After Vice series, staff are reimagining Kalu Yala

By Colin Boyle

While on track with the goal of becoming “the world’s most sustainable town,” Kalu Yala got hit by a four letter word that challenged their mission, while temporarily stymying respectability and enrollment at its educational Institute. In the damp environment of a rainforest town, the four-letter word is not “rain,” but a more-than-devastating factor that started with the wet season in fall 2016.

 Colin Boyle/Medill
The town square at Kalu Yala. (Photos by Colin Boyle/Medill)

This quartet of letters temporarily washed away much of the participation in this eco-community concept of real estate entrepreneur Jimmy Stice.

The word is “Vice.” Its creation, “Jungletown.” "Jungletown" is the product of filmmaker Ondi Timoner, a series filmed in fall 2016 featuring Kalu Yala through the dramatized stories of disgruntled interns at the remote, sustainable enclave in a hard-to-reach valley of Panama.

Once the “docu-series” hit the internet in spring 2017, Kalu Yala was berated with some image-crushing accusations, many baseless in the eyes of staffers at Kalu Yala. Articles and posts online began to circulate, calling Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice a “conman” and “controversial” and Kalu Yala “neocolonialist” and a “cult” on Reddit.

 Colin Boyle/Medill
Kalu Yala interns perform at their end of the semester “Jungle Prom.” 

Flash forward to spring 2018 and the enrollment is dramatically smaller. At an Institute that would proudly host nearly 100 students, it was graced by only 17 young, new trainees this spring. But Stice and the Kalu Yala staff see enrollment re-gaining traction for summer with an emphasis on student innovation.

Tara McLaughlin, president of Kalu Yala, describes "Jungletown" as “a great example of media gone wrong.” McLaughlin, who grew up in Central America and now works with the students and residents of the town, harped on the role of media in Kalu Yala’s worldwide appearance.

At the institute, there are more than a dozen programs offered to the interns to give them hands-on experiences while contributing to the progression of the town. Programs include engineering, political science, media arts, biology, culinary arts, and many more.

And this is where the media arts team comes into play –– this creative group at Kalu Yala acknowledged the dangers of having an outdated website while facing the internet onslaught of trolls, bad press, and hurtful words. They are launching a dynamic revamp of their website with new material produced by interns and staff –– a hard task to continuously conquer when relying on internet support powered by solar panels. Ironically, Vice contributed $60,000 for the creation of the panel array in the middle of the jungle during one of their filming sessions.

In a struggle to properly inform their audience with relevant information, McLaughlin lauds the work of the interns working in the media arts department at Kalu Yala. “The media content that we’re trying to put out there is solely to combat the negative crap that has come out of this 'Jungletown' experience,” McLaughlin said.

“So, we’ve been trying to combat that through our own media campaign, that’s why the media program this semester has been so amazing, that’s why Ruby got a standing ovation,” McLaughlin noted.

Ruby Foster is an intern who created this video for Kalu Yala during her internship in spring 2018. 

 Colin Boyle/Medill
Kalu Yala interns and Medill students attend a presentation at the end of the spring semester. 

At the end of the 10-week internship program, students had the opportunity to present the deliverables from their student-led project in their time in Panama.

“It’s like Super Bowl week for me,” Stice said excitedly in passing, prior to the presentations. All of the hard work from every aspect, whether it be media, agricultural, work done at the distillery, educational efforts, etc., is put on display for the entire town to rouse excitement and forward progress as the semester ends.

The media team had their own presentation the night before, screening their videos and photographs taken during their adventures in the jungle.

 Colin Boyle/Medill
Spring 2018 media lab director Taylor Epps stands in the town square. 

The media team was led by Kalu Yala media lab director Taylor Epps for spring 2018. The Texas native was the first “completely unaffiliated” director for the media lab department in the town –– she arrived at the town only a few weeks prior to the new students. She knew nothing about "Jungletown" at this point.

“When I first came on, I realized very quickly that there were some people that immediately associated me with 'Jungletown,'” Epps said. “Because I was media, I had that ‘media’ target on my back and so that made people uncomfortable so I had to work a little harder for people to trust me.”

She discussed the role of their media in the environment, particularly about how to understand the dynamic between producing media while being conscious of the sustainability of the project.

“That was the biggest part of our journey: how your voice is affecting your environment, knowing what that voice is, why people should be listening to it,” Epps added. “You have the product, but tell me more about how it affects the environment...what’s the tangible outcome we’re working toward.”

Epps said that she did not want her students to go forward without being able to identify the tangibility of their outcomes, particularly their carbon footprint.

Jessica Wiegandt is a junior at Brevard College who came to Kalu Yala to satisfy her interest in outdoor journalism while in search of a media internship. At college, she is majoring in wilderness leadership and experiential education and English with an emphasis in journalism. During spring at Kalu Yala, Wiegandt worked on stockpiling blog posts to promote an active blog even after the students complete their 10 weeks.

A barrier the media interns dealt with was working around their environment, as the town is solar-powered and sometimes faces challenging weather, which is not easy for a team focused on electronic equipment. While at Kalu Yala, the question of sustainability plays a key role in the work done by interns and residents.

“When you’re working with media, a lot of your stuff is just going online and so it’s not really taking up a lot of space –– it’s not going to rot away back into the jungle,” Wiegandt noted. “The projects we’ve done: is it sustainable? Yeah, because it’s going up on a blog to be shared and reshared... and as soon as it goes away it’s just a megabit out in the internet.”

For a small town in a Panamanian valley, the internet, and the trail it makes online play immense roles. The stories that come out of Kalu Yala have a widespread reach, as the staff has discovered in light of the release of “Jungletown.”

“We just had to admit the power of video,” founder Stice said. “And second of all, third-party perspectives are worth a hell of a lot more than first-person perspectives.”

 Colin Boyle/Medill
Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice speaks to Medill students in the town square. 

“And that’s where, for me, the students are the secret sauce, because if Ruby Foster was being paid by Jimmy Stice to make a video about how Kalu Yala is, I would think the video is pretty much just propaganda,” he said.

For Stice, the work produced by the media team was not only impressive, but it also will help combat the internet trolls, while the town regains a credible voice online.

“Vice pretty much invalidated me as a character –– my voice has a lot less weight than it used to have, so I need people to speak for me and the best people who can speak for you are the ones who aren’t on your payroll,” Stice said.

The next steps for Kalu Yala are to utilize the student-produced work to create an understandable, actual portrayal of the eco-town with a mission online while drowning out the “trolls” and bad press about the place through search engine optimization (SEO).

“Right now we are recovering. We got punched in the face by a monster 10 months ago – Vice took a very direct shot at us,” Stice said. “I have learned a lot about media and online and content value and SEO and reputation offenses.”

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About the author: Medill student Colin Boyle can be reached at ColinBPhoto@u.northwestern.edu and on Twitter: @ColinBPhoto.

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