Refugio Tinti: Reflections of Nature’s Design – A MAHB Dialogue with Alexander Tinti, Founder

Geoffrey Holland | January 20, 2022 | Leave a Comment

“The only unlimited growth which is sustainable is in complexity.” – Alexander Tinti


Geoff Holland –  You had many years as a successful stage designer and director in Europe and in New York. How did you happen to turn your attention so thoroughly to nature’s design?

Alexander Tinti – I never saw, and still don’t see, a big difference between art and science. They both are tools to explore the world, science from the outside and the arts from inside. 

So before turning to the arts, I studied natural sciences at the University of Vienna, most notably biology under the Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz in the 1970s. Lorenz, who was also one of the founders of the Club of Rome, predicted the breakdown of our ecosystems as we know them, in the first decades of this century. 

Still, I followed my passion for the theater. 

But witnessing the manifestation of Lorenz’s predictions over time became so unsettling that I decided to address the issue as much as I could and went back to study – mainly ecology and soil biology. Eventually, I bought a heavily abused piece of land here in Costa Rica to restore its destroyed ecosystems and become a seed for restoration and conservation. 

GH – Can you share the wheres, whats, and whys that define Refugio Tinti?

AT – As just mentioned, the Refugio was founded in the face of the increasingly accelerating destruction of our environment. What had been a rundown swamp became after a few years, a haven for wildlife with habitats for innumerable species, including several threatened by extinction. 

Apart from being a wildlife sanctuary and a permacultural model farm, the Refugio is an education and consultation center for reforestation practices and regenerative agriculture. 

By abstaining from electric lights and continuously closing as many regenerative cycles as possible we are thriving to be a positive member of the ecosystem rather than a neutral, let alone a parasitic one.

The Refugio is located in the South-West of Costa Rica, next to the National Park Piedras Blancas. 

GH – You started out with a piece of land that had long been abused and depleted by traditional agriculture methods. What was the soil like when you started and how did you remediate it to what it is now? 

AT – When we arrived here, the soil was virtually empty of minerals and nutrients, and heavily eroding.

To restore it we took a manyfold approach: at the heart of that approach are soil microorganisms which we are breeding through hot compost, multiplying them through compost-tea, and protecting them through biochar. 

In addition, we planted a variety of nitrogen-fixing trees and a large number of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia diversifolia) that, with the help of a fungus, extract phosphorus from rocks in the depth of the soil. Regular pruning replenished the top-soil with organic matter and minerals, especially phosphorus, initially the scarcest mineral in our soil. 

Weeds we welcome as plants that draw nutrients to the surface which other plants can’t reach. Their regular ‘chop-and-drop’ provides the topsoil with these additional nutrients. As the trees grow, the weeds will have done their job and will be shaded out by the closing canopies. 

All these methods combined, restored our soil in record time.

GH – The human population has more than doubled in just fifty years. Proponents of modern industrial mono-crop agriculture claim it is the main reason we are now able to feed a human population of eight billion. What has been the downside of industrial agriculture’s dependence on chemical fertilizers, pest control chemicals, and genetically modified seed, and is industrial agriculture a sustainable way to feed the world?

AT – Well, according to the United Nations FAO, around 800 million people are still mal- or undernourished, 3 billion people cannot afford healthy food, and 60% of all the food still comes from farms under 10 hectares. So, besides being extremely destructive, the claims of the food industry are simplified and highly flawed.

The downsides of industrial mono-crop agriculture, as you mentioned them, are: 

Chemical fertilizers reduce soil microorganisms that are there to feed the plants, prevent erosion, hold water, and have many other benefits. Without microorganisms a soil is dead.

Pest-controls: Together with light pollution, pesticides are the main drivers of the current “insect armageddon”. They are at the bottom of the food chain, and also pollination without them is in great danger. 

GMO-seeds: Apart from social problems, they reduce biodiversity to a minimum. Biodiversity is the buffer for any changes in the environment, especially climate change.

Moreover, the cheap industrial food that supposedly “feeds the world” comes at the huge price of destroying our ecosystems on which we all depend, while the costs are just passed on to the next generation. If these ‘external’ costs would be added to all that junk food only the super-rich could afford it. 

And last but not least, the agricultural industry never answers the question: for how long can they feed the ‘world’ (even if they could)? A recent study from the UN estimates that with the current industrial practices soil erosion is so rampant that there are only 60 crop seasons left! 

So, for too many reasons industrial mono-crop agriculture is simply not a solution, it’s a disaster.

GH – Can the permaculture and polyculture practiced at Refugio Tinti feed the world?

No single method applies to all different situations in the world, but permaculture and polyculture are certainly an important part of the host of sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices available to us. 

Food production needs to become diversified and decentralized, then permacultural practices, together with food forests, polycultures, forest gardens, and all these other sustainable practices are way more productive than their monocultural counterpart and definitely can feed the world. 

There is often the argument that sustainable practices need more space. That might be true in a few cases but while conventional food production, because of their destructiveness, have to be set apart from natural ecosystems, the aforementioned sustainable practices can be blended into natural ecosystems, so they cause no problem when occupying larger spaces. It’s just a matter of design and using the right method for the right place.

GH – Biologist E.O. Wilson is the face of what he calls the Half-Earth Project, which calls for returning half of the Earth’s land and oceans to their natural state. Is that something you encourage?

AT – Definitely I would encourage it. This would be a dream! I just don’t see it happening in any foreseeable time, and because of the urgency of need, we must go now beyond dreams to this kind of world. 

At first, we need a paradigm shift in our attitude towards the environment: from “less bad” to “good” for the environment. A tree is not climate-neutral, it is climate-positive. And so are all other living beings, except humans and their domesticated animals, whose biomass meanwhile surpasses 96% compared to wildlife. If humans can’t learn to be climate positive, they won’t be around anymore.

“Make buildings like trees”Michael Braungart and William McDonough proposed in the Architectural Biennial in Venice 2016 and showed a model of a building that catches the sunlight, cleans the air, purifies the water, and even yields food. We have the technology, we can do it! When we build communities, towns, and cities like this, it’s not so urgent to “set aside” land for nature, we just have to re-integrate ourselves with nature.

GH – What role do you see for indigenous people and the wisdom they bring about living on the land sustainably?

AT  – Well, I have no romanticism about indigenous people. They are not much different from the rest of us and we are not much different from them. It’s only a question of tools and opportunities. 

The problem today is, we have developed immensely powerful technologies but still are using them like an ax. And now we are even employing robots and AI to invent even more of what we can not handle. Our wisdom has not evolved to the level of our technology.

But of course, yes, we could learn a lot from indigenous people as long as they still live without the abuse of modern technology. Their practices then are by necessity sustainable.

GH – Animal Agriculture is responsible for as much as half of all human water use. Does the sheer size of the human footprint on Earth require that we dramatically reduce the amount of animal protein we eat?

AT – Of course. But first of all, the current animal industry is a disgrace for humanity, way beyond water use and their other unsustainable practices. There is a mismatch between talking about “morals” and supporting the brutality of the animal industry which most of us anyway can only bear by looking away. 

However, when we get serious about restoring ecosystems, which we must do if we want to survive, meat would become expensive again and its consumption would naturally be reduced to sustainable and even healthy levels. Meat is a special delicacy, not a staple food!

By the way, insects are a much healthier protein than meat. I have eaten insects in large quantities and varieties while I was living in Asia. They are delicious, it’s just a question of how you prepare them.

GH – What do you say about the latest high-tech organic urban farming technologies that use 90% less water and substantially less energy than traditional cropland agriculture?

AT – It’s certainly way better than poisoning our earth and waterbodies as conventional agriculture does. And eliminating polluting transport from distant crop fields and food waste are great additional benefits. 

But there might be two caveats: 

One is the life-cycle of the infrastructure and equipment: how much waste do they produce? Any kind of waste is unsustainable in the long term. So the infrastructure must fit into the technological cycle as described in the principle of Cradle-to-Cradle.

And the other is: these technologies rely exclusively on artificial inputs. Food though is a complex system that our bodies perfectly understand but we don’t know too much about.

We simply don’t know about the possibly still hidden differences of food grown in healthy soils, in season and under real sunlight, compared to food artificially grown year-round, without microorganisms, and with chemical fertilizers in hydroponics under LED lamps.

However, I think it definitely should be pursued. It certainly could be a great supplement in big cities, at least until enough regenerative agricultural practices have replaced the destructive conventional agriculture on a large scale. 

GH – How can citizens use their purchasing power to encourage the broad use of the restorative land and soil techniques that you have used successfully at Refugio Tinti?

AT – Primarily by demanding and buying organic food products from permacultural or similarly sustainable sources, and actively refusing to accept food from unsustainable productions, even when it is more expensive.

The more consistent the customers are, the more motivated are the companies to change and the more sustainable farms will come into existence.

Customers must also demand the labeling of GMOs and all kinds of additives, unsustainable practices, unfair trade, and origins. We have to know what we are buying. 

And last but not least, we must support education. We need curricula that teach kids how food is grown within regenerative cycles and a curriculum that teaches them from early on what effect food has on their bodies.

Alexander Tinti has had a distinguished career as a production and stage designer in New York and in Europe. Then, following advanced studies in ecology and soil science, he launched his nature-friendly land restoration venture Refugio Tinti in Costa Rica.

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