Gaviotas - A miracle
By Alan Weisman, USA.
As a journalist who has covered environmental disasters from
Chernobyl to Antarctica's ozone hole, the most hopeful sign I've seen that
humans can live sanely and sustainably is a village in one of the most unlikely
Colombia, a country whose name makes most people think of
either cocaine, coffee, or civil war. Yet as Paolo Lugari, the Colombian founder
of the village of Gaviotas, told me: "They always put social
experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. If
we could do it there, we could do it anywhere."
The Vision & the Challenge
Almost three decades ago, Colombian Paolo Lugari, the brilliant
son of a tropical geographer, flew across the Andes behind Bogota, and saw
Colombia's huge, nearly empty, rain-soaked eastern tropical plain stretching all
the way to Venezuela. The soils were so thin that only low-nutrient grasses
grew. The rivers were full of piranhas and malaria- bearing mosquitoes. But
someday, Lugari realized, barren savannas like these would be the only place to
put growing populations. This was a perfect setting, he decided, for a research
station to design the ideal civilization for the tropics.
In Bogota's universities, he challenged engineers and soil
engineers to join him. "Can you build a micro-turbine to tap the
energy of a slow tropical stream? "be asked. "Can we get any-thing useful
to grow in those soils?" It was important, he believed, that Third World
people find their own answers.
"All our development models have been created in countries with
four seasons, with totally different conditions from tropical countries," he
argued. "When we import solutions from northern countries, not only don't we
solve our problems, but we import theirs."
My drive to Gaviotas from Bogota took 16 hours by jeep over a
rotted, muddy track through nearly empty savanna. It was also dangerous
no-man's-land, filled with guerrilla and paramilitary roadblocks.
Then, what resemble aluminium sunflowers began to dot the
landscape. These were delicate windmills.
I came to a large pine forest, nearly 10,000 hectares, that should
not have been growing from this infertile plain. Amid the trees was a cluster of
low white buildings and colorful houses with dramatic, swooping roofs, all
bearing solar collectors. Begun in 1971, Gaviotas was now a self-sufficient town
of 200, financed by selling the alternative technology it has developed and by a
clean, renewable forest industry that earned the United Nations' 1997 World Zero
Their first problem was finding pure water. They invented hand
pumps whose internal pistons were encased in plastic sleeves. By leaving the
heavy piston stationary and lifting the light- weight sleeve instead, they found
they could reach aquifers several times deeper than normal, and pumping was so
easy they hooked them to children's seesaws. Next came ultra-light wind- mills
light enough to tap soft tropical breezes, but strong enough to withstand
tropical storms; solar water heaters that work in the rain; and soil-free
hydroponic systems to raise crops. They also built an all-solar hospital that
uses underground wind ducts and hollow roof construction for self-cooling, and a
kitchen equipped with their most expensive invention: solar-powered pressure
cookers. But much cheaper is their solar "kettle," which uses sunlight to
sterilize water and a simple heat-exchanger to cool the purified water for
immediate drinking. Gaviotas chose to not patent its inventions, so others could
share them. Their tools have spread elsewhere in Latin America: Nearly 700
villages in Colombia alone now use their pumps.
After years of trying, they finally found a plant that could
survive Gaviotas' thin, highly acidic soils. Caribbean pines from Honduras grew
rapidly, and the Gaviotans learned they could harvest renewable bark resin for
profit without cutting down their spreading forest. This natural resin replaces
petroleum-based sub- stances in paints, cosmetics, perfumes, and medicines. When
distilled in Gaviotas' pollution-free factory, its byproduct is marketable
turpentine - and the boiler's steam exhaust generates electricity.
Gaviotas Manual Sleeve Pump (A)
Gaviotas Manual Sleeve Pump (B)
Besides providing a sustainable living, the pines have fostered
what biologists call a miracle: In the shelter of these fast-growing trees, a
tropical forest not seen for thousands of years in these savannas has
regenerated. The 250 native plant species they have identified in the forest
inspired them to begin an ethno-botanical research lab in their all-solar
hospital, collaborating with local Guahibo Indians. Many Guahibos and rural
peasants live at Gaviotas, riding to work on Gaviotas-designed savanna bicycles.
Oasis of Imagination
In spite of Colombia's ongoing civil upheaval, drug wars, and
ecological stresses, Gaviotas has evolved into a community of peace and sanity.
It proves that even the leanest environments provide rich tools and resources if
people choose to live sensibly. "The only deserts are deserts of the
imagination, "says Paolo Lugari. "Gaviotas is an oasis of the
imagination. Elsewhere they 're tearing down rainforests. We 're putting one
back. If we can do it in Colombia, it can happen anywhere."
Alan Weisman is author of 'Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the
World', published in 1998 (see publication list).
Gaviotas, Paseo Bolivar #20-90, Bogota. Colombia
Alan Weisman: P.O. Box 1228 Sonoita, Arizona 85637.
USA. Fax: 520-455-5389, e-mail: