Gaviotas! Oasis of the Imagination

In the “big, wet desert” of los llanos, nothing grows except a few nutrient-poor grasses. Paolo Lugari said he could build a self-sufficient society there—and make it sustainable.

In the "big, wet dessert" of los llanos, nothing grows except a few nutrient-poor grasses.
Photo by Alan Weisman
As his Land Rover crawled across Colombia's huge eastern plain, the vision gestating in Paolo Lugari's subconscious involved his hunch that someday the world would become so crowded that humans would have to learn to live in the planet's least desirable areas. Los llanos, he had decided, were a perfect setting to design an ideal civilization for the planet's fastest-filling region: the tropics.

Later, he would tell everyone, “They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

No one disagreed, but in the beginning, no one held out much hope, either. The llanos were good for little except inspiring llanero musicians to write songs about how mournful life gets on an endless prairie. Biologists believe that about 30,000 years earlier, this had been part of an unbroken rain forest clear to the Amazon. Then, climate change had created new patterns in the predominant winds. The trade winds blew inland, fanning lightning strikes into fires that burned the jungle faster than the woodlands could regenerate. A few trees and plants were able to adapt, but for the most part, the jungle receded south, where the winds diffused, leaving short-cycle, nutrient-poor savanna grasses in its stead. “It's just a big, wet desert out there,” Paolo was told repeatedly.

“The only deserts,” he would reply, “are deserts of the imagination.”

Paolo Lugari passed his university exams without ever attending class. A fervid orator, he'd won competitions at Bogotá's Universidad Nacional, and, on the strength of a single inspired interview, he netted a scholarship from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to study development in the Far East. Returning to Colombia in 1965, he was hired by a commission planning the future of the Chocó, a tropical wilderness that stretched the length of Colombia's Pacific coast. Today, the Chocó is one of the world's largest remaining intact virgin rain forests, inhabited by several jungle-dwelling Indian communities who have lived there for centuries.

Paolo's work had persuaded him that rain forests and excess people were a foolish mix. But after his uncle took him on an inspection flight of the Orinocan llanos, he started having visions. In South America alone, there were 250 million hectares of fairly empty, well-drained savannas. One day, he was convinced, they would be the only place to put bursting human populations.

From 1967 to 1970, Paolo Lugari slipped off to the llanos whenever his duties permitted. He went through a dozen tires, frequently got lost, waited days for ferries, collected medicinal herbs with a Guahibo Indian shaman, camped on river sandbars amid the rustling of mating turtles, stayed in a friendly llanero's hut when the chiggers drove him nuts, and contracted malaria twice. (“Light cases. Just a lot of chills,” he assured his friends. “I bring repellent now.”)

On one trip to los llanos, Paolo and his brother Patricio found a pair of long, concrete sheds filled with weeds. These were former warehouses of a road construction camp, now abandoned, that would have been the midpoint of the failed trans-llano highway.

“We're here,” Paolo told his brother.

“Where?” replied Patricio, removing his driving goggles and scraping caked dust from his face. Perplexed, he looked around. What was Paolo planning to do in this desolation? Only a few sections of the warehouses' laminated roofs were still intact. Except for a small thicket of gallery forest, they were surrounded by grass in every direction.

Paolo, meanwhile, was exuberant. These buildings formed the shell casing for the idea that had bored through his mind ever since he had seen them from the air – they could be the first structures in a community expressly designed to thrive in these inhospitable, supposedly uninhabitable lands.

For now, he was home. As they leaned against the Land Rover, three small yellow-billed terns flew over. “There must be water beyond those trees,” Paolo said.


He pointed at the birds. “River gulls. They're gaviotas.”

A Living Laboratory
As Paolo's duties in the Chocó wound down, he spent more time at his camp, which he had named Gaviotas. Paolo often stayed on the nearby Río Muco with his llanero friend, who was growing rice, citrus, papaya, mangos, guavas, and cashew fruit. But in order for a substantial population to live here, Paolo realized, they would need to cultivate the llano itself, not just the thin, arable strips along its river banks.

Not long after his first trip to los llanos, Paolo learned that Dr. Sven Zethelius, a soil chemist at the National University, was delivering a series of lectures on the tropics. Sensing a fellow dreamer, Paolo attended the lectures whenever the Universidad Nacional wasn't closed by strikes.

This windmill was designed to take advantage of faint, tropical breezes. Gaviotas has distributed this technology and other innovations throughout Colombia and the world. Photo by Alan Weisman
This windmill was designed to take advantage of faint, tropical breezes. Gaviotas has distributed this technology and other innovations throughout Colombia and the world.
Photo by Alan Weisman
One afternoon, he cornered Zethelius in his chemistry lab and explained that he'd staked a claim to the abandoned highway camp he'd found in los llanos, along with 10,000 surrounding hectares. “What can I plant out there?” he asked.

“Probably nothing.” The soils around Gaviotas were only about two centimeters thick, quite acidic, and often high in aluminum toxicity, Zethelius informed him. “Frankly, they're the worst in Colombia. A desert.”

“So I'm told. Look,” Paolo urged, “think of them as different soils. Someday, Colombians who want land will have three choices: burn down the Amazon, do the same to El Choco, or move to the llanos. If we could figure out ways for people to exist in the most resource-starved region in the country, they can live anywhere.”


“Think of it. Gaviotas could be a living laboratory, a chance to plan our own tropical civilization from the ground up, instead of depending on models and technology developed for northern climates, like the Peace Corps wants to teach everybody.”

Zethelius began to nod.

“Something for the Third World, by the Third World,” Paolo persisted. “You know what I mean: When we import solutions from the United States or Europe, we also import their problems.”

Zethelius glanced outside. Protesters were again massing in the concrete plaza. Megaphones, then tear gas would shortly follow. “True enough,” he replied. “In Colombia, we've got enough problems as it is.

At Zethelius's direction, he planted some fruit trees and also tried growing corn, without much success. He lured a pair of university soil chemistry students out to hunt for possible pockets of fertility, as well as to look for sand and clay deposits to use in construction. He hired Guahibo Indian and llanero workers to begin reconditioning the old highway workers' camp and building thatched living quarters. When an itinerant teacher wandered in, the scattering of families who lived in the area embraced Paolo's idea of a school, and soon the teacher had ten llanero kids for pupils. A nurse from Puerto Gaitan offered to come once a month. Within a year, as more people settled in Gaviotas, she was staying for a week at a time.

From Utopia to Topia
“You don't want to just survive out here,” Zethelius's voice declared from behind his mosquito netting. They were lying in canvas hammocks under an open-air maloca the Guahibo had built. “You're trying to create a utopia. In los llanos, no less.”

Paolo tried to sit upright in his hammock to look the older man directly in the eye. After flailing about briefly, he gave up. Lying back again, he said, “I want Gaviotas to be real. I'm tired of reading about all these places that sound so perfect but never get lifted off the page into reality. Just for once, I'd like to see humans go from fantasy to fact. From utopia, which in Greek literally means ‘no place,' to topia.”

But how to do that? He started by persuading the faculties of various universities around the country to send thesis candidates to Gaviotas, to dream up solutions to the challenges that concocting an ideal society from scratch in los llanos would entail. Word spread that Gaviotas was seeking adventurous thinkers with ideas they wanted to test. The reward: Earn a degree by helping to make the empty savannahs flourish. If the students thought they would be happy at Gaviotas, Lugari told them, Gaviotas would be their sponsor.

Which meant, they later learned, that they would get a hammock, mosquito netting, food, and a share in the cooking duties. Usually, they didn't learn this until 500 kilometers of roadless llano separated them from home.

Gaviotan water pumps, like this innovative seesaw pump, brought clean, safe water to many rural South American communities. Photo by Alan Weisman
Gaviotan water pumps, like this innovative seesaw pump, brought clean, safe water to many rural South American communities.
Photo by Alan Weisman
Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, had needed no persuading to bring engineering students to Gaviotas. Undergrads whom he had taught how to weld and to turn a lathe were now at Gaviotas getting graduate degrees, or simply getting paid, for playing. In a drafty workshop converted from the highway crew's former heavy equipment shed, they recycled a mass of flotsam lugged from the city into prototype windmills, solar motors and water heater panels, micro-hydro turbines, biogas generators, and all manner of pumps.

Until the Arab oil embargo in 1973, Gaviotas was considered an intriguing experiment with little practical relevance. Then, as waiting in gas pump lines gave the world time to contemplate the novel notion of renewable energy, Gaviotas began to attract attention. Journalists appeared. After the Wall Street Journal published a front-page feature about a South American community that had “solved” the energy crisis by devising implements powered by energy that was actually replenishable, a delegation arrived from the United Nations Development Programme.

In 1976, shortly after the OPEC oil embargo, Gaviotas was designated as a model community to the United Nations, and this honor was accompanied by a substantial research grant. Over the years, as their successes multiplied, the UN support would grow to include travel budgets for Gaviotans to scour the world for ideas they could adapt to their tropical topia, and then show that same world how their approach could work anywhere. It was on one such trip in the mid-1970s that Paolo Lugari hit upon a solution to two problems at once.

Cultivating Los Llanos
He was returning from a conference in Río de Janeiro, when his plane stopped to refuel in the Brazilian jungle port of Manaus. He resigned himself to a delay that meant the airline was lodging them in Manaus's riverside palace, the Hotel Tropical. But what impressed Paolo Lugari far more that night than the neocolonial architecture were the dinner vegetables.

He collared the maître d'. “Where,” he demanded, “are you getting fresh lettuce and tomatoes in the middle of the jungle?” By now he knew that the impoverished soils in los llanos weren't much different from those of a rain forest, and despite Sven Zethelius's diligent efforts, Gaviotas was having a dismal time producing anything nourishing from them.

“Aren't they lovely?” the maître d' agreed. “Some priests deep in the forest have a garden.”

Interlocking soil, cement, and burlap blocks patterned after Incan construction methods made up this swimming hole's dam. Photo by Alan Weisman
Interlocking soil, cement, and burlap blocks patterned after Incan construction methods made up this swimming hole's dam.
Photo by Alan Weisman
Paolo cancelled his flight, rented a boat, and went to find them. A few hours upriver, he was led to local Catholic missionaries growing greens in box planters made of palm wood, set on blocks above the slick clay jungle floor. The Brazilian priests had analyzed the soil to determine which minerals were lacking. In the boxes, they mixed dirt with decomposing jungle detritus, and compensated for the absent nutrients by adding extra cobalt, manganese, and traces of magnesium, zinc, and copper. The result was a bountiful crop of onions, chard, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Excited, Lugari went back and told Zapp and Zethelius. They had some concerns.

“Besides lacking all the minerals those priests have to add, we're missing potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and boron,” Zethelius said. But the bigger problem was root disease. Introduced species, such as carrots and lettuce, had no natural defenses against the local insects, fungi, and bacteria.

“Suppose,” Zapp asked Zethelius, “that instead of poisoning soil with fungicides, we just sterilized it?” Before Sven could reply, Zapp's mind raced ahead. “Got it,” he announced. Instead of trying to sterilize the local soil, it would be a lot easier to make their own, and then add whatever minerals were necessary.

“Make it out of what?” Lugari asked.

“Anything. All you need is something to hold the plants in place so they don't fall over. Sand from the riverbank beaches. Rice husks.”

Four years later, greenhouse enclosures covered a third of a square kilometer, filled with Spanish onions, tomatoes, chard, lettuce, cilantro, peas, peppers, parsley, garlic, cabbage, balm, and radishes. The Gaviotas hydroponic system used wastes from the rice farms along the Río Meta as a growing medium. The technique spread around the country, even in the flower industry. In their hydroponic nursery, they had plants germinating in trays of sawdust and wood chips. “It lets us grow food where nothing would grow before,” Zapp said.

Later, Sven Zethelius actually found something that would grow in los llanos. Paolo had brought the idea back from Venezuela, where he'd heard an agronomist mention the hardiness of pinus caribaea, the tropical pine that grew in a variety of soils throughout Central America. Zethelius obtained seedlings from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, and Honduras. So far, everything was still alive and even getting taller, with the hondurensis variety performing the best. Sven's little plot of foot-high, long-needle pines became a Gaviotas curiosity.

“What will we do with the pine trees?” an engineer asked him.

“Who knows? At the very least, we'll learn something from them.”

Pioneer Clinic
In 1975, Oscar Gutiérrez, a doctor from Cali, Colombia, had been headed to the Amazon for a year of rural service when a chemist told him about a colleague, Sven Zethelius, who was off with a bunch of romantics trying to settle los llanos, like pioneers in the North American Old West. Intrigued, Oscar tracked down Paolo Lugari, who told him that the difference was that Gaviotas was helping to save the Indians, not shoot them. They had a vacant building that could serve as a clinic. “Are you ready to go?”

Gaviotas founder Paolo Lugari with a Guahibo man. Photo by Alan Weisman
Gaviotas founder Paolo Lugari with a Guahibo man.
Photo by Alan Weisman
A week later, a group of Guahibo Indians appeared to see the new doctor. Cases of smallpox, they said, were appearing in their village. To Gutiérrez's relief, it turned out to be measles, but he had never seen so many adults infected at once.” There is no cure for measles,” he said helplessly. “If a person isn't immunized, it can be fatal.” Obviously, nobody here was.

Oscar Gutiérrez turned around and returned to Bogotá to seek enough vaccine to halt an epidemic. In the federal health department, they told him that none was available.

“There's no vaccine,” he was told again in the Ministry of Health.

“They're dying!” he insisted.

“So what? They're Indians.”

In Cartagena, he finally located four thousand doses of measles vaccine, which saved many lives, but it was too late for many others: The epidemic, which the health ministry had chosen to ignore, eventually spread all the way to Venezuela. Despite high mortality, it merited mention only in the back pages of Bogotá newspapers.

Originally at Gaviotas to fulfill his one-year rural service obligation required of all recently graduated M.D.s, Oscar Gutiérrez remained an extra year, leaving to study cardiology in Europe only after being assured that Magnus Zethelius, his former assistant who had recently earned his M.D., would replace him. Together they drew up plans for a health system, based on their experiences in the measles campaign, to deal with the great distances between the villages of los llanos. They wanted radios in every settlement, so Indians and llaneros could call the central clinic at Gaviotas for emergency instructions or an ambulance. They wanted the Gaviotas school to be a center for teaching indigeous people the rudiments of Western medicine and also a repository of the Indians' knowledge of medicinal botany.

They submitted a funding proposal to the Ministry of Health. Their work was featured in a film about Gaviotas shown at the United Nations' 1976 World Conference on Human Settlements and Habitat in Vancouver. Two years later, at the World Conference on Technical Cooperation Among Developing Countries held in Buenos Aires, Gaviotas was named the leading example of appropriate technology in the Third World. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health rejected their proposal.

“It's unconscionable,” Magnus Zethelius said.

“It's votes,” Paolo replied. “In los llanos, there aren't any. Indians don't. Nobody would count them if they did. That's the way things work.”

“I'm sick of how things work,” Magnus said. “Maybe we should start our own hospital.”

“We will,” Paolo said. “We will.”

NEXT ISSUE: Gaviotas! Oasis of the Imagination :: Part 2
The UN funding for Gaviotas runs out just as oil prices plummet. With little possibility of marketing their solar collectors, the Gaviotans must find ways to become self-sufficient while coping with intrusions by the military, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups.

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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