My Experience Volunteering on an Organic Permaculture Farm in Costa Rica

By: Denali Selent

Nestled in between dense patches of forest and sprawling farmland in the rural region of La Fortuna, Costa Rica, lies the farm of an extraordinary woman named Marie where I spent two weeks volunteering this past summer. The volunteer program was through Workaway, a site where people from around the globe can post a variety of volunteer and work opportunities. Marie’s farm is different from the many other farms around her for a distinct reason: she practices permaculture. In the past, I always thought that permaculture was merely a synonym for organic, or a reference to a method of farming, but I have come to understand that permaculture is so much more than that. Permaculture is a lifestyle, a lifestyle that could be key to discovering sustainable and regenerative agricultural solutions.


The sun shining through the open walls of the cabin, the distinct calls of native birds and possibly the scamper of a gecko or cockroach across the floor all served as natural alarm clocks to the start of a typical day on the farm. Alongside the other volunteers, we proceeded to gather in the kitchen to prepare breakfast, using nearly entirely all foods from the garden. This often included a big bowl of fresh banana and papaya, fresh tortillas, eggs from the farm chickens seasoned with fresh chives and cilantro and a mug of local coffee. 

After fueling up, it was time to get to work: planting seedlings, weeding, harvesting buckets of fresh fruits and vegetables, and raking up decaying leaves from the forest bed to make the perfect compost. Afternoons were filled with playing games with local kids from the neighborhood and long walks around the property to learn more about the various species that inhabited it, tasting fruits and vegetables as we went. After a typical dinner of a big bowl of veggie soup served over garden grown rice and a squeeze of fresh lime, we gathered around a big table and played Memory with cards of the local bird species to finish out the night. Life was peaceful and serene, and it’s safe to say the two weeks flew by.


Digging holes for planting banana trees.


So, what is so unique about permaculture? Permaculture spans so far beyond just gardening or farming practices. It is a holistic way of living that considers the whole ecosystem, the whole community and the whole self, alongside the common goal of producing food. Permaculture is honoring the interconnectivity of our natural world and how from this, we can flourish as sustainable communities. It is important to note that there is no clear cut definition of permaculture, and while it means something slightly different to all those who practice it, it is based on the same 12 guiding principles.


Sloths were frequent visitors to the farm.


For me, it was easiest to understand these principles through examples on Marie’s farm. One fundamental value on the farm is the idea of sharing what you yield from the Earth with others, which in turn brings benefits to yourself. For example, one of my days was spent splicing propagations of banana trees to grow new ones. This was not for human consumption, but rather to provide a food source for birds, insects and small animals. This promotes a dynamic, biodiverse ecosystem, something fundamental to the success of a permaculture farm. 

Marie also extended the principle of sharing to the local children in the community, many of whom came from unstable homes. They all gathered on the property to play games and spend time tending to their own special kids garden while simultaneously learning about permaculture. After eating a home cooked meal on Marie’s front porch, the children rarely left empty-handed, often carrying armfuls of plantains and papayas back to their families. Through this spreading of love and knowledge, Marie works to build up and strengthen her community, actions that are undoubtedly fundamental in working towards a more sustainable future.

Even the arrangement of crops in the gardens showed a reflection of nature. For example, Marie plants crops like beans, corn and squash all together in an entourage known as the “three sisters”, with all three crops mutually benefiting one another. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, the corn stalks provide a stable support for the beans to grow up around and the squash covers the ground with protective foliage from weeds and drying out. The soil on the farm was rich and nutrient-dense: not from chemically produced pesticides, but instead from a combination of food compost, repurposed decomposing cardboard boxes and fallen leaves from the forest. Repurposing and reusing are key ideas of permaculture, including finding fun and creative ways to give a second life to what would formally be considered trash.  


These practices and so many more exemplify how permaculture can be a successful tool to work with, not against, the natural world to promote healthy people, communities and environments. My time on the farm pushed me to consider the current state of our food system and how pressing it is that we reform it. Extensive amounts of environmental degradation exemplify that monocultures and mass production can’t sustain us in the long run. Slowing down to observe and learn from the world around us is key to securing a healthy future for all, with permaculture providing an incredible model to how we can do so. I can’t wait for the day I can return to the place that so quickly became like home, and spend one more day living the Pura Vida lifestyle! 


One of the beautiful sunsets we saw one night.


All photos courtesy of Denali Selent

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