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Rancho Mastatal: A Permaculture Site Overview (Costa Rica)


A view of Rancho Mastatal through the Zone 1 gardens

I’ve had the opportunity to become of one the co-directors for the Rancho Mastatal Sustainable Education Center in Costa Rica over the last five years. It is now my primary home and where I practice and teach permaculture design. The site and all that it encompasses present an established model for groups and individuals interested in building permaculture-based education/demonstration centers. I hope this graphically inclined article can serve as an introduction to this work and a base for future articles detailing our successes, challenges, ideas, and projects.

A brief history

The Rancho Mastatal Sustainable Education Center was founded in 2000 by Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, both natives to upstate New York in the United States. They originally met in Uruguay as Peace Corp volunteers, and it was in part this experience that drove them to look for land in rural Latin America. They found their spot in the tiny town of Mastatal, Costa Rica. The Ranch was envisioned as an education center from the start, and began hosting high school and university groups, accepting volunteers, and doing rural community development from year one onward. In addition to providing a site for these activities, the founders/owners set forth with the goal of generating and enlivening the rural economy through their employment practices and purchasing power.

Today the Ranch is one of the premier sites in Central America to build hands-on skills in everything from timber frame construction to natural soda fermentation to perennial polyculture design. It has become a community for many; as schools, groups, instructors, friends, and former interns/volunteers return year after year to contribute and support the project and the town of Mastatal.


One of the many swimming holes in the area provides an
opportunity to refresh after a long work day

Site specifics

The land is located in the state of San Jose, and the municipality of Puriscal in Costa Rica. It is approximately a 2.5 hour drive from the capital of San Jose and a 1 hour drive to the Pacific Ocean.

  • Elevation: 300 meters
  • Location: Latitude +9.67331, Longitude -84.37373
  • Land area: 110.72 hectares (273.47 acres)
  • Conservation: Approximately 85 hectares in conservation through private wildlife reserve status
  • Climate: Tropical monsoon climate
  • Temperature: 25-30°C (77–86°F); minimal change throughout year
  • Rainfall: 4000 to 6000 mm/year
  • Seasonality: Rain begins April/May and continues until December
    – Dry season from January to April
    – Highest rainfall month: October
    – Longest period between rainfall: 2 months
  • Topography: Moderate to very steep slopes
  • Aspect: Primary campus and farm south/southeast facing slopes, extreme microtopography
  • Water: Community managed aqueduct. Source: La Cangreja National Park
  • Day-length: 12 ½ hours of day-length, approximately ½ hour seasonal fluctuation
  • Time zone: GMT -6


Aerial imagery helps to capture some of the on ground planting patterns


La Cangreja National Park provides a steady backdrop to life in Mastatal

Local area

The town of Mastatal, named after the Mastate (Brosimum utile) tree, has a population of just over 100. The economy is a mix of subsistence agriculture, eco-tourism, forestry/timber milling, and cattle. It is a rural community, where locals ride their horses to the town bar, everyone knows everyone, and gossip and rain drive daily life.

The landscape is dominate by the peaks of La Cangreja National Park, which borders the ranch property. This location provides a unique transition (edge) between the tropical rainforest climate of the southern Pacific coast and the tropical wet/dry climate to the north. Consequently, it has one of the greatest diversity of tree species found in Costa Rica.

The area has faced intensive deforestation from logging and pasture development for cattle. Severe erosion, including the annual road blocking landslides, are the consequences of these practices.

Many of the youth in the community have been exposed to permaculture, natural building, renewable energy and more through the Ranch’s efforts. A number of successful permaculture-based, locally owned and operated businesses now exist in town, including Villas Mastatal, Finca Siempre Verde, and La Iguana Chocolate. It is the families behind these business that are driving Mastatal toward a more regenerative path of development.


La Iguana Chocolate, a local organic cacao farm, is managed by Jorge Salazar, an
inspiring leader and permaculture designer in the community


Don Chepo and his family manage the ranch kitchen, grounds, and construction projects.
They form much of the backbone of ranch life.

Income generation

The ranch is a for-profit education center, classified as a Sociedad Anonima (S.A.) in Costa Rica. This business model was chosen to demonstrate that sustainability education could be accomplished outside of the non-profit sector. In order to maintain financial viability for 14 years and running, the ranch staff offer a diverse set of educational programs.

Primarily income is derived through groups and workshops, such as:

  • middle school, high school, college and university groups arriving to study tropical ecology, rural Costa Rican life, sustainability practices, and to do community service.
  • Aerie School of Backcountry Medicine hosts a yearly Wilderness First Responder and Wilderness EMT course.
  • Permaculture-based offerings focused on natural building, renewable energy, fermentation and design.

In addition to this the ranch receives guests, sells nursery stock, and is developing a small design/build consultancy.


Many groups come to do community service work in town, such as this methane biodigestor
installation at a nearby family farm.


Our Permaculture Design Certification course brings together individuals from all around
the globe, and is an annual source of inspiration and ideas.


High school and university groups are exposed to many skills and ideas for the first
time at the ranch. Here Tim O’Hara, the founder/director, is giving an
afternoon soap-making demonstration.

Apprenticeship

The heart and soul of the ranch is our apprenticeship program, which was recently expanded to a one-year commitment. Apprentices, along with the ranch staff, drive projects forward, facilitate visiting groups’ experience, manage the bustling kitchen, and in general keep what is a rather diverse project up and running day-in and day-out.


This past year’s apprentice group cut and raised a timber-frame addition to the author’s home


Building furniture is a great way for individuals to become comfortable in the workshop.
This day bed is the end result of an apprentice project.


The apprentice crew loads into the pickup for a day trip to
the nearby indigenous reserve of Zapaton

Infrastructure

For the first eight years of operation the ranch focused on developing successful infrastructure in order to host the income-generating groups. This has created an inspiring campus, including a beautiful classroom, extensive library, and dozens of systems in place to learn from. Techniques include the use of bamboo, cob, wattle and daub, earthen plasters, tadelakt, and timber framing.


The classroom, a combination bamboo and wattle and daub structure,
provides an ideal setting for workshops and groups.


The Ranch’s most unique structure, the Hooch is an inverted bamboo
pyramid reserved for guests and instructors.


Earthen construction including cob, wattle and daub, and lime plasters play an important role
in the built environment, as can be seen in this interior view of the Choza.

Energy

The largest energy demanding infrastructure pieces, such as the classroom, workshop, and kitchen, are all grid tied. The ranch has three completely off grid houses, and three additional supplementary systems. Beyond electricity needs, the site’s primary energy systems include passive solar and Jean Pain style composting for hot water, and multiple cooking options in our kitchen in order to reduce our need for propane. These include two methane biodigestors, solar cookers, a brick and cob oven, two rocket stoves, a biochar stove, and a used-veggie oil burner.


Learning how to harvest, split, dry, and cook with firewood is a new skill for many.
It is learned quickly though when one is using the rocket stoves daily.


Solar cookers are an invaluable appliance in the tropics. A model built during
a renewable energy workshop is demonstrated here to the local high school students.

Agriculture

The last five years have seen of shift in ranch energy toward developing a regenerative agricultural system. This is based first and foremost on water management, erosion mitigation, and soil building techniques. Alley cropping, swales, vetiver grass, biochar, mass leguminous tree plantings, and coppice agroforestry are some of the practices employed. Species selection is focused on trialling under-utilized tree crops for regionally adapted, hardy sources of protein and carbohydrates.


Young cinnamon trees are put into the ground as part of an establishing agroforestry understory


A view of one of the many orchards. Bananas, a salak palm understory, mango and peach
palm overstory, and vetiver grass provide many of the elements of a well
designed permaculture system.


Many of the agricultural systems begin in the nursery, where the ranch crew has propagated
thousands of trees over last few years. Here young Acacia mangium are being weeded.

Kitchen

The kitchen is the center of life at the ranch. On average during the high season (Jan-July), 30 to 40 people are served three meals a day. The vast majority of calories are sourced within a 30 km radius. Meals are focused on whole-food preparation, with lots of fermented extras.


Homemade kefir water sodas are served at lunch daily. Fermented foods such as kimchi, fruit
wines, pickles, and more are a large part of the daily menu and the education experience.


All meals are communal at the ranch. This means events of sharing, conversation,
and full bellies are never more than a few hours away.

A model for education

This is but a brief glimpse of Rancho Mastatal and the community of Mastatal. This diverse and dynamic project continues to be a source of inspiration and knowledge for hundreds of participants and visitors a year. For those developing similar projects around the world, our hope is that you can learn from the success and challenges the ranch has experienced during the last decade plus of operation. Expect more posts about these efforts over the coming months.

Please don’t hesitate with any questions that might be useful toward your work.

12 Comments

  1. I enjoy reading all about permaculture around the world as I do not have a garden at present. I wonder is anyone in Australia working with Aboriginal people teaching them about permaculture? Perhaps they could write about it if they are doing so?

  2. How beautiful! What an inspiration it is to see all of these your folks learning how to make life better and then go out and teach others. We need farms like this so that more folks can learn. I would like to especially see more in my area of the world.

  3. wish I could leave anything here- and come and work with you there! Great place, great theme, great time for you …. wish you the best marion in spirit with fukuoka

  4. I”m writing a paper for a food security course and we have to do a permaculture design so i am wondering if you could elaborate. Specifically, what are some of these species when you say that there are “mass leguminous tree plantings,…” and
    “Species selection is focused on trialling under-utilized tree crops for regionally adapted, hardy sources of protein and carbohydrates”. Huge thanks, Nat

    1. Hi Nat, Just saw your response. Legumes: Gliricidia sepium, Erythrina sp, Flemingia macrophyllia, Shizolobium parahybum, and Acacia mangium are the principles trees/shrubs we use. Trial different ones every year though.

    2. and the main tree crops: Jackfruit, Breadfruit, Marang, Maya Nut, Sacha inchi, Okari Nut, Malabar Chestnut, Tahitian Chestnut, Olive Oil Palm, Aguaje Palm, a smattering of native understory palms used for heart of palm, Peach Palm. Those are the main species we are either introducing, trailing different varieties, breeding through a mass/phenotype selection program (Maya Nut, starting this year), and working on season extension. Hope that helps!

  5. Thank you for this informative background on Villas Mastatal. Next spring there will be course led by my friend Ian Woofenden: Solar Electricity for the Developing World, where the students will build solar arrays and bring them to Costa Rica villagers far off the grid, where students then install them – bringing electricity for the first time to these families! https://www.renewablereality.net/pvdw2017.html

  6. Hi,

    I am making a trip to Costa Rica – Aug 4 to Aug 21.

    I am very much involved with permaculture here in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

    My particular interest is transforming/repurposing the [sub]urban landscape – physical, cultural and economic.

    Would be great to connect with perma people in Costa Rica. I would be glad to make a presentation about permaculture at my 1/4 acre suburban property, my neighborhood and the Northwest.

    Could you send a contact to permaculture group[s] in San Jose or near Santa Teresa on the coast?

    Thanks!

    Jan
    suburbanpermaculture.org

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