The Gaviotas Experiment

A small village in Colombia is teaching the world how to be sustainable

| July/August 1998

While Chile's hypermarket economy presents a bleak model of what the future might hold, another South American experimentóColombia's environmentally sustainable Gaviotas communityóoffers a very different picture. Since 1971, the lively collection of academic researchers, free-spirited inventors, local ranchers, Guahibo Indians, and former street kids living in this experimental village have developed dozens of ecologically sound ideas ranging from solar clothes dryers to Amazon reforestation strategiesómany of which have been adopted elsewhere in Latin America and other parts of the world.

It's hard to imagine any place on earth less likely to inspire hope about living in harmony with nature. Gaviotas sits in the midst of the vast llanos of eastern Colombiaóa stark savanna whose soil is practically barren. The eight-month rainy season gives way to scorching equatorial heat, and mosquito infestations alternate with raging prairie fires. 'They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place,' Gaviotas founder Paolo Lugari says in Alan Weisman's new book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World(Chelsea Green) 'We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.'

Lugari became interested in sustainable development while studying in Asia on a United Nations scholarship and concluded that the growing world population would soon make it necessary to build new communities in wilderness areas. Upon returning to Colombia, he decided to establish a research laboratory to show how this could be done without having a devastating effect on the environment. The great-great-great grandson of a Colombian president, Lugari used his political, social, and academic connections to get the project going. He set up shop in a couple of old sheds left over from a misbegotten highway project, a bone-crunching eight-hour drive over the Andes from Bogot?.

Respect for creativity was one of the governing principles of Gaviotas from the start. Engineers and researchers could explore any project that seemed promising to themóan idea Lugari borrowed from Thomas Edison's famous workshop at Menlo Park, New Jersey. But unlike Edison and company, the Gaviotans refused to patent their inventions. Instead, they offered them for free to poor communities around the world to improve their economic, environmental, and health prospects. Solar water purification systems and inexpensive pumps brought clean water to villages all over Colombia. Solar water heaters and solar kitchen stoves delivered on the promise of renewable-energy technology that could be used in the developing world (although a longed-discussed solar refrigerator was never perfected). Solar panels and windmills manufactured in Gaviotas are used throughout the country. The researchers built a hospital out of an innovative soil-based cement and cooled the building with a system based on the natural circulation of air.

Gaviotas began to gain international attention as a model community during the energy crisis of the 1970s, winning a major grant and commendation from the United Nations in 1976. The Gaviotans were lauded not only for their technological ingenuity but also for creating an oasis of social harmony in a nation torn apart by political violence, drug trafficking wars, and attacks on indigenous people.

When oil prices plunged in 1986, the world forgot about renewable energyóand about Gaviotas. The election of a conservative president in Colombia in 1990 made things even worse: Many of the rural development and social programs that had funded Gaviotas' work were axed. Even the hospital was forced to close, under new health care policies favoring large private institutions.

Yet the Gaviotans' spirit of playful creativityótheir penchant for pursuing an idea on little more than a hunch that it might provide interesting resultsóended up saving the community from oblivion. In the early days, Professor Sven Zethelius of the University of the Andes tried planting many different kinds of trees on the outskirts of the village to see how they would fare in the harsh climate. One species, a tropical pine from Honduras, thrived in the llanos. It also produced a resin that could be marketed as a key ingredient in a range of cosmetics, medicines, paints, glues, shoes, and chewing gum. It was a timely discovery in an era when more and more manufacturers are choosing natural materials over synthetic substitutes.

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