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Exploring Sustainability in the Heart of the Panamanian Jungle

This valley houses the Kalu Yala community. 

Kalu Yala, the world’s most sustainable town, is a “tropical laboratory” in Panama.

A 7,000-acre valley in the heart of the Panama tropics houses the site of Kalu Yala, a settlement on the verge of becoming the world’s most sustainable and self-reliant modern town. Just an hour from downtown Panama City, Kalu Yala is the product of CEO Jimmy Stice’s ambition to create a community that is involved in its own management. All investors must own property on the settlement, and each shareholder must be dedicated to stewardship, collaboration, and environmental awareness.

In keeping with its goal of sustainability, Kalu Yala will be carbon neutral or carbon negative. The community supports local businesses over global ones and plans to minimize imports through its farm-to-table program, which will supply 80 percent of all food from within Panama. The houses are built with eco-friendly materials and are powered by solar energy. Clean water is collected from a natural aquifer located underneath the site, and rainwater is stored in preparation for dry seasons. "Kalu Yala is really trying to become the hub for sustainability in the tropics and a ‘tropical laboratory’ to experiment and develop products that can be exported to the entire tropical belt,” Stice told Mashable. The company has even started a regional happiness index to determine how Kalu Yala will affect Panama’s wellbeing.

Part of Kalu Yala’s appeal lies in Stice’s transparent and collaborative business model. Since buying the 575 acres of land from a Panama family in 2007, he and his team have been working closely with local villages. In 2011, they bought a house in nearby San Miguel so they would be able to interact and form a relationship with the villagers who will become Kalu Yala’s neighbors. Along with development company Studio Sky, Stice has been working with a group of interns from over 44 states. Kalu Yala prides itself on its internship program, claiming to be more than the “traditional study abroad [program].” The interns, who can participate in a variety of programs including Agriculture, Biology, Architecture, and Education, are integral to the development of Kalu Yala. Students have done research on environmental challenges, pitched projects, and built infrastructure to contribute to Kalu Yala’s expansion.

Although the town is currently under construction, Stice hopes to make Kalu Yala a 21st century model of sustainability and social entrepreneurship within thirty years. Studio Sky will begin building the first house in May, with a projected completion date of November. Stice plans to adjust development as necessary, selling only twenty houses per year to monitor the impact of the growth. He hopes that Kalu Yala will provide an open-source design that can improve the situations of impoverished regions across the tropics and inspire the development of sustainable models from urban developers around the world.

Photo by Kalu Yala.