Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
- = Sustainable Economy Initiatives = -

GAVIOTAS

Gaviotas is a self-sufficient ecological village that has been built out of nothing in an impoverished area of Colombia as a conscious demonstration of social idealism, local economic development and ecological sustainability.

Origins

In the late 1960s, Paolo Lugari, an educated Colombian citizen, found himself reading, thinking and wondering about utopias, and how they came to be created. Columbia is a huge country. If you drive east from Bogota out of the Andes Mountains, you come to the rain-soaked savanna of the country’s eastern los Llanos region, just north of the Equator, that comprises more than a quarter of Colombia, but where only 2% of Colombia’s population lives because the soil is so poor. Flying over the area in 1965, Paolo realized that if he could start a utopia could be created here, on the worst of lands, people would understand that it could be done anywhere. He staked a claim to 25,000 acres at a place called Gaviotas (named after a local bird), and asked his friends at Bogota’s universities to help.

Aims and Objectives

Paolo’s objective was to use the intelligence and engineering skills of anyone who would answer his call to build a self-sufficient society that would be a role model for Columbia and the rest of the developing world. He wanted to empower ordinary people with the sense that it was possible, and that they did not have to accept the world the way it was, with its scarcity, poverty and misery.

Activities

A group of people responded to Paolo’s invitation, and in 1968 they made the 16 hour journey across a landscape that becomes increasingly impoverished as you travel east. Working together, they invented a way to mix soil with cement that enabled them to make buildings, dams, and drainage pipes. The surface water was too contaminated to be drinkable, but they realized that this region of the llanos must have deep underground water supplies from the Andes mountains, and Alonso Gutiérrez, one of the Gaviotas engineers, invented a light-weight sleeve pump that draws up clean deeper water which can be worked by children riding a see-saw or a swing. By the late 1980s, the Gaviotans had brought their sleeve pumps (and other technologies) to more than 600 villages through the government's Agua Para Todos (Water for All) program.

For energy, they looked towards the sun and the wind. There are no good winds at Gaviotas, but after fifty-eight attempts, they designed a windmill that can catch the slightest breeze, and which has subsequently demonstrated that it can run for years without need for repairs. They set up a local manufacturing plant at Gaviotas, and have installed thousands of the windmills all over Colombia.

They also designed a solar hot water heater that can gather energy from the sun even under cloudy and rainy conditions. The heater was so cheap and effective that they set up a factory in Bogota staffed by street kids, who they trained to become solar technicians, and started installing the heaters all over Bogota, bringing a steady income to Gaviotas.

Next, they designed a biogas generator, a solar pressure-cooker, and a solar kettle that provides safe, clean drinking water using a very thin copper heat exchanger and a condenser. It took six years to perfect, but in a world that is running out of fresh water, the implications are enormous. The pure water was essential for the solar hospital that they built in the 1980s, to serve the Gaviotans and people living in the surrounding villages. They didn’t register any patents on their technologies, since they wanted the world to enjoy the technologies for free.

The soil on the riverbanks was too poor for vegetables, so they grew lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants in containers made of nutritionless rice hulls, washed by manure tea. By the late 1970s, they had created a third of a square kilometer of hydroponic greenhouses.

At the end of the 1980s, Gaviotas began to run into trouble. Columbia’s embrace of free trade was flooding the market with mass-produced food, undercutting local farmers and driving them to the cultivation of coca. The oil industry was booming and the market for their windmills and solar collectors was declining.

There were no trees that would grow in los llanos, but searching for a plant that could survive the harsh llanos soil, they found a Caribbean pine from Venezuela that would grow if the roots of its seedlings were dipped in a fungus that was missing from the local soil. Without having a clear plan for the future, they planted 20,000 acres with the pines. As the pine-forest grew, it provided shade for a host of other seeds, dropped by birds or blown in on the wind. They didn’t clear the brush under the forest, since they did not want to use chemical herbicides, and after a few years, they began to notice new plants and shrubs appearing, and that the forest was being populated by jacarandas, saplings, deer, ant-eaters, armadillos, capybaras, and eagles – tropical rainforest creatures that normally inhabit the Amazon. Under the canopy of the pine forest, a Colombian rainforest was being restored.

They discovered that they could tap the pines for resin and process it into turpentine, replacing the 3,300 tons of imported chemical products which Colombia depended on for use in paints, glues, cosmetics, perfumes, and medicines at a yearly cost of $2.4 million. They designed a pollution-free factory to distill the resin, earning a 1997 United Nations World Zero Emissions award, and found the new source of income they so desperately needed.

They also realized that by planting the pines in ever-increasing circles and harvesting the resin, they could restore los llanos to a fertile rainforest with rich, productive soil. They are now working with the Guahibo Indians to research 250 new species of native plants that have appeared, seeking their ethno-botanical properties.

Structure

The structure of Gaviotas is a loose confederation of families and individuals, who cooperate in a manner that enables every family to enjoy free housing, community meals, and schooling. Paolo Lugari takes on the responsibility to ensure that the various Gaviotas projects earn enough money to support the 200 families who live at Gaviotas. There are no weapons, no police, no jail, and no mayor. This is the only way to survive in a militarized environment, where the possession of a single weapon would bring immediate suspicion and hostility from the armed factions that control large parts of rural Colombia.

Finance

In its early days, Gaviotas received some funding from the Colombian government, and some international grants, including technology development grants from the United Nations. As their businesses prospered, they were able to manage without the aid; by 1998, the community has sold more than 40,000 solar heaters, 8,000 windmills, and 700 micro-aqueducts. In the early 1980s, however, the price of oil collapsed, and people lost interest in sustainable technologies, causing their income to dry up. It was at this point that they discovered that they could harvest the resin from the pines. With $1.9 million in financing from the IDB-administered Japan Special Fund, they planted an additional 4,000 hectares of pines and built a plant with a capacity to distill 2,500 tons of resin.

Performance

By 2002, despite transportation problems, insurgent groups and lack of government presence, the community had developed 36,000 hectares of pine tree plantations. With so much forest to care for, the Gaviotans have recently launched a locally designed and manufactured airship equipped with infrared to patrol it, 24 hours a day. The airship serves as an early warning system for fires, to which the villagers can respond within 15 minutes. By 1998, annual production of colophony was totalling 500 tons, and the project had created 85 permanent jobs. They sell the resin in the domestic market, and they hope to start exporting the resin in 2004, when production from the maturing trees will allow the plant to operate at its full capacity of 2,500 tons annually.

With the new forest emerging under the canopy of the pines, the community has several million tonnes of available timber from the older pine trees. As a result, Gaviotas has sold its diesel generators, and replaced them with old airplane turbines fired with waste wood from the plantation. Since February 2002, the community has been totally off the grid, and energy independent.

The Gaviotans were recently faced with another crisis, when the world prices for colofonia (resin) fell by 50%, and the extortion racket that local militias enforce on the road to Bogota caused an increase in the transport costs. They started tapping their trees for twice as much resin, but by using a beneficial enzyme instead of sulfuric acid when making the incisions, and by using mycorrhiza fungus on the roots of the trees, they have been able to avoid the normal loss of productivity that would occur after a doubling of the resin extraction.

When the hospital of which they were so proud was closed down by a very insensitive Colombian law, they converted the hospital into a water purification and bottling center. By providing fresh drinking water to the local population, they are reducing local gastro-intestinal ailments – turning another crisis into an opportunity.

Future

The future of Gaviotas is simultaneously perilous and optimistic, because of the hostile environment in which Gaviotas exists, surrounded by militias, violence and frequent kidnapping, and because the Gaviotans respond to the threats by studiously not taking sides, and by working for the greater good of all Colombians – a fact which is normally respected by the militias. In a post-Kyoto world, Gaviotas is operating as a zero-energy community, producing carbon-free energy from the sun, wind and local biomass, while sequestering millions of tonnes of carbon in the restored forest.

Further information:

Gaviotas does not have email or a website, and letters from overseas are not answered. For articles, photographs, news, and other details, visit the Friends of Gaviotas website, www.friendsofgaviotas.org


Written by Guy Dauncey, Sustainable Communities Consultancy, Victoria, B.C., Canada

guydauncey@earthfuture.com