Notes From On-Location about the Imminent Overdevelopment of our Small Village of Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

An Open Letter to International Living.

© Brian O’Leary, Ph.D., 7-22-06

The issue of unbridled new gringo development threatens our tiny village Vilcabamba nestled in the remote Andes of Southern Ecuador. As one fellow resident has so aptly put it, “Sad to say, the nature and tranquility we moved here to experience is on its way out, as the environment is being destroyed in Vilcabamba.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Two years ago, my artist wife Meredith and I bought an old mountainside farm here on a little less than one hectare of land. We restored and expanded it, using local materials and help . The result is Montesuenos, an ecocenter for peace, sustainability, the arts and new science. Along with our sister organizations in the area, we plan to receive small numbers of ecotourists and villagers alike to enjoy our pristine environment and take part in stimulating workshops among ourselves and with world class teachers. We also plan special events and ceremonies. Our vision and some photographs are posted temporarily at

But as author John Robbins and others have warned us, Vilcabamba is in fact vulnerable to insensitive, unmitigated and destructive development. Our precious heritage of centenarians, our pure water, our delicious local organic produce and viewing and exploring the spectacular green mountains of the Andes may soon be degraded out of recognition, wrote Robbins. He suggests this is another example of the exploitation of a beautiful ancient culture and environment.

When Meredith and I first got here, we pooh-poohed this outlook. The village was peaceful, the skies were clear, the noise was negligible, and the new construction and traffic moved at the slow pace we grew to expect and enjoy. This was the Paradise we always wanted to have and to share with others.

But in just two years we have seen dramatic change. We are now beset with developers seeking a quick buck on condominiums, housing subdivisions and cell phone towers that collectively are showing all the signs of becoming a miniature San Fernando Valley. The sounds of huge trucks and loud rock music now echo through the valley, smog and dust sometimes fill the basin, the few remaining trees are clearcut to make way for the new gringo invasions, while the villagers are lured by the fast money they can make with temporary employment and the sale of family properties handed down for generations. In very short order, the quality of life has gone downhill and this accelerates with no end in sight. It is as if the Conquistadors came back—five hundred years later.

Meredith and I are now in our sixties and have a long history of seeking pristine environments to do our creative works, only to be driven away by the ugliness of development and bad taste. Between us and together, we have lived in Southern California during the 1950s and the 1980s, the Bay Area during the 1960s, Laguna Beach, CA, Key West and Coconut Grove, FL during the 1970s, southern Oregon during the early 1990s, Kihei, Maui during the late 1990s, the Colorado Rockies around 2000, and most recently on the Yuba River near Grass Valley-Nevada City, CA. In 2004, we sought to escape to Costa Rica until we discovered that it, too, was becoming urbanized.

You would think we had learned our lesson. Sadly we haven’t, even here in remote Vilcabamba. But it’s not too late. Maybe we can still do something about it.

The sad truth is, we seem to be in that small group of artists, ecologists and villagers who always end up running for the hills when the invasion begins. This time, we’re getting too old to do that. Instead, we want to run this small place with stable employment for a handful of locals and to offer it as an educational eco-destination as well as for community events in the arts, science and ecology. We will stay and fight for a clean environment and stable community here.

Enter International Living. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your recommendations of some pristine areas on Earth for spending one’s last years in affordable peace. This is a real service when the numbers of people involved were small, the destinations diverse, and the information accurate.

But in recent years your organization has transmogrified into a profit-centered marketing and real estate organization purveying propoganda to unsuspecting clients potentially herding them in unprecedented numbers to focused “markets” such as Vilcabamba. Here we are talking about one or two or more hundred thousand Baby Boomer retirees into once-peaceful valleys like ours. The number of developments under construction and planned are many and I can only grieve about what the future holds, unless we do something about it soon. Your marketing, then your superclients buying up large amounts of land, then subdividing and developing it for quick profit, is the formula. The only solution, however, is either develop slowly and ecologically or don’t develop at all.

Part of your slick marketing includes lies about property values, nonexistent Five Star restaurants, and living close to artists (like us) who usually become repelled and then run for the hills. The pattern repeats itself again and again. And sadly, this kind of marketing rewards only the land-grabbers and retirees insensitive to the environment. You see, part of your business plan is to “get it while you can” taking advantage to the lack of zoning laws or planning commissions among an innocent local population who have never ever dealt with the kind of invasion we are having here now.

There is something very insidious about voracious capitalism supplanting stable, ecological community. I am reminded of the time I myself became an entrepreneurial author-speaker after decades of working at universities, the government and companies. When I escaped from the confines of institutions in 1987, I joined the National Speakers Association to facilitate my career in public speaking. At that time, I had already been a leading speaker on the circuit listed by various bureaus. But the National Speakers Association, like yours, was rapidly becoming Corporate, serving only the interests of making a profit. In spite of the high dues I had to pay, the Association did not at all support my passion for the environment, innovative energy technologies, consciousness research and new science.

No, the lucrative speaking slots now went to crafty sales people who dished pablum for corporate executives giving them the answers they wanted to hear rather than the ones they should be hearing if we are to have a future as a Global Village. I am sorry you too have fallen into the trap of over-the-top marketing hype, hubris and hyperbole. Our direct experience here as pioneers is a far cry from your sales pitch.

So what do we do? We need to educate communities and potential communities about the environmental and cultural impact of development. Meredith and I admit we have already had a small impact on our environment here and so it’s payback time from us to the Earth and to the friendly and generous people who have been here for a long time.. We hope you will be sensitive enough to feel the same.

I don’t wish to demean the use of accurate marketing to provide a service to environmentally aware clients. We do it ourselves, albeit on a much smaller scale. Filling existing development projects here could be part of your mission, and then move on. It’s the future that concerns us. I urge you to limit future promotions of subdividable land projects here because of our fragile ecosystem. Please look elsewhere more urban or suburban before we really lose it here—and elsewhere. The Earth, this community, and we will thank you for that kind of restraint and compassion.

Brian O’Leary, Ph.D., former astronaut,
author, teacher , musician, environmentalist
Montesuenos, San Jose, Vilcabamba, Ecuador


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