In 1971, John Lennon released the peace anthem “Imagine” to convey an idyllic vision of humanity working together cooperatively without war, political barriers, religions or possessions.
The same year, a group of Colombian dreamers banded together to establish an intentional community on an inhospitable savannah in the middle of nowhere. Isolated from the rest of the world, their remarkable story has been slowly trickling out.
Cowboys and Indians
Infamous for being the nexus of the global cocaine trade, Colombia faces numerous challenges. A civil war has been running for many years between the government and left-wing guerrillas. Complicating the picture, both the guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces are engaged in narcotics trafficking.
Colombia is less well known for its huge biodiversity, the world’s second highest in relation to land area. With the northern end of the Andes mountain range crossing this tropical country, a large range of forest types is represented. However, with hundreds of thousands of hectares deforested every year, Colombia’s population is in need of models for sustainable living.
In the east, a vast plain known as Los Llanos stretches all the way to the Venezuelan border, covering about a quarter of Colombia. Sparsely populated, it is home to a scattering of ranchers and native Guahibo Indians. Extreme conditions include temperatures above 40C for months in a row, periods of torrential rain, and prairie fires. The nutrient-poor soils are highly acidic.
Some ecologists believe that this stretch of land was originally an extension of the Amazon rainforest, destroyed about thirty thousand years ago by climatic changes and severe fires. Although ‘gallery forest’ lines the riverbanks, the only vegetation found elsewhere is tough grass.
The start of a bold experiment
When Paolo Lugari, the son of a tropical geographer, first saw the endless llano from a small plane in 1965, his imagination was captured by the unlikely idea of human habitation. Making numerous overland visits, he located two decaying warehouses left behind from a failed road-building project. Here he staked out about ten thousand hectares as the future location of Gaviotas, a community named after the locally occurring river gull that appears at dusk.
The decision to settle in such an inhospitable place was deliberate. Anticipating that population pressures would one day require humans to re-inhabit areas they had given up on, he wanted to find some way of settling the llano itself, rather than the thin fertile river strips. According to Lugari’s reasoning, utopian communities usually pick easy locations. By contrast, if it could be done here, it can be done anywhere.
Tapping the knowledge of his contacts in the academic world, he successfully persuaded scientists, artists, agronomists and engineers to make the long trip. Against the odds, this diverse community managed to gain a foothold, helped by a strong emphasis on self-reliance and creative experimentation.
It was soon discovered that mixing 14 parts of the local earth with one part of cement produced a basic building material. Energy was generated from renewable installations designed on site, and eventually the Gaviotans learned to grow vegetables in containers of rice hulls with the addition of manure tea.
In dry weather, Gaviotas can be reached by jeep in a 16-hour (two-day) trip on a rutted track from the capital Bogotá. The road often passes checkpoints belonging to the army and guerrilla forces. Plane trips are far less arduous, lasting only a couple of hours.
With a population of around 200, Gaviotas is characterised by white cottages shaded by large mango and bougainvillea trees. It has grown up with a unique social system where this is no mayor, jail or police presence. Marriages have been replaced with open partnerships, and somehow the villagers get by without organised religion or politics. Housing, schooling and food are all free.
What differentiates Gaviotas from a hippy commune is its hands-on quality, the focus on innovation and a never-say-die spirit that has steered it safely through formidable challenges. Adults are expected to help out with the work.
When the deteriorating security situation first brought matters to a head, Gaviotans decided that the best defence was to remain unarmed and to avoid taking sides. Their desire was to be an island of peace untouched by the surrounding troubles. Remarkably, this strategy has paid off; guerrilla groups have left Gaviotas alone, saying that the community’s work is too important to be disrupted.
Renewable energy solutions
In many cases, renewable energy systems from the US or Europe were found to be unsuitable for the unique local conditions. Developing several innovative designs, these were all deliberately left unpatented. Despite the financial challenges that would arise from declining to profit from its intellectual property, this move has facilitated the take-up of Gaviotas technologies in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.
Because surface water carried malaria, it was necessary to tap underground aquifers. A new design of water pump was devised that is capable of obtaining water from six times the depth of a standard pump. In another leap of ingenuity, the pump was incorporated into a childrens’ seesaw that has since been adopted by seven hundred Colombian villages.
Windmills are also used for pumping water, and a total of 58 designs were trialed before one was found that worked. To catch the gentle llano breezes, an ultra-light model was developed that looks like a giant sunflower. Today these are found dotted around the community.
Researchers invented a solar hot water system capable of capturing the sun’s energy on the cloudy days common in Bogotá. At a Gaviotas plant in the city, alongside solar panels and wind turbines, these cheap and efficient units were manufactured for use in government-run social housing projects.
Following a 2003 networking trip to the United States, Lugari was inspired to set up a biodiesel operation. This non-petroleum fuel is made from a mixture of waste vegetable oil and virgin oil derived from a hundred-hectare oil palm plantation.
A unique building
Being a long distance from civilisation, Gaviotas decided that it needed its own hospital, and as usual, it was not in a hurry to copy what had gone before. This building, which was designed by a student called Esperanza Caro, has been voted one of world’s 40 most important buildings by a Japanese architecture journal. It has been described as simultaneously ancient and futuristic.
Completely self-sufficient in energy, solar power is used to generate electricity while boiling and distilling water on demand. Natural techniques are employed for reducing humidity in the surgeon’s room. In the 40-degree heat, air conditioning is achieved by funnelling breezes through underground ducts, while unwanted heat is carried away by opposing layers of corrugated roofing that form a series of air channels.
Sadly, as a result of wrongheaded government thinking, it was necessary to close the hospital facility during the 1990s. An insensitive one-size-fits-all policy required that all the country’s hospitals must have minimum standards, including substantial medical insurance support. This left the province of Vichada, a region the size of Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg combined, without a hospital; Gaviotas had the only one within a 12-hour radius, and was treating everyone free of charge, including combatants in the civil war.
Pines to the rescue
The poor soils on the llano were seemingly unable support Colombian tree species, but one tree that had thrived was the Caribbean Pine from Honduras, hardy enough to survive if saplings were treated with a mycorrhizal fungus soil conditioner. A small grove of pines had been planted near the community, but nobody knew what to do with them.
In the 1980s, as falling oil prices caused a downturn in the wind and solar business, Gaviotas was facing a financial crisis. Then somebody hit upon the idea of pine resin, a substance that is processed into gum rosin, also known as colophony. Remarkably, the trees at Gaviotas were found to produce twice the resin yield of any other pine forest in the world.
Helped by a sizeable loan from the Japanese Special Fund, over a 12-year period a total of 1.6 million pines was planted, covering eleven thousand hectares: this was the largest reforestation program ever seen in Colombia. The fears of environmentalists regarding the monoculture planting of an introduced species were later allayed when it was found that the pines were sterile on Los Llanos, presenting no invasive competition to the local flora.
Today, Gaviotas colophony is sold to Colombian industries in large quantities as an environmentally sound alternative to imported petrochemical resins, for use in natural paint manufacture, cosmetics, medicine, glossy paper, and as violin resin. It is the community’s primary income source.
The UN-affiliated group Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) promotes techniques for generating extra economic value from finite resources by making intelligent use of waste by-products. A dialogue between Gaviotas and ZERI has been running for many years, and extra add-on industries have been established on the back of the resin business. Turpentine is one saleable commodity produced during the resin heating process; in addition, the wastewater from production contains 3% pine-scented essential oils, making it an excellent starting point for non-toxic cleaning products, particularly toilet cleaners.
With 160 jobs so far created in resin production and its spin-offs, Gaviotas has become the region’s primary employer. From within a three-hour horse ride of the facility, many indigenous workers come to stay during the week, and return to their villages for the weekends. Raising economic conditions in the area has had numerous beneficial follow-on effects.
Watching the forest return
As they grew, the pines protected the soil from the harsh sun, and the continuous dropping of pine needles has helped to create a humous layer. The soil’s pH value rose from 4 to 5, indicating less acidity, and topsoil water quality greatly improved. This microclimate enabled species to survive that would be unable to live anywhere else on the savannah.
The edge of the Amazon rainforest is marked by the Orinoco River about 500 kilometres to the east. From that direction, birds, bees and the wind carry seeds and spores onto the plain. Numerous native tree species began to appear among the pines, aided by an avoidance of herbicide use; their presence in a polyculture system has actually improved the health of the plantation. Gaviotans were unexpectedly dealing with a tropical forest in the making.
By 1996, a total of 245 native species had been counted. Animals have been appearing, including deer, anteaters, eagles and capybaras (a kind of large rodent). The Guahibo Indians are excitedly rediscovering medicinal plants that they thought had been lost. Members of the community are now working with them to investigate the properties of these plants in an ethno-botanical research laboratory.
Another spin-off from the reforestation program is a 10% increase in precipitation, and the creation of a high quality water supply. In the region surrounding Gaviotas, diseases from unsanitary water are common, and infant mortality is high. To help tackle this problem, the community now sells bottled water at one fifth of the cost of the equivalent product transported from Bogotá, making it affordable to local families. Although there is an environmental benefit in cutting out so much unnecessary transportation, the ultimate solution will ideally involve an alternative to petrochemical plastic packaging.
Gaviotas is keen to see this economically beneficial reforestation method applied across Los Llanos. It has given away thousands of seedlings to neighbours, and groves of young pines are already thriving nearby. In 2004, the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez announced that a further 45,000 hectares would be allocated to Caribbean Pine reforestation projects.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Due to the variable security situation, few Westerners have made the trip to Gaviotas in recent years, although recent reports from the llano indicate an improvement. The best contact point for the community is a Californian-based group called Friends of Gaviotas.
Over the years, there have been numerous visions of Gaviotas being replicated in other countries. Perhaps this is a case of missing the point, because someone caught up in the romanticism of rolling prairies, white cottages and giant metal sunflowers will be facing a different set of challenges in another part of the world.
For Colombia’s growing population, Gaviotas’ ambitious sustainable development projects in the wider region offer an alternative path to further deforestation in the Upper Amazon region and the highly biodiverse coastal Choco strip.
When Paolo Lugari was told that his creation was utopia, he replied that in Greek the prefix ‘u’ indicates ‘no’, and therefore Utopia signifies ‘no place’. In his words, “We’ve gone from fantasy to reality, from Utopia to Topia.”
Friends of Gaviotas http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org
Gaviotas Community, Paseo Bolivar 20-90, Bogotá, DC, Colombia S.A.
Alan Weisman – Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1998)
Share this post