photo albulm from Holly's volunteer experience at madre selva April 2003

1. Madre Selva Overview

2. Madre Selva Instituto de Permacultura

3. Volunteering at Madre Selva

4.Student Program Madre Selva

5. Madre Selva Funding Proposal, May, 2000 

6. Project Report, August  2000

7. A letter from Helen Gilmour, Australian volunteer, 1/2001

8. Project Report, February  2001

9. Project Report, April  2001

10. Pictures from  Madre Selva  1. Cynthia 2. Holly

11. Project Report, April  2001



Madre Selva Instituto de Permacultura is a project that aims to bring sustainable agriculture (tropical permaculture) to the coastal region of Ecuador. It is a demonstration site and education centre where people can see, touch, taste and study the fruits of 9 years labour of living permaculture. Madre Selva is also a site for trialling varieties of useful plants from all over Ecuador and the tropical world for distribution
in the region.

The project began in 1992 with the purchase of 5 hectares of typical pasture land on the edge of the pueblo of San Lorenzo, a town that serves a population made up of Afro Ecuadorian and indigenous Awa and Chachi people. The town lies within the Choco, one of the regions of most biological diversity on Earth, containing lowland tropical jungle and the tallest mangrove systems in the world. Increasing land use for African Palm Plantations in the region are having the double edged effect of loss of biodiversity, and the movement of many people from their rural lives to the town where many find themselves without money to buy food. Madre Selva was established to demonstrate a sustainable alternative of small scale intensive agriculture for this region. The first phase of the project realized completion of building site infrastructure, improving soils and reforesting the land with nitrogen fixing legumes and a vast array of tropical trees and shrubs for fruits, spices, medicines, timbers, crafts and other uses. During this time local staff were sucessfuly trained in permaculture and on ground site management. Several courses in permaculture were also offered to the community including one especially for women. Excellent community relations were established during this time. (For more info. on project history and future plans click on : Funding Proposal)

In January of the year 2000 a new group of Australian permaculture volunteers arrived to facilitate further evolution of the project. This phase has involved reparation of site infrastructures (which had degraded in the tropical environment), improvement of plant trialling and distribution systems and development of a seed bank, project assessment and planning for future activities, and community outreach and education. Currently Australian volunteers Holly Shiach and Be Ward are based at Madre Selva working alongside local staff Frisman Medina, Aldelmo and Mauro C in these activities. Cindy Mathys from Chicago Botanical Gardens is expected to arrive in March, along with Richard and Ang, 2 more plant people from Australia. Workers meet to create monthly and weekly work plans and work from 7am - 1pm five days a week inthe variety of activities of the Institute.

In Ecuador, it only costs about $US25/week each to support volunteers like Holly. This project is sponsored by RIC, Seed Savers, Thursday Plantations, The Beach Hotel and many individuals.

Tax-deductible donations may be sent to: Rainforest Information Centre PO Box 368 Lismore NSW 2480 AUSTRALIA


FROM VOLUNTEERS Holly Shiach, Helen Gilmour and Shine Mietzal 

San Lorenzo has incredible energy, always active, always music, always dancing, always hot. The people are friendly, curious, and everybody is an extrovert, so meeting people hasn't been too tricky! There have been bumps and hurdles for us volunteers, as we have navigated our way into this new world, a littl naïve, a little blind, and always with much to learn. Fond memories of past Australian volunteers here have inspired some faith and patience with us by the community. As we immersed deeper into the life of this community, we did seem to reach a point of acceptance, where suddenly everything got easier and began to flow. Nowadays we feel familiarity and even a little routine in our work here. People call out to us in the street, we stop for chats here and there, make visits, and seem to be getting more and more visitors to the Institute every day. We feel confident, positive and enthused by the progress of this project.

Madre Selva is really an inspirational place. The food forests here are diverse and abundant, a living seed bank. It is a great place to start this work. The Institute has a great reputation, and the ripple effects of past education work here are evident all around: in neighbourhood gardens, in return visitors, in the high level of awareness in many people of this community who show a keen interest in permaculture, fruit trees, and alternatives to monoculture.

In recent years the Institutes activities had declined, so our presence here has enabled something of a rebirth of activities and spirit. We all feel our efforts in contributing to this resource are valuable. Our work seems clearly cut out for us, building on what has been achieved, to improve the Institute's functions as a centre for plant materials and education. 

With the encroachment into the rainforests and indigenous community lands by vast African Oil Palm plantations and shrimp farms, education around sustainable land use in this area is ever more valuable.

So, all goes well, work goes more or less according to plan, with lots of lateral thinking and problem solving along the way. Volunteers are healthy and happy and thriving on the journey.

Muchisimo gracias again for your support.

Adios for now,

Holly Shiach, Helen Gilmour and Shine Mietzal

 Our postal address:

Madre Selva Institutio de Permacultura
 Correo San Lorenzo
 San Lorenzo,  Esmereldas,  Ecuador


*Established home base at Madre Selva Instituto de Permacultura
*Established mandala gardens
*Rebuilt nursery facilities which were badly degraded
*Commenced regular compost making mission!
*Undertaking of investigation of local seed system
*Familiarisation with local culture and agriculture
*Networking in the community
*Identification of relevant strategies for project site
*Commenced monthly trialling of seed varieties
*Commenced seeking local varieties
*Commenced multiplication of plant materials
*Commenced regular improvement and maintenance of site for its role in demonstration and inspiration
*Commenced regular work with local womens permaculture group
*Employment of Aldelmo and Frisman, original project staff, one day a week
*Established Seed Bank materials and systems
*Retrofitted office for Seed Bank functions
*Learnt the salsa!
*Ordered extra materials needed
*Commenced development of educational materials
*Regular participation in the local "minga" community work day
*Facilitated a team assessment process and writing of a site and operational assessment of Madre Selva
*Participated in regular team meetings
*Undertaken evaluation of the first period of the project
*Undertaken planning for the next project period

FUNDING IS STILL NEEDED FOR THIS PROJECT:  Please contact at us or click here for further information.:  Funds pay for tools, nursery items, trainings, phone and fax, internet, postage, living expenses


Madre Selva Site and Operational Assessment July 2000

Evaluation Team
  Major Findings
Approximate costings for priority activities
  General conclusions

Objectives of this assessment
  To gain a broad perspective of the current
status of the Madre Selva Instituto de Permacultura
  To assess the project in terms of progress
toward its goals.
  To provide base information for the
formulation of a working plan.
  To provide base information from which parent
organisations can determine actions.

Evaluation team
The evaluation team consisted of:
Frisman Medina- Manager Madre Selva
Aldelmo - Staff of Madre Selva
Shine Mietzal - Volunteer
Holly Shiach - Volunteer
Helen Gilmour - Volunteer

Major Findings

The initial development stage of Madre Selva, years 1992 – 1996 saw the achievement of a monumental effort in planning and implementation of the Permaculture Institute project infrastructure in the isolated town of San Lorenzo. The accomplishment of physical work during this time is a credit to all involved, truly an effort of "moving a mountain". Four years have passed since previous project managers Ali and Gavin moved on and handed management over to the community. Original project staff have remained committed in heart to Madre Selva, and have made an enduring effort to safeguard the site and its infrastructure despite a lack of wages and project support over this time.

Activities and maintenance have been basic, and facilities generally are run down and damaged. It feels as though the place has been in a long, deep rest.


Presently Frisman and Aldelmo are employed by Gabrielle to work on his project in San Martin for 6 days a week, and are not undertaking work at Madre Selva. Living on site presently are Shine Mietzal, Helen Gilmour, Holly Shiach and Gabrielle. Shine is working as a volunteer on repairing the centre’s infrastructure and improvement of hands on management of the centre. Holly and Helen are working as volunteers to improve the local seed system, by strengthening current activities into a more efficient and broad reaching system of Seed Bank and Plant Materials Network, and are preparing to offer training in growing, processing and storage of seed and plant materials for propagation, and training a small team in management of Seed Bank and Plant Materials Network. Gabrielle is working on a project in Barrio San Martin.


All tracks and paths, and the driveway entrance are at least ankle deep in mud (consistently) and in need of a new strategy. A town sewage project has created a 1 metre wide water channel along the road and across the front entrance, so to enter Madre Selva now requires leaping over the channel into mud!


The buildings are generally in good condition. The roof of the main building lets in some rain due to the angles. Some of the floorboards in the main building are rotting, but most should last a bit longer. Gabrielle has partitioned the long front room in the main building into two rooms. The front room now functions as his office, and the back room as storage. The kitchen floor is badly degraded and unhygenic with many cavities in the concrete collecting garbage. The dining room floor has the same problem. One shower is complete (but without water) and other three remain unfinished. The outside doors for the composting toilets are rotted and broken.


The centre is well known locally. The community has continued to use the centre as a resource base for purchasing plant and seed materials for propagation, and also to purchase fruits. Without permanent staff on site however, community use has declined, and, local people regularly enter the grounds and take for themselves. The muddy access and "moat" by the front gate is a major limitation to community use.


Mattresses and bedding and mozzie nets are in good condition. The kitchen has most basic equipment, but is in need of some extra basics. There are no chairs. The triciclo and wheelbarrow are broken. Tools remaining are mostly broken.


The outer wire fence for the main site is in good condition, however pigs can enter underneath the fence. The fencing around the guardian house site is damaged.


Income has consisted of monies from sales of fruits and plant materials, payment for accommodation by visitors, volunteer contributions, rent from Gabrielle and a donation sent by Anya. Incoming monies have been distributed between the workers, as well as paying for electricity. Records of financial activities are recorded in a log book. Currently there is some project money for materials and activities of the seed bank and network, not including expenses for repairing the site, or paying wages.


Gardens have disappeared. The mandala gardens and beds near the buildings have recently been revived by volunteer staff.


The nursery has been completely overgrown with weeds and all of the wood has rotted away. The area has been cleared.


The orchards are productive and healthy, and have supplied fruit for sale by Frisman, and also to members of the community who have entered the grounds to harvest/ steal what is available. Trees have been pruned by Shine over the last few months. There is room for more trees.


The centre has been tended over the past four years by Frisman, Mauro and Aldelmo. They have undertaken some basic maintenance, for example, slashing orchards, maintaining security of assets, maintaining records of work undertaken and of visitors and customers. The morale of the workers is low, with grumblings over lack of wages and support available over past four years. Frisman is not prepared to continue without a wage. Aldelmo was happy with the previous arrangement of living in the house, and would like to return there. Mauro is currently employed in Playa del Oro. Frisman and Aldelmo currently are employed by Gabrielle but will recommence here as soon as there is a wage.


Gabrielle has rented a bodega for a minimal fee over the last 4 years. He has two bodegas, one in the main building which is used as an office, and one in the guardians house. He has also used the kitchen facilities daily to prepare meals for 6 people, for which no rent has been charged. Services provided to him by volunteer staff without charge include garbage and compost removal, purchase and transport of gas for food preparation daily for 6 people, electricity, cleaning and washing. Chemicals are being used on site by Gabrielle to treat bamboo for his project. Technically, his rental contract expired in February 2000, with the culmination of his last project.

Other people have visited and stayed for short periods of time in order to gather plant materials, observe the centre as a model, and also simply as a place to stay in San Lorenzo. Some volunteers have stayed and worked for short periods since the arrival of Shine.


The water system is completely damaged and disfunctional. All tanks bar one are broken. Electricity remains OK, with only local disruptions that are usual for the area. Extra fixtures are required for the main building to enable lights to be switched on individually. Solar panels are OK but the batteries are degraded beyond repair, rendering the system unusable.


The house is in reasonable condition. There are some floorboards rotting around the verandah. The tanks are in good condition, but are not connected to the house. State of electric wiring is uncertain. The grounds are overgrown, although fruit trees remain productive. Composting toilets are damaged and not currently useable. Animal housing is deteriorating. Gabrielle currently uses the bodega for storage. The neighbours pigs are a problem for this site.



The institute is an excellent living seed bank of fruit trees.  Site infrastructure is well designed, an with repairs done, lends itself to many possible future uses. Proximity to, and good relations with the community. Good relations with agricultural colleges. Reputation as source for plant materials. The Institute is a living example and inspiration for alternatives to unsustainable land use.

Aldelmo and Frisman are deeply connected and committed to the project. Together they have excellent skills and knowledge in site maintenance, nursery management, administration and community liaison. The extended community of friends of Madre Selva, e.g. Edith, Victor, Mauro also represent highly skilled and valuable connections.

The collective feeling in the community about the centre is very positive, people remember the "old days" with great fondness, and are positive about a regeneration of spirit here.


Lack of planning for financial sustainability. Staff not trained in project management skills, e.g. planning and development skills. Low staff morale due to reported lack of organisational support. No income = no employed staff = no maintenance of site = debilitation of infrastructure. When site is disused much equipment has been stolen. When the site is disused, the community develops a habit of harvesting for themselves from the site. Produce could otherwise be creating an income for the Institute.


* Train staff in project management skills e.g., project planning and development, so that they can take a more active role in determining and implementing future directions for the Institute.

* Investigate, plan and implement strategies and a working plan for income production on site, for more financial security and sustainability.

* Outreach work with communities in area, in education and distribution of planting materials.

*  Offer internships for both foreign and local students. The fee for foreign students could subsidize costs for local interns, as well as contribute to a local wage for staff.

* Plan an annual on site and extension education program.

* Tap into market of foreign volunteers/ wwoofers who can make financial contribution for staff wages, and contribute through work.


* No staff on site = no project activity. Without staff or activities on site project security is threatened. Eg. current invasion of Madre Selva including clearing of trees for house sites.

* Lack of planning for financial sustainability. Reliance on external donations of money makes the project vulnerable.  Financial insecurity leads to periods of disuse. In this time systems, facilities, equipment, and staff morale degenerate, and resurrection is energy intensive and expensive.

Pigs entering the site damage gardens

1. Installation of a large cement pipe to channel sewer water, pathing over the top with gravel. This would improve safety and allow access by foot, triciclo and car.
2. Scraping back of mud from driveway access ( to be
used in compost), and replacing with gravel or other
available coarse material.

Main building:
1. Enclose stairs for extra storage space.
2. Build in shelving and bench in room created behind stairs.
3. Build shelving and bench into new storage room.
4. To improve the office to enable its function as a base for Seed Bank and Plant Materials Network, build
in shelving and extra table, and build seed drying racks outside the office.
1. The cement floor needs replacing. Fill holes with cement and pave the whole kitchen floor with strong
plastic flooring (e.g.. Linoleum) which can be swept daily and has no crevices to gather dirt and food.
Dining room: 
1. Research appropriate material for flooring, and resurface the floor.
2. Close in vertical edges with fine wire mesh.
Showers and latrines:
1. Build new outside hatches for composting toilets in durable material, e.g.. tin.
2. Finish tiling and plumbing of second shower.
3. Paint back wall near to dining room with ochre lime wash.
1. Replace broken locks and improve security fittings.

Community Participation and Involvement
1. Employ local staff full time, and train them in project management to enable more skills and confidence to manage the Institutes activities
2. Improve site access to enable community access to site.
3. Improve and maintain grounds to function as demonstration site.
4. Establish membership structure for Seed Bank and Plant Materials Network.
5. Promote activities of centre through regular column in local newspaper and promotion of events on radio.
6. Set up internship program.
7. Develop annual plan for educational courses and events on site, and by extension.

1. Purchase new heavy duty triciclo from Santa Domingo, to enable undertaking of basic activities.
2. Purchase machetes, hammer, wood saw, pruning saw, trowels, buckets, drum for liquid manure, sealable
buckets, chairs, stationary, kettle, tupperware, pressure cooker, spoons and other necessary items.
3. Maintain a kitty for purchases as equipment degrades or new needs arise.

1. Add extra stakes and wire to the fence for extra height to prevent entry of thieves.
2. Planting of a living fence to strengthen the existing wire fence and prevent entry of pigs. Use
spiny plants such as pineapple, chonta, salak palm, and other fast growing dense species such as hibiscus, brazillian cherry, siguelo. Planting materials exist on site.

1. CIBT/RIC to provide emergency funds for basic needs of site now to prevent further project degeneration,
to make use of current volunteer time and energy and to support the projects progress towards its goals.
2. CIBT to seek funding for activities outlined for years 2000 - 2002.
3. Increase rent for Gabrielle to cover use of bodega, office, facilities, services, utilities and kitchen.
4. Improve plant network activities to create income to pay a wage.
5. Develop volunteer program to generate income. 
6. Develop internship program to generate income.
7. Develop plan for eco tourism, and seek major funding for this activity.
8. Train local staff in project management to improve confidence and skills in managing the Institute toward some financial self sufficiency.

1. Revival for original purposes, plus trialing of introduced varieties and multiplication of seed for the Seed Bank and Network.
2. Maintain compost systems.

Guardian House
1. Prune vegetation on site.
2. Undertake carpentry work to repair verandah and compost toilet and animal housing.
3. Refit water and electricity connections.
4. Repair fencing.
5. Invite Aldelmo to move in exchange for some work.

1. Resurrect surfaces as described under Paths section.
2. Rebuild all nursery structures.
3. Begin program of grafting.

1. Prune as necessary.
2. Clear weeds.
3. Source new varieties of planting materials.
4. Plant in gaps.

1. Scrape back mud (use in compost), dig drainage channels and fill with rocks or gravel. Once the triciclo is repaired, sawdust can be imported for path surfaces near the buildings and in the nursery.
2. The major paths between buildings would benefit from raising with gravel and paving with brick or stone.
3. Build wooden steps for access to main building.

Seed Bank
1. Improve office facilities as described under buildings section, to facilitate seed bank and plant
network activities.
2. Improve site gardens and establish seed bank to function as model for  community demonstration.
3. Establish Plant Materials Network infrastructure, i.e. administrative and educational materials and systems.
4. Trial and multiply tropical varieties not yet grown in area, extending the availability especially of vegetables and herbs.
5. Generate community interest in the network by promotion.
6. Offer training programs on site and by extension in  communities.
7. Improve distribution to communities by extension work.
8. Train project manager.

1. Employ Frisman full time to manage nursery, buildings and infrastructure and community relations.
2. Employ Aldelmo full time to manage grounds.
3. Employ local person full time, or two part time, to coordinate educational activities.
4. Train staff in project management.
5. CIBT to maintain regular communications with project staff and offer support by seeking funds,
undertaking research, pricing, purchasing and tasks from Quito base, (for example pricing and purchase of
water tanks), networking, placing foreign volunteers. Regular visits are recommended.

1. Write rental agreement for tenancy which specifies use of space and utilities, rental fee, fees for
services, and priorities for the Institutes facilities.

1. Rewire electricity in main building to enable one light to be on at a time.
2. Install light in toolshed and kitchen.
3. Purchase new battery for solar system, and refit.
4. Install phone.

1. Purchase new tanks for stand.
2. Build ferro cement reservoir under tank stand. 
3. Purchase and fit guttering from main building to top tanks for gravity fed water supply.
4. Purchase and install piping and connections from tanks to house.
5. Purchase and install tank, piping and connections for washing area.

1. CIBT/RIC to provide emergency funds for implementation of basic needs of site to prevent further degeneration of project, and to progress toward realization of the projects goals while there
is skilled and committed volunteer time and energy available.
2. CIBT/RIC to seek funds for activities outlined.
3. Improve access to site as described. This will enable the realization of many other activities.
4. Purchase triciclo. This will enable the realization of many other activities on site.
5. Repair and improve water system. This will enable volunteers to continue living on site during dry season, and the continuation of activities.
6. Rebuild nursery to enable basic activities of Institute.
7. Purchase of equipment to enable basic activities.
8. Repair guardian house and invite Aldelmo to move in, to maintain a staff presence on site, to improve
security and prevent invasions of Madre Selva. Rent could be negated for the exchange of some grounds
maintenance work until a wage is available.

Approximate costings
for priority activities in $US
Front gate access
Materials: $150 Employment: 2 workers for 2 days $20
Total cost: $170
Track access
Materials: $650 Employment: 2 workers for 5 days $50
Total cost: $700
Materials: $320 Total cost: $320
Materials: $2000 Employment: 2 workers for 15 days
$150 Total cost: $2150
Materials: $350 Employment: 2 workers for 3 days $30
Total cost: $380
Materials: $280 Total cost: $280
Guardian House
Materials: $150 Employment: 1 worker for 7 days $35
Total cost: $185

Total Cost: $4185

General Conclusions

Madre Selva is a rich resource much appreciated by the
community, and with a vital role to play in education
for sustainable agriculture in this region. There is a
need for urgent attention, in the form of money, to
reverse the trend of disintegration of this resource.
Volunteers are proceeding as is possible in the task
of reparation, but can go little further without an
injection of cash to get over some major obstacles
such as access to the site and lack of water to
support residents over dry season. There is also an
urgent need for a member of staff to resume occupancy
of the Guardian House to deter further invasion and
destruction of the project site.
The realization of the mammoth task of building the
physical project infrastructure is a lasting legacy of
Phase One of this project. The focus of energies for
this current phase needs to be initially on repairing
and reinstalling systems to a level of functioning,
and insuring land security from invaders. After this
there is a need to direct energy into planning for
more financial sustainability, and on social /
operational infrastructure, towards realizing the
original goals of the Institute.
It is a time of rebirth, the energy is here to get the
project up and running again. Madre Selva needs
support from it's parent organisations, CIBT, and RIC,
so that it can return to life and resume its important
role in showing the community sustainable land use is
possible, practical, and most of all, tasty! Please

(US$5000 was recieved from Green Grants via RIC in
December 2000 and works are underway on these

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