By Sarah Bodley
Giovanni Ciarlo is a musician, father, craftsman and educator. Born in Morcone, Italy, he grew up in Latin America. He and his wife Kathleen Sartor split their time between a home in Watertown, Conn., and Tepoztlan, Mexico.
In the mid-1970s, Ciarlo and Sartor were part of an international theater group called “The Illuminated Elephants.” The members of the troupe were young, in their 20s and 30s. They had met each other around the world, drawn together by a common desire to do theater and a shared consciousness of social issues, especially those faced by indigenous people around the world.
This group of upstart, non-conformist artists had a vision. Ciarlo says it began with a simple thought, “We can create a community that is totally integrated with nature; use the artistic impulse to create something totally ecological.” They were motivated by a question: Can we create a village from scratch that can last for generations, and go on and thrive?
In 1982, acting on this vision, they created Huehuecoyotl – an eco-village in Tepoztlan. Ciarlo goes on, “When we created Huehue, we had to learn everything. What is natural building? How much can you use and not use? Where do you find it? Who knows how to put it together? All that sort of thing. We created Huehue with recycled water, recycled everything.”
In the late-1990s, Kathleen and Giovanni began offering introductory courses in permaculture, later offering permaculture design certificate courses. Early on, they partnered with Living Roots, a study-abroad program based in Massachusetts, to bring college students to Huehuecoyotl for hands-on education in sustainable living and design.
Giovanni never stopped learning, receiving a master’s degree in Sustainable Business and Communities (SBC) from Goddard College in 2008. He also taught there for six years. A founding member of Ecovillage Network of the Americas in 1996, in 2003 he joined the board of Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), serving as board chair from 2009-2012. GEN connects eco-village communities around the world.
An important part of their work is through Gaia Education, founded in 2005 to provide education for sustainable development. With a presence in 34 countries around the world (including Huehuecoyotl in Mexico), Gaia Education empowers students to “design a society which uses energy and materials with greater efficiency, distributes wealth fairly and strives to eliminate the concept of waste.” Through both online and hands-on learning, students are given the tools to become powerful change agents in their own communities. For anywhere from a month to a year, participants are led through four focus areas:
- Social Design – courses dealing with community, diversity, communication, & leadership, such as “Local, Bioregional and Global Outreach.”
- Economic Design – a study of alternative approaches to economic systems, with courses including “Shifting the Global Economy to Sustainability” and “Social Enterprise.”
- Ecologic Design – an in-depth focus on appropriate technologies for water and energy, organic agriculture and local food, with courses such as “Whole Systems Approach to Ecological Design” and “Green Building & Retrofitting.“
- Worldview – courses focused on holistic living, such as “Listening to and Reconnecting with Nature” and “Personal Health, Planetary Health.”
Giovanni teaches online courses for Gaia through the University of Barcelona. He continues to develop curricula for ecovillage design. Part of Giovanni’s course is to train others to go home, to teach, and organize their own courses. He recognizes that not everyone may go home and create their own ecovillage, but he encourages people to share the knowledge and understanding they gain through the program in their home countries.
Giovanni and Kathleen remain active in the arts, performing and touring with their band, Sirius Coyote, and offering Arts-In-Education programs at elementary schools in the northwest corner of Connecticut. They incorporate the principles and values of the ecovillage lifestyle into all of their work.
When asked if it’s working, Giovanni says, “Every NGO is in the same position: the nonprofit world is getting competitive in terms of salaries, people are coming out with degrees, management skills. We can improve the bottom line as well as the environmental consciousness and social equity.”
We know this, and there are plenty of reports to prove it, but it doesn’t make it easier to get people on board. Giovanni says it’s a slow process, but you “sometimes feel that there is a wave. The fact is that you look at 7 billion people and see how small the wave is. But it’s growing. What gives me a lot of encouragement is that young people are into it! Everybody’s trying to figure out, ‘how do I pursue this and make a living?’ We have to create it—we have to invent it.”