we like to say, ‘If they come, they will build it.'”