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Gaviotas: Village of Hope

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

Gaviotas, Aerial

For three decades, the village of Gaviotas has worked to build a sustainable, imaginative community in the eastern savannahs of Colombia. They have planted 20,000 acres of pines, creating shade and soil that has nurtured the return of hundreds of species of native plants and animals.

Photo by Christian Casillas

We first learned about Gaviotas, the legendary sustainable Colombian village, in 2004, while working in our home state, New Mexico. The two of us helped found a group called La Mesita, “the small table,” composed of three educators, a renewable energy scientist, a water-rights attorney, and a community organizer. We decided to start a project that would involve teenagers in organic agriculture and renewable energy in Ribera, a rural village in the north of the state. We believed that reviving northern New Mexico’s agricultural and cultural traditions could help the region confront both its environmental crises, like unsustainable water use, and its deepening social problems, such as rural drug abuse and teen pregnancy.

A member of our group brought us a copy of journalist Alan Weisman’s book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World.

“This is what we’re trying to create,” she said. “This village proves it’s possible.”

All of us took turns tearing through the book, spellbound by the story of a visionary man named Paolo Lugari and the remarkable group of scientists, students, Guahibo Indians, and cowhands who had succeeded in creating a resilient community amid the barren soils, shifting politics, and sporadic violence of Colombia’s eastern savannahs.

The book’s stories of innovation and perseverance inspired us as we moved forward. Our project convened scientists, educators, farmers, builders, and youth for a six-week, hands-on institute, where participants taught permaculture and organic farming, helped build an off-the-grid, energy-efficient house, and handcrafted a working wind turbine. The pilot project ran for two summers, but we were unable to maintain funding, and our colleagues went their separate ways.

It wasn’t until five years later that the authors of this piece had the chance to visit Gaviotas. We had wondered if it held clues that could have moved our New Mexico project forward. Then by coincidence, the two of us ended up in Colombia at the same time.

We contacted New York Times ­correspondent Simon Romero, a fellow New Mexican who had grown up near the site of the La Mesita summer institutes. Romero had long wanted to report on Gaviotas. With his help, we arranged a one-day tour with Lugari.

Village of Surprises

The night before our visit, we all met up in the busy city of Villavicencio, gateway to the region of savannah known as los llanos. Over steaks and Colombian pilsner, Paolo Lugari captivated us with impassioned conversation that ranged from subjects like the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci to the failure of Western education.

Gaviotas, Paolo Lugari

Founder Paolo Lugari gives a tour of the community's agricultural fields. Considered a model of sustainable development, Gaviotas grows its own food and runs a successful pine-resin factory in the middle of the harsh Colombian savannahs.

Photo by Christian Casillas

He was just as energetic the next morning at daybreak in Villavicencio’s tiny airport as he pointed out the black Gaviotas dot on a wall map, and told us to expect the unexpected.

“In Gaviotas,” he said, “one lives in a state of perpetual surprise.”

Ninety minutes later, we began to understand what he meant, as our tiny Cessna airplane descended over Gaviotas. We’d read Weisman’s account of the village’s reforestation projects—Caribbean pines had created shade and soil that nurtured the regrowth of hundreds of species of native flora and fauna. But nothing prepared us for the sight of 20,000 acres of dark green trees bursting impossibly from the acidic savannah soils.

A small group of Gaviotans met us on the airstrip and invited us onto a broken-down minibus, towed by a tractor that ran on biofuel produced in the village. The tractor hauled us into the forest, where the Gaviotans demonstrated how they collect pine resin with little more than an axe and a plastic bag. Between the pines was their new fuel crop, African palms. But the Gaviotas palm plantings looked nothing like the massive, monocropped rows of palms we’d seen outside Villavicencio. Gaviotans mimic nature by keeping the forest diverse, one palm to every 10 pines, interspersed with fruit trees and native plants.

The bus headed past a full-sized dirigible, constructed on-site to monitor forest fires, and into the village. There we watched children pump drinking water from depths of over 100 feet. The award-winning Gaviotan sleeve pump has allowed residents to stop using the contaminated shallow water sources around the village.

We paused at the community kitchen, which produces hundreds of meals a day using an energy-efficient stove that burns wood thinned from the forest. We then followed Lugari into one of the resident’s simple homes, so he could show us the passive cooling system and demonstrate that water from the bathroom faucet was scalding hot, thanks to the rooftop solar water heater the Gaviotans had manufactured themselves.

The longest stop on our tour was in the economic heart of Gaviotas, its pine-resin processing and packaging factory, which now generates almost 80 percent of the community’s revenue. Here, cartloads of resin are brought from the forest and distilled for use in making varnish, paints, and adhesives. The entire factory runs on renewable energy. Steam used for processing the resin is created in a boiler fueled by sustainably harvested wood, while the generator and tractors operate on African palm oil or recycled vegetable oil from Bogotá mixed with pine turpentine. Many of the residents’ motorcycles run on a gasoline and pine-turpentine mix.

We kept our eyes open for some lesson we could bring back to New Mexico, a secret to Gaviotas’ success. Our first clue came from an offhand comment we overheard in the factory. Lugari asked a foreman how work was proceeding on a project to use byproducts from the resin processing to pave the muddy roads. The foreman gave an inconclusive report.

“Excellent,” said Lugari. “We’ll proceed A.V.V.”

“A.V.V.?” we asked.

“Allí vamos viendo,” he explained. “We’ll see what happens as we go along.”

The response seemed nonchalant, but it represented an approach that has been fundamental to the village’s longevity. Everywhere we looked, we saw examples of how the Gaviotans had encountered obstacles, gone back to the drawing board, and “surprised” themselves by discovering a way to adapt. The very building in which we stood, for example, had been a solar hot-water panel factory before shifting markets and government policy forced Gaviotans to search for a new product. Gaviotans’ efforts to grow their own food had led them through experiments in hydroponics, use of organic fertilizers, and African goat-herding. The beautiful glass and steel building that was once a fully functioning hospital was converted into a research laboratory and then a water-purification and bottling plant.

It became clear to us that most of the successes at Gaviotas were not a result of brilliant planning but of a trial and error process, replete with wrong turns and detours.

Gaviotas showed us that there is not an orchestrated march toward a finished product—there is only the process, the unpredictable evolution of strategies and ideas.

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