The Gaviotas Experiment

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
‘We figured if we could do it here, we could do it

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.

With funding from Japanese sources through the Inter-American
Development Bank, the Gaviotans planted millions of these trees and
launched a thriving business. But even more importantly, they
discovered that their pine forests are setting the stage for the
return of the rainforests. Not only do the trees stimulate the
growth of native plant species in the undercoveró245 in all,
according to one countóbut since they can’t reproduce on their own
in this climate, they’ll eventually die out and let the native
species take over, returning the llanos to the diverse rainforest
it once was.

‘There are 250 million hectares of savannas like these in South
America alone,’ notes Lugari. ‘If we show the world how to plant
them in sustainable forests, we can give people productive lives
and maybe absorb enough carbon dioxide to stabilize global warming
in the process.’Everywhere else they’re tearing down the
rainforests,’ he adds. ‘We’re showing how to put them back.’

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