Gaviotas! Oasis of the Imagination :: Part 2

There was one thing the inventors and visionaries of Gaviotas hadn't expected when they began planting trees in the barren soils of Columbia's plain—they hadn't expected to see the rainforest come back…

Paolo Lugari, a visionary from Colombia, knew that someday the world would become so crowded that humans would have to learn to live in the planet's least desirable areas. With that in mind, he gathered some of Colombia's experts in engineering, medicine, and agriculture, along with a handful of graduate students, farmers, and “adventurous thinkers,” and started a community on the arid, infertile plains of Colombia.

Soon, Gaviotas became a model of sustainability, and the appropriate technologies created by the Gaviotans—powerful solar collectors, innovative water pumps that could collect clean, safe water from the deepest aquifers, and ultralight windmills that took advantage of mild, tropical breezes—caught the attention of the United Nations, which gave the Gaviotans funding to develop more technologies and spread them throughout Latin America and the developing world.

This is the second part of our adaptation from the book Gaviotas! A Village to Reinvent the World. Read part one here.

There was one thing the inventors and visionaries of Gaviotas hadn't expected when they began planting trees in the barren soils of Colombia's plains—they hadn't expected to see the rainforest come back...
Photo by Alan Weisman
In Colombia in 1978, nothing was working as well as it might have. From 1958, the end of the Co-lombian military dictatorship, until 1974, the two opposing Colombian political parties by agreement had alternated four-year presidencies. This unified “National Front” was meant to institutionalize cooperation throughout the land.

Over nearly a generation, instead of providing credits, land, and opportunities to raise the mass of the country's population from poverty, the leaders and powerful families of each side mainly divided these among themselves. Under this transition back to “democracy,” not only funds for Indian health programs, but promises made during military rule of roads and electricity for far-flung places like los llanos, the barren Colombian plains, became distant dreams.

As hopes for government aid receded in the hinterlands, the guerrillas grew bolder. Like an allergic reaction to overindulgence, the country found itself breaking out in heightened insurgence in various places at once.

Four years later, in 1978, a new president declared all-out war against la guerrilla, sanctioning what amounted to martial law throughout the land. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and assassinations became routine. But rather than suppressing opposition, the conflict only intensified.

Increasingly, the Gaviotas doctor, Magnus Zethelius, and the Guahibo Indian paramedics encountered insurgents while making their rounds through the llanos. The guerrillas would sometimes charge llaneros a protection toll while they awaited army convoys to ambush. The Gaviotas medical team was always allowed to pass, a fact that filled them both with relief and dread. The llano was increasingly perceived by the military as zona guerrilla. All of its residents were therefore politically suspect.

Occasionally, residents awoke to find Gaviotas papered with guerrilla leaflets. Terrified, they discussed what to do. After their nearest neighbor was abducted one night by silent men with guns, some Gaviotans wondered if they should arm themselves.

“Never,” said Lugari. “The best defense is to be defenseless. Otherwise, each side will accuse us of being with the other.”

They had always known that their little paradise was a fragile bloom in the harsh, uncivilized llano. Now, the encroaching threat to their peace seemed a far greater menace than worthless soils and man-eating insects. Their policy was never to ask who anyone was. Like the Red Cross, all factions respected Gaviotas. It became known throughout the region that no one came to Gaviotas armed. It was fair to assume that some llaneros who arrived to trade for corn or coffee, or who wanted to buy a pump or windmill, might be with la guerrilla, but they had to enter Gaviotas like any other neighbor, never carrying a weapon.

Technological Wonders
After an infusion of UN funding in 1979, hospital construction proceeded—a maze of angles rising above the savanna, formed by white walls, glass awnings, skylights, brushed steel columns, floor-to-ceiling slatted-glass window blinds that opened to the breeze, and exposed metal supports finished in blue and yellow enamel. When people elsewhere asked how such apparently cold materials could fill a patient with a sense of warmth and well-being, Lugari and Zapp replied that they had to see for themselves. The hospital embodied their belief that technology could be as Thomas Edison intended it: an enrichment of human existence, not a steamroller that turned on its inventors and crushed them.

The Gaviotas hospital was built to fill patients with a sense of well-being. Photo by Alan Weisman
The Gaviotas hospital was built to fill patients with a sense of well-being.
Photo by Alan Weisman
The central patio fountain was a film of water flowing over a one-meter cube, providing five times the evaporation surface of a conventional catch-basin to deliver cool moisture to the air. With the combination of one engineer's wind corridor and another's self-cooling roof, they all became convinced that they didn't need the subterranean ventilation used in Arabian minarets that they had planned—an idea that dated to the Egyptian pyramids. But the engineers were set on demonstrating that the concept would work. Tunneling through the hospital's perimeter terrace, they added a series of underground ducts whose hillside intakes opened to the prevailing breeze, to further freshen the interior.

The psychological healing benefits of such gadgetry were obvious, except to their Guahibo neighbors, who considered any hospital insufferable. To wall someone away from family members was, to the Guahibo, the ultimate unhealthy confinement. The Indians themselves designed and built the solution. Just beyond the infirmary, the glass-roofed solar corridor led to a short vine-covered walkway, connecting the Gaviotas hospital to a separate wing: a large square Guahibo shelter called a maloca. Instead of beds, indigenous patients and their families could lie in hammocks under the broad thatched roof. To earn their keep, relatives of the sick were invited to tend tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, and onions in an adjacent hydroponic greenhouse.

Proof of Success
In 1989, The United National Regional Project for Overcoming Poverty had published a three-volume set of books filled with appropriate technologies for developing societies, collected around the world by UN researchers. Gaviotas accounted for more than 50 of them, including a cork-screwing manual well-digger; parabolic solar grain dryers; rotating-drum peanut shellers; ox-drawn land graders; a manual baler that compressed hay into bricks; hot-water solar panels made from burned-out neon tubes; a pedal-powered cassava grinder that reduced 10 hours of work to one; and a one-handed sugar cane press. However, national and UN funding had run out. Plagued by guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and a murder rate that had risen to 50 per day, the Colombian government had other problems to worry about. The UN, calling Gaviotas one of its greatest successes, announced that they would no longer be funding new projects. The proof of success would be for Gaviotas to survive by itself.

Gaviotas was in agreement, but the world was not. After the international price of oil capsized in 1986, it never returned to the heights that had prompted the initial worldwide interest in renewable energy alternatives. Sales of Gaviotas solar collectors declined.

Demand for the Gaviotas windmills also stagnated. The Gaviotans' hopes of finding new customers for windmills were frustrated by new government economic policies. Colombian farmers had discovered that, under the relaxed trade policies that George Bush's administration had enticed Colombia to adopt, they couldn't compete with a deluge of cheap grains and other foodstuffs from giant US corporate producers. It was little consolation to Colombia's devastated agricultural economy that the US ultimately paid in one way for its deft dealing, as many bankrupt farmers turned to raising one crop that no US grower could—coca.

“You would think,” Paolo Lugari said to Jorge Zapp, “that with all these inventions, we should be able to make a living.”

Later, when he was alone, Paolo Lugari trudged through the woodland they had planted back in 1982. Like children who seem to grow when their parents aren't watching, soil chemist Sven Zethelius's Caribbean pine seedlings, which were the only plants the Gaviotans had found that would grow in llanos soil, had shot up past eight feet, then 10, then 20, then still higher.

He looked around at the pines, still shooting up like giant weeds, a veritable forest where just a few years ago there was only open savanna straight to the horizon, and far beyond. These trees were nearly all that Gaviotas had left. There must be something they were supposed to do with them.

Like a huge secret, the pines loomed over him, whispering in the wind but not telling.

Planting the Desert
The nursery was six shining green hectares of more than 100 raised beds, each two meters wide and 130 meters long. Together they held about 2 million seedlings. The previous year, 1995, they'd planted 2,000 new hectares (more than 5,000 acres) with 1.8 million pines.

At Gaviotas, people were prone to fiddle and experiment, and soon after they started the nursery years back, they were doing nearly everything the opposite from what conventional forestry taught. They pruned and dunked the roots in dissolved clay and then planted the trees without the conventional black plastic bags, which the Gaviotans reasoned were too hot for the tropics. No one could be sure if this were so, but eight-year-old trees in the Gaviotas forest were already taller than 50 feet, 20 percent taller than predicted heights for their age.

Planting the desert in Gaviotas. Photo by Alan Weisman
Photo by Alan Weisman
Nursery worker Otoniel Carreño led Gonzalo Bernal, Gaviotas' administrative coordinator, to a bed of three-year-old seedlings, left unharvested at the nursery's southern edge during an old experiment, to show him the latest felicitous infraction of conventional forestry wisdom. It was a scattering of brown puffball mushrooms, barely more than an inch across. Underground, fungi such as these form a relationship with the roots of baby pine trees, a bond as vital to the growth of the forest as a neural synapse is to the execution of a thought.

“Those,” Otoniel announced, “are mycorrhiza.”

“Here?” said Gonzalo. “You're kidding.”

Back in 1982, Sven Zethelius had suspected that Caribbean pines would require the help of mycorrhiza to digest the llanos soil, and had obtained and injected dashes of desiccated fungi around the roots of the first experimental seedlings. Foresters that Gaviotas consulted confirmed that without a mycorrhiza fungus, their plantation would fail—and the fungus they needed didn't occur naturally in los llanos.

“We have our own mycorrhiza bank,” Otoniel said. “This wasn't supposed to happen.”

“Wonderful! Any idea why?”

The biggest difference between them and the Venezuelans, who had to reapply the mycorrhiza mixture repeatedly on their pine plantations, Oto speculated, was that Gaviotas wasn't using herbicides to eradicate extraneous foliage that inevitably sprang up in the pine rows. As in weeding a garden, routine forestry practice requires clearing underbrush that might compete with or actually displace the cash crop. Partly to avoid chemical sprays, partly due to cost and labor, partly out of curiosity, Gaviotas hadn't bothered to eliminate the other growth in one of their earliest experimental stands of pine. Since they weren't adding fertilizer, they reasoned that the surrounding savanna grasses might contribute some nourishment to the meager, two-centimeter thick soils. As the pines grew surprisingly fast, there seemed no need to weed subsequent plantings, even when all kinds of vines, shrubs, and woody plants began emerging in the moist, cool shade of the spreading pine boughs.

Several years later, they would realize how momentous this casual decision to let nature take its course would prove to be.

Gaviotan Self-Reliance
Once it had been established that Caribbean pines could thrive in los llanos where nothing else seemed to, the question facing Gaviotas was what to do with them. It was Paolo Lugari who'd spotted a newspaper article that mentioned a scarcity in Europe of natural gum colophony, the resinous ooze found under the surface of pine bark. Once again, Gaviotas set to experimenting. At the end of 36 days, their yield of golden resin from their eight-year-old trees was, according to the manuals, what they should be getting from trees 25 years old.

Gaviotans harvest resin from the Caribbean pine trees they planted as part of a reforestation experiment. Photo by Alan Weisman
Gaviotans harvest resin from the Caribbean pine trees they planted as part of a reforestation experiment.
Photo by Alan Weisman
In Colombia alone, companies making paints and varnishes had been importing 4 million dollars' worth of pine resin a year. “Not any more,” Lugari told a meeting of all Gaviotans. Their Caribbean pines had turned out to be veritable nutrient pumps. Best of all, the resin was renewable. Otoniel explained that it wasn't the sap they were drawing, but a fluid produced by the bark that acted like a natural insecticide. They could safely tap a pine for at least eight years, then rest the tree for another eight years, then begin again. This would mean never having to chop their forest down in order to make a living from it. And when they heated raw resin to purify it, the residue was another marketable by-product: clear turpentine.

But first, Gaviotas had to find the money to put themselves in business. They needed equipment to extract the resin, land to expand their forest—in short, the sort of strategic investment and financial planning that Gaviotas, with its tradition of applied chaos and spontaneity, was not inclined to undertake. But to survive, Paolo Lugari told his people and himself, they had to be flexible, not rigid, even about being spontaneous.

Putting Back the Rainforest
Gaviotas sent a proposal to the Inter-American Development Bank, which managed several international development funds inclined to help nurture good, hopeful ideas toward fruition. While considering the proposal, loan officer Joel Korn went to see Gaviotas for himself.

Korn was stunned by the hospital in the middle of nowhere that combined ultra-modern mechanisms with indigenous customs. The cheerful Gaviotas school charmed him. The notion of a sustainable civilization in the hitherto-neglected savanna made wonderful sense to him, as he imagined it would to the board of one of the development funds as well.

Paolo pointed through the pines at a doe and a fawn. “We're seeing wildlife in this forest that had nearly disappeared,” he whispered. “Deer, anteaters, armadillos, eagles. But especially –” he said, indicating the tangle of vines he was disengaging from his ankle, “– all this.”

All around them, interspersed among the pines, grew shrubs with crimson flowers, wispy jacarandas, paper-barked white saplings called tuno blancos, and wild fig vines. Lugari explained that a pair of biologists had begun compiling a list of dozens of species sprouting in the moist understory of the Gaviotas pine forest, where formerly there were only a few kinds of grasses. No one knew yet if these were from dormant seeds of native trees not seen on the savanna for millennia, or if birds were sowing seeds from the gallery forests here with their droppings. Either way, the reforestation was unprecedented: sheltered by Caribbean pine trees, a diverse, indigenous tropical forest was either regenerating or being replanted in los llanos with surprising speed.

“The native plants don't hurt the pines?” Korn asked.

“We think to the contrary,” Paolo said. “The biologists believe this is a much healthier forest than the plantations in Venezuela because it's not a monoculture. Our trees grow and mature faster than theirs.”


“Still, we expect that one day the tropical foliage will overrun them. Sven tells us that we can harvest resin for decades until the natural forest chokes out the Caribbean pines. If you help us take our agro-forestry project to a commercial level, we can keep marching across the savanna, planting more pine trees, and leaving a tropical rain forest in our wake. We can give seedlings to all our neighbors, process their resin, turn this desert into a productive land, employ campesinos and the Guahibo, and at the same time return the llanos to what Sven says many ecologists believe was their primeval state: an extension of the Amazon. Imagine that!

“There are 250 million hectares of savannas like these in South America alone. There's Africa. The tropical Orient. Places where there's space and sun and water. If we show the world how to plant them in sustainable forests, we can give people productive lives and maybe absorb enough carbon dioxide to stabilize global warming in the process. Everywhere else they're tearing down the rain forests. We're showing how to put them back.”

A Heroic Stand
The resin factory would eventually process 20 tons of colofonia per day. But everything depended on getting enough new trees in the ground so that over the next decade both production and their human population could expand.

According to their newly won contract with the Inter-American Development Bank, they had to plant at least 2,000 hectares by the end of the year—nearly a million trees. But they were way behind, because 1994 had proved the wettest year in Colombian history. They lost a whole month saving the nursery from severe erosion that threatened to destroy a million seedlings.

A nursery worker finds dramatic changes in the soil and plant life on the forest floor of reforested areas. Photo by Alan Weisman
A nursery worker finds dramatic changes in the soil and plant life on the forest floor of reforested areas.
Photo by Alan Weisman
Now, Paolo was telling everyone at Gaviotas that another heroic stand was needed. Lugari had managed to procure another grant through a government forestry incentive program that would pay them to sow an additional 1,500 hectares of pines over three years. “But no more money comes in until we actually get all the seedlings transplanted permanently in the savanna. I can't ask you to work again for delayed pay. It's up to you to decide if you want to do this.”

One Gaviotan stood up. “This forest is our future. Our lungs are out there. We're breathing oxygen that Dr. Zethelius planted 10 years ago. I want to be around in 10 more years to harvest what we're planting.”

Hernan Landaeta, the colofonia factory director, was next. “We brought water to the llano. Now it's time to bring trees.”

It took 24 days, working 24 hours around the clock, never stopping. Never in Colombian history, they told each other, had an entire village worked all night like that. Especially because every night, it rained.

They had to finish before the rains slackened in October, because the seedlings and the mycorrhiza required moisture. They divided into 12-hour shifts, one beginning at dawn, one at dusk. By day, the schoolchildren helped; by night came women who weren't on the regular crew. Lunch was served once at noon, once at midnight.

Another month went by with no salaries. No one missed work, or was even late. No one complained. The tractors stayed tuned, the meals arrived hot, and when they finished, 2,000 hectares and a million trees later, they slaughtered a steer and stayed up one more night, eating carne asada and drinking sweet aguardiente and dancing in the community hall and right out the doors, onto the soccer field and under the rain, to the music of harps and cuatros and bandolas, toasting each other for never giving up.

Today, Gaviotas continues to advance. Besides paints, enamels, and varnish, the Gaviotans found that natural colofonia can be used in soap, ink, newsprint, cosmetics, perfume esters, drying agents, medicines, and to rosin the bows of musical instruments. The resin factory's boiler, fueled by culls from their own forest, has been tuned successfully to emit no visible smoke, and it now runs on a co-generating two-cylinder steam engine, making Gaviotas at last self-sufficient in energy. As a result, Gaviotas was awarded the 1997 World Prize in Zero Emissions from ZERI, the United Nations' Zero Emissions Research Initiative.

IN THE LAST ISSUE: Gaviotas! Oasis of the Imagination :: Part 1
In the “big, wet desert” of the Colombian plains, nothing grows except a few nutrient-poor grasses. Paolo Lugari said he could build a self-sufficient society there—and make it sustainable.

Cover of Gaviotas!: A Village to Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman
This adaptation and synopsis was taken from, Gaviotas!: A Village to Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman, copyright © 1998. We enthusiastically recommend this well-written, often moving book on this remarkable community. Go to your local bookstore or buy this book now.

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