Paoli Lugari, a Colombian environmentalist, has worked since 1971 to develop Gaviotas, a self-sufficient community in the nutrient-poor savanna grassland of Los Llanos, the huge eastern plains in Colombia.
As he puts it: "They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of the imagination."
'Rain forests and excess people were a
Lugari was also motivated by the need for finding alternative habitats for Colombia's increasing population, having realised that "rain forests and excess people were a foolish mix"; and that, because population and development pressures were ever-intensifying around the world, people would eventually need to learn to live in even the harshest of the planet's ecosystems.
Starting with some abandoned concrete sheds at the midpoint of the failed trans-llano highway, and using the labour of Guahibo Indian, llanero workers and keen students from the universities, Lugari and colleagues developed prototype windmills, solar motors, water heater panels, micro-hydro turbines, biogas generators and various pumps. In 1976, the settlement, christened Gaviotas, was designated as a model community by the United Nations and given a research grant.
'They plant more trees than the Colombian government's entire forestry programme'
Later, inspired by a Catholic missionnary settlement in Brazil, the Gaviotas residents started hydroponic nurseries, with plants germinating in trays of sawdust and wood chips with added minerals. They also planted over a million tropical pines (pinus caribaea) having obtained the seedlings from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize and Honduras - indeed they plant more trees than the Colombian government's entire forestry programme. Instead of cutting them for timber, they're selling the renewable sap for making paint and turpentine.
In the moist understory of the Gaviotas forest, birds have returned to redistribute seed - dormant seeds of native trees probably not seen in Los Llanos for millennia are sprouting. Biologists have now counted at least 40 species which are sheltered by Caribbean pines. Over the coming decades, Gaviotas will let these new native trees choke out the pines (which are anyway sterile) and return the Llanos plains to what many believe was their primeval state, an extension of the Amazon. Already the population of deer and anteaters is growing.
Whilst coping with intrusions by military, guerillas and paramilitary groups, the Gaviotans have also had to develop ways to become self-sufficient, once the UN grant ran out.
The factory at Gaviotas employs many of the 130 Gaviotas residents, as well as people from surrounding communities. Here they produce the innovative devices that Gaviotas uses and sells, such as the windmills and a double action pump which pumps water six times deeper than normal models. Instead of raising and lowering the heavy piston inside a pipe, this one leaves the piston stationery and lifts the pipe made of plastic tubing. This simple, inexpensive pump has revolutionised rural life across Colombia for people who used to haul their water in buckets from muddy tropical rivers.
'The children's see-saw is actually a pump in disguise. Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards'
In the open-air Gaviotas preschool, the children's see-saw is actually a pump in disguise. As they rise and descend, water gushes from a vertical pipe into an open cement tank. Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards, using kid power to provide villages with clean water.
Besides schooling for their children, housing, health care, and food are free in Gaviotas, and everyone earns the same above minimum wage salary. With no poverty, that's why families remain a manageable size and why there's no crime problem in Gaviotas. And apparently no one gets married in the Gaviotas utopia. Couples live in free union.
'No one gets married in the Gaviotas utopia. Couples live in free union'
The settlement's hospital building is set on a rise, a maze of angles formed by sky lights, glass awnings, solar collectors, and brushed steel columns. A Japanese architectural journal has named this 16-bed Gaviotas hospital one of the 40 most important buildings in the world.
Inside, the air conditioning system is a blend of modern and ancient technology. The underground ducts have hillside intakes that face north to catch the breeze. Egyptians used this kind of wind ventilation to cool the pyramids.
In the hospital kitchen, methane from cow dung provides the gas for stove-top burners. But most of the cooking is done with solar pressure cookers. Photovoltaic cells on the roof run a pump; solar heated oil circulates around the stainless steel pot.
In a separate hospital wing, a large thatch ramada has been built for llanos-dwelling Guahivo Indians. Instead of beds, these patients lie in hammocks hung from wooden beams.
While the doctor treats the sick, their families stay with them because the Guahivo believe that to wall someone off away from his people is the ultimately unhealthy confinement. To earn their keep, the relatives tend vegetables in an adjacent greenhouse - Lugari hopes that this greenhouse will form the foundation for one of the finest medicinal plant laboratories in the tropics.
A new village is planned for the 600 resin-collecting workers they expect to need by the year 2004, with additional factories to encourage women to come - factories producing drinking water, fruit preserves and harps.
More recently, Gaviotas has decided to sell its cattle herd and to allow Gaviotans to raise rabbits, chicken and fish as private enterprises. "Too much red meat is bad for us," says Lugari, "too many cow pastures are bad for the environment and too much hamburgerizacion is bad for the world."
Meanwhile, in Bogota, Colombia's capital, rooftop solar collectors developed by Gaviotas are now heating water for more than 50,000 apartments.
The whole story of this remarkable community is told in the book
Gaviotas! A Village to Reinvent the World
by Alan Weisman, published by Chelsea Green Publishing Co, and available from Green Books.Click on the image below to order the book for £10.95.
If anyone is interested in contacting the community directly, there is no e-mail or website available. Since there are no English speakers, contact has to be made in Spanish.
Centro Gaviotas, Paseo de Bolivar #20-90, Avenida Circunvalar, Bogota, DC, Colombia (tel +57 1 2286 74466 / 2969; fax +57 1 281 1803)
This project won the main Social Innovations Award for 1998 and £1,000 in prize money. The following is summarised from an article by Alan Weisman, entitled 'Gaviotas, oasis of the imagination', in Yes, 'a journal of positive futures' (Summer '98; subs $24, PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110, USA, tel 206 842 0216; fax 206 842 5208; e-mail: email@example.com; web: www.futurenet.org); and from a radio documentary by Alan Weisman broadcast on May 1st '98 (World Media Foundation, Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA, tel 1-800-218-9988; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; the full text of this interview is on the web at: www.loe.org/html/books/gaviotas.html).