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Gaviotas: Village of Hope

A search for answers in Colombia leads two activists into the unpredictable world of Gaviotas.
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The Flow of Ideas

Back in Bogotá, we looked for more clues to Gaviotas’ success as we met with Dr. Jorge Zapp, the 67-year-old scientist who served as unofficial technical director of Gaviotas in the 1970s and 1980s.

After leaving Gaviotas, Zapp spent years as a technical evaluator for the United Nations Development Program, and we asked him how Gaviotas had influenced international development projects elsewhere in the world.

Gaviotas, Water Pump

Author Christian Casillas helps operate a Gaviotas drinking water pump.

Photo by Seth Biderman

Zapp said Gaviotas never had a formal plan for disseminating solutions or technology. But ideas flowed in and out of the community through “natural diffusion.” He rattled off a list of appropriate technologies pioneered in Gaviotas and adopted in projects “from Patagonia to Maine.” There was the double-action water pump, a simplified cement and chicken-wire building technique, and pioneering work in low-cost hydroponics. Gaviotan solar water heaters have been installed atop buildings across Colombia. A brick-making press—not invented by Gaviotans but proven viable when they used it to build their factory, hospital, and homes—became a key tool in the reconstruction of cities across Latin America leveled by natural disasters.

But the real lessons of Gaviotas aren’t about technology. “What was spread in large part,” Zapp said, “was that people learned to believe in their own abilities.”

Gaviotas demonstrated to the world how effective it is to involve ordinary people in creating their own technologies and solving their own problems.

Case in point: A Peruvian government official visited Gaviotas in the early 1980s and took note of the village’s nutritional program, which provided a daily glass of fortified milk to each child. The official brought both the idea and Gaviotas’ collaborative approach back to Lima. Instead of creating a top-down government program, he helped mobilize poor mothers to prepare and distribute the milk themselves. The program ultimately empowered thousands of women through the popular movement known as Vaso de Leche. The nutritional practice spread, and with it the Gaviotan emphasis on community participation.

Zapp’s experiences at Gaviotas led to a turning point in his work. He left what he calls the “priesthood of science,” in which experts deliver ­knowledge to “the masses,” and committed his life to helping people develop their own solutions. In Zapp’s definition, development means renewing one’s faith in the collective intelligence of humans.

Making Space for Creativity

We came away from our visit to Colombia with a new understanding of what it looks like to address environmental and social problems in a sustainable, inclusive way.

Lugari made it clear that Gaviotas is not something you can replicate. He’d visited organizations and ecologically friendly towns around the world. But none combined all the essential ingredients he feels are necessary for sustainability. Security concerns, shifting national politics, and financial constraints have hamstrung efforts to create larger versions of Gaviotas elsewhere in the savannah.

Gaviotas mural, photo by Christian Casillas

A mural of Gaviotas village.

Photo by Christian Casillas

We spoke with Alan Weisman, who confirmed Lugari’s assessment. Weisman has received thousands of inquiries about Gaviotas from professors, energy experts, high schools, international NGOs, and even a dance company in Oregon. “People constantly tell me,” Weisman says, “that the place just gives them hope.” But Weisman knows of no one who has started a Gaviotas replica.

Lugari never intended for Gaviotas to serve as a blueprint for sustainable development, or even a clearinghouse of appropriate technologies. Instead, he wanted to show the world that it was possible to live sustainably by drawing on local resources, or as he describes it, living within the “economy of the near.” And he has done so by staying faithful to two principles: allowing space for adaptation and creativity, and ensuring that everyone, not just “experts,” is involved and empowered.

To realize our New Mexico vision, we’ll need to embrace Lugari’s principles and release our grip on our plans. We are now exploring ways to collaborate with others and expand our summer institute into a year-round “school.” We envision a place where youth work with community members and create their own new strategies and technologies, searching for the imaginative “surprises” that our own little corner of New Mexico so desperately needs.

Seth Biderman and Christian Casillas wrote this article for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. They were born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Biderman is a teacher and writer currently based in Colombia. His work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, the Santa Fe Reporter, and The New York Times. Casillas is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.

Interested? Watch an interview with Paolo Lugari.


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