‘Jungletown’ Is Everything Wrong With White Hippie Culture
In case you haven’t seen it, Jungletown is the latest Viceland documentary series chronicling a real estate investor’s attempt at “building the world’s most sustainable community” by charging idealistic millennials thousands of dollars to fly to a plot of land in Panama and stay there for 2 weeks, “learning” and “building” a town.
While the idea is admirable, there is so much wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start.
1. First and foremost, it’s in Panama.
The specter of colonialism lingers omnipresent throughout the show, and this is made all the worse by the fact that they are literally building their “town” in a place where people already live. The comparison to European colonialism basically writes itself. This is a great idea- yet why are you not doing it in your own country? All of these ideas are great, except that the novelty of the spin is that you are going to a “strange” and “exotic” place- and that means the project is using the identity of indigenous people as capital, and that identity is being marketed at face value with zero respect or understanding for the cultural context and tradition of the people whose land you are now inhabiting and among whom you now exist.
The shots of millennials chopping down trees (not for community projects, but to build things for themselves) hit way too close to home as a horrific analogy for the way the fetishization of Native cultures is no different than capitalism’s latest vehicle for profiting off of other’s people things without any recognition of their agency or any kind of respect.
Great idea. Do it in your own country.
2. They contribute nothing to the local economy beyond the contributions of tourism.
Most third-world projects hoping to leave a positive impact do so by contributing to the infrastructure of the places where they are guests. The shots of construction work (which were minimal compared to the scenic luxury-style shots of the rainforest) were of people building things for themselves. You are in someone else’s land, building something for yourself. That’s not sustainability, and that’s not service. That’s colonialism. I couldn’t help but envision the image of white twentysomethings cutting down trees to build their own houses through a local’s eyes.
There is nothing novel about this. You are nothing more than modern-day settlers.
And, mind you- in the series, little work is even actually done. The construction itself is done by locals they have employed. The actual work done by the “interns” themselves is limited to the construction of jungle gyms and Western idea-based projects.
3. The “interns” have little to no understanding of the local culture, and there is no attempt to integrate with the local culture.
Interactions with the locals are limited to visits to the city, working with local children (not much so adults), and interactions with the locals they employ to do the actual labor of building. There is hardly any relationship with the local community, and the “vision” of this community is “what can we make for ourselves,” not “what can we do to understand and participate in the culture that already exists here.”
It is nothing more than cultural transplant- gentrification’s ugly and more dangerous second-cousin.
4. The name “Kalu Yala.” Seriously?
The “interns” are almost entirely white. They are all international tourists. And the name of this “sustainable” community is borrowed from another language, as befits the branding and “image,” while any kind of respect for the culture such a name might imply is utterly, entirely, glaringly absent.
5. Where are the medical doctors?
There are multiple incidents of people experiencing actual health problems, and there is no medical staff at all equipped to deal with these. The staff dealing with them come off as dismissive, unqualified, and generally apathetic. This is not “groundbreaking”- this is straight-up dangerous. Groups that travel internationally for service projects recognize the risks and prepare for these incidents by having systems and connections in place for dealing with life-threatening problems. On top of the fact of the evidently deceiving marketing of the “experience,” this is a gross and unforgivable negligence on the part of the facilitators of the project.
6. What exactly are you being educated on?
Many of the participants state that they feel they have paid for an educational experience at “Kalu Yala Institute” but are actually being taught very little. They say that most of what they do is work and basically fend for themselves, and what education exists is largely the guidance and vague leadership of largely unqualified staff leaders that are little more than idealistic paid representatives of the company.
7. Attempting to live and build without an idea for basic infrastructure is not “radical.” It’s stupid.
8. Panama is not your ‘destination’ to have your ‘finding yourself’ experience.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the illusion that Kalu Yala does is not only ignorant but deeply disrespectful as well.
9. Nothing about it is “new” or groundbreaking. It’s colonialism all over again. Nothing about it is sustainable.
‘Jungleland’ is less of a gritty reality show than it is an extended ad full of glitzy panorama shots and the occasional monologue on idealism reeking with the discontent of apathy expressed by those actually participating in an unfulfilling, clearly exploitative and largely meaningless experience.
10. It is the epitome of the capitalist trap of trying to repackage millennial discontent with consumerism by selling it back to them as a consumer product.
Unless your underlying ideas change, you cannot change the world. The problem of consumerism is deep, and these problems go with us in the attitude and lack of perspective among Kalu Yal-ians. Western attitudes were carried with them, and rather than working towards learning other cultures’ attitudes and traditions to improve their own perspectives, the model of Kalu Yala is that we can somehow take our own perspectives and apply them in a foreign culture (which they relied on to maintain their current lifestyle), for their own benefit. Millennials have great ideas, and our discontent is valid. Stop trying to sell it back to us as a consumer product. We need change- not that.
11. Cultural appropriation and trendy cultural exploitation are the modus operandi, and seriously, please stop.
From the white people with dreads and Indian spiritual jewelry to the location of the experiment itself to the very foundation of rich investors and imported Jif peanut butter to the use of plastic bottles, this show reeks of the theft and self-absorption which seek to corrupt the efforts of people with genuinely good intentions who hope to revolutionize a corrupt system in a failing Western world.
I hope that industry can realize that that passion is something that cannot be successfully misdirected in a vacation-packaged product promising spiritual fulfillment. I hope that millennials can realize and remember that the key to revolutionizing a corrupt system is to inhabit and actively improve that system itself- a system which we carry with us, from which we are the actors and agents and not the victims, a system which we perpetuate, and a system which we can change not by moving to a South American jungle to brew craft beer and take a meditation class, but by recognizing our own complicity and working to improve ourselves.