If you drive east out of Bogatá, Colombia into the eastern llanos of the Vichada province -- and you manage to avoid the paramilitary government troops and the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who regularly battle in this empty place -- you will come across a small village of roughly 200 people. They'll give you a free meal, and if you ask they might show you their revolutionary designs for power-collecting windmills, solar heating systems, and even their hospital, which the Japanese Architectural Journal has designated one of the 40 most important buildings in the world. There is no mayor here, and no crime; no guns, and also (for some reason) no dogs.
Welcome to Gaviotas.
"They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places," Gaviotas founder Paolo Lugari is quoted as saying. "We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere."
The Llanos Orientales (or "eastern plains") of Colombia is certainly one of the hardest places Lugari and his colleagues might have picked. It's a desolate place, isolated from the world, and the soil is so acidic that it has long proved extremely difficult to grow crops there. Though the region comprises almost a quarter of Colombia, until the 1980s less than 2% of the nation's population lived there.
In the late 1960s, Lugari and a group of like-minded environmental engineers and researchers went to the Llanos Orientales to realize Lugari's vision of a self-sustaining community, separate from what he saw as the rising tide of problems that society was facing. Thus was born Gaviotas.
It's a familiar plotline from a thousand novels and bad TV movies of the week, of course: social-minded intellectuals heave off to Erewhon to create the perfect society. In most versions of the story, they fail miserably (The Mosquito Coast, anyone?). But Lugari and his colleagues have succeeded beyond anyone's reasonable expectations.
Upon their arrival, the Gavioteros began figuring out ways to draw water in the inhospitable climate. They eventually created a unique design for a deep-soil water pump, in which the piston stays stationary and the sleeve around it actually moves up and down. The entire mechanism is attached, on the surface, to a children's seesaw; by playing on the seesaw, the local children actually provide the water for the village.
Other Gaviotan designs include a sunflower-shaped windmill design that has proven so effective that copies of it can be found all over Colombia, thanks to their commonly-held policy of refusing to patent their designs. Indeed, in some places, the word for "windmill" is gaviotas.
The Gaviotas hospital is also an astonishing example of self-sustainable technology. Global:Ideas:Bank describes it thusly:
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.
Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of the Gavioteros is their reforestation of the Orientales Llanos. They discovered that the soil in the area was too shallow and acidic to sustain the fauna of the nearby rainforests. So, in 1984, they began planting Caribbean pines, hardy trees that could survive in the unforgiving ecosystem. The plan was to replenish the soil of the area and reforest an area which had been barren for centuries.
Their plan worked better than they might have hoped. Currently, Gaviotas has planted 8,000 hectares of Caribbean pines, creating a 10% rise in precipitation in the area. In addition, they discovered that the resin produced by the plant -- which they can harvest without damaging the tree itself -- can be converted to colofonia, a substance used in everything from paint and paper to cosmetics. This provides an excellent source of sustainable income for the community. The recent planting of 800 acres of palm trees is allowing them to use the trees' oil to make biodiesel. As of 2004, Gaviotas has been entirely fossil fuel-independent.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to reach Gaviotas currently, due to the volatile politics of the area and the constant fighting between the government, FARC and the area's narcotraficantes, which is perhaps one reason why the community and its vision is so relatively obscure. A good place to start finding out more is journalist Alan Weisman's 1998 book Gaviotas: A Village To Reinvent The World. There are also excellent articles available from ZERI and New Internationalist. Gaviotas's "unofficial official" website can be found at www.friendsofgaviotas.org.
Thank you for posting about Gaviotas. I've been an Gaviotas evangalist for a while now and it's good that you guys are starting to cover it. This group is likely to be the first Unplugged.
Yes to Gaviotas. Yes to Curitiba. Yes to Kerala and yes to Auroville where their work in erosion control and tree planting have also changed the patterns of rainfall in their region.
Yes to the memory of New Alchemy Institute and the reality of Freiburg, Germany. Yes to all those who are making the small but significant changes that move us all toward a more ecological culture.
In 2003 I was privileged to meet Paolo Lugari during a rare visit to North America. Spending a few hours with him was an extraordinary experience.
It's ironic (and sad) that what's so remarkable about Gaviotas is simply that its residents live the way humans evolved to live--the way humans lived for at least 95% of our species' existence. To me what's so extraordinary about Gaviotas is simply that it really ought to be utterly ordinary.
I had the pleasure of hearing Paol Lugari speak a few years ago in New Mexico, and got a pretty current picture of the situation there. Though I could (and have been known to ;-) go on at length about Gaviotas (see more at http://neil.verplank.org/travel/nMexico/ if you're interested), there are three things I think are worth mentioning.
If I had to distill everything that I think makes Gaviotas unique into a single identifier, it would be their collective devotion to place. There are many intentional communities, but the people of Gaviotas have thrived because they've continued to innovate in order to cheaply harness the power of the rain, the wind, the sun, even the waste. For instance, rather than import expensive Western solar technologies, they created their own for far less money. They also have experimented socially, and obviously culturaly. But they've chosen not to be devoted to a particular idealology, but to a particular place, and making that place work in a sustainable way.
Initially, the Gaviotans had no idea why they were planting trees - they just figured it was one more thing to try. They planted sterile pines (in order not to incontrollably change the ecosystem), and when they found how well they grew, they planted more, knowing they'd find a use for them someday. The most astonishing thing they found that was in the shade of the new pine forest, the rainforest has been returning. Long dormant seeds in previously inhospitable soil, combined with those carried by newly arriving birds, have brought back species that are thriving to the east, in what is now the Amazon. They haven't so much changed the ecosystem as it turns out - they've brought it back!
Finally, a lot of people ask Paolo Lugari, how can I visit, or is it possible to live there. In essence, Paolo's response was this: The point of Gaviotas is not that you should come to it, but that you should adopt its spirit wherever you are.