How to Build a Sustainable Festival in the Jungle

Article by: Matthew Finkelstein

Thu January 04, 2018 | 07:00 AM

Envision Festival in the southern zone of Costa Rica is, no doubt, one of the most special festival experiences of the year. It draws thousands of people from all over the world for a four-day event in the jungle featuring a wide range of music, art, workshops, and mind-expanding experiences.

The beauty and magic of Envision is felt, seen, heard, and experienced by everyone in attendance. Pictures and videos can capture its brilliance to share with the world, but what about all the hard work, creativity, vision and execution that make it all happen?

Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo 4

Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

Many individuals and teams make this event happen. It's a story of a few hundred builders and staff, on-site for a few weeks to a few months, creating a small city within the jungle – a utopia of creativity and community. From producers to accountants to water infrastructure and waste management, these are all the unsung heroes of the festival, and their stories deserve to be told.

I build for several festivals each year, ranging from stages, to art installations, to infrastructure. There’s something special about building Envision, however. 


Envision 2016 Eric Allen Photo Builders
Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

Envision is a festival thrown in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica. While the neighboring town and municipality are developed, building in a foreign country brings certain limitations of materials, resources and tools. Most festivals in the U.S. have tools and machinery on-hand; at Envision, not so much.

Often times, we have to innovate strategies on-site to make things happen. In years past, a crew was lacking a tall-enough ladder, so they built a frame out of bamboo to extend one of our taller ladders so they could continue their work. Raising the many large structures, we often have to devise systems of rigs and pulleys, and utilize “push-sticks” – two long pieces of bamboo tied together to lift up large poles. It's the kind of work would normally be done with heavy machinery in the U.S.

Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo Beach

Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

Innovation continues even into the smaller details. We do have power tools but we primarily work with bamboo and local lumber. Hardly any of our building materials are exact, so we have to accept a certain amount of “wonk” in our construction. Most of our job on-site entails thinking of creative ways to use bamboo, scrap materials, and non-dimensional lumber to put things together. To make the large projection mapping screens on the main stages, our crews used a projector to trace the patterns onto plywood and then carefully cut them by hand with a jigsaw. In the U.S. this would be done by an automated CNC machine, pre-programmed with the design and cut to perfection. The patience and skill of my fellow builders is truly astonishing.

Culture, Collaboration, and Community

Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo Builders 2
Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

Envision is also unique in that it brings together a diverse crew of international builders that work alongside a dedicated local crew. The community that is created on-site is unlike any other festival. There is an inherent need to have everyone on-board and acculturated to the unique way things are done in the jungle.

The local crew, run by Living Space , is on site for much longer than the international crews, and work much harder through the long, hot hours of each day. Living Space is unique in that it provides legitimate working wages, opportunities for improvement and promotion, and a safe working environment. They are truly the heartbeat and core of this event, and we are honored that we get to interact and develop relationships with them. Coming back every year, we become not just co-workers, but lasting friends.

Resources on-site are not “limited” per se, but must be shared in a way that’s advantageous to all involved and the overall mission of the event. Everyone is encouraged to only use what they absolutely must and to be creative in how they build their projects to minimize resource impact and costs.

Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo Builders 3

Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

The element of collaboration is extremely vibrant during this festival build. Individuals from different build crews regularly lend a hand to other projects. Most notably, there are two primary centers of action for the build – the “rabbit hole” and the "boneyard."  The rabbit hole is a centralized operation that provides tools and material resources for all builders and crew. A highly organized endeavor, the folks on hand also serve as teachers and idea generators for various build projects. Often times, builders will come to the rabbit hole with an idea, but given the resources and materials on-hand, won’t be able to get it done exactly how they envision. Everyone involved then thinks through innovative ideas to make it happen. One of the most beautiful elements of build is witnessing different builders work together coming up with these creative solutions.

Building a festival in the jungle requires a unique sense of community. A sense of ownership is instilled in all builders to make sure that we are all doing things the way they should be done. And it’s truly for the greater good. Sharing collective meals in an outdoor jungle kitchen, all builders are encouraged to meet their neighbors and acculturate them to the unique way things are done. This happens every meal, and in every moment. This build in particular facilitates so many new friendships and connections, by the sheer element of location and necessity.


Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo Builders 4
Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

A lot of festivals talk about it, but few actually walk the talk. Building Envision is as sustainable as it can be, and it’s getting better. Most building materials (bamboo and lumber) are grown locally and naturally and/or organically. We put significant effort into maintaining certain structures and infrastructure on a multi-year contract, including the new yoga domes, staff housing, and in the Village.

All water is recycled and reused as gray water, feeding the fruit trees that the festival itself has planted on-site. The staff kitchen used two large rocket-stoves, which use highly efficient stick (not wood) burning techniques to cook thousands of meals for the builders. All compost generated on site as well as the composting toilets is utilized in the fertility plan for the fruit trees as well.

The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the builders further minimizes impact and waste. Most (if not all) of the food is procured from local organic farmers, reducing waste, packaging, and the overall carbon footprint. Many materials are saved from years past and re-used or repurposed during the build.

The Magic Continues...

Envision Festival 2016 Eric Allen Photo 5
Photo by: Eric Allen Photo

Building for Envision prepares us to do something much greater. It is providing us with the knowledge and skills necessary to build a village, to solve the challenges we face our day-to-day lives. It provides us with an opportunity to develop new skills and capabilities, for us to make connections, and for us to find our true passions and purpose. That's exactly what we come to festivals to celebrate in the first place.

This impact is reflected in all of the attendees. Everyone at Envision feels it. Sure, it’s a journey, but sometimes a struggle for all of us; a festival in the jungle has to be. But in the end, we’re all left with a sense of accomplishment. We did it. We don’t know how, but it somehow happened all the same.

To all of those who attended Envision this year and to all those going to the many other great festivals of the year, thank you for supporting our work. I hope that you too can get involved in some way and share the many gifts and experiences beyond the festival itself!

This article was originally published in April 2016.