New Internationalist

Time for Utopia

Issue 357

Pioneering Colombians have created a model for the world -in the most unpromising place they could find. Monica del Pilar Uribe Marín tells the extraordinary tale of Gaviotas.

Five o’clock in the afternoon. The sun is setting over the monotonous green of the tropical plains, sculpting in bronze the creatures that cross the savannah. A flock of birds surges impetuously from the thickets and takes flight towards the windmills that decorate the landscape.

From there they contemplate the steam that rises from kitchens belonging to the 200 people settled over these 10,000 hectares of harsh, infertile land. The scent of dusk mingles with that of dishes being prepared for those who, one day 30 years ago, decided to live away from contaminating technologies.

This place is called Gaviotas – named after a bird that enlivens the rivers at dusk. In 1965, when Colombian activist Paulo Lugari was flying over the impoverished region, he mused that if people could live here they could live anywhere.1 The following year Lugari and a group of scientists, artists, agronomists and engineers took the 15-hour journey along a tortuous route from Bogotá to the Llanos Orientales (eastern plains) bordering Venezuela.

Pine resin is made into turpentine used for paints, cosmetics, medicines and glues.

They wanted to immerse themselves in the ecosystem and develop alternative technologies that could meet the basic needs of any community. So an easy, fertile place was out of the question.

They chose well. According to one of the pioneers, chemist Sven Zethelius, the soil of the Llanos is ‘ the worst in Colombia – a desert’.1 In addition, the Llanos Orientales was a place of poor employment prospects and a high level of violence – not helped by Colombia’s ongoing civil war involving government forces, paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. The local population – including the indigenous Guahíbo people, accustomed to the violence of the ‘white man’ – were naturally suspicious of newcomers.

Natural laboratory

Soon the Gaviotas pioneers were planting trees and digging gardens to grow food for their day-to-day needs. The soils of the river banks were too poor for vegetables so they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and eggplants in containers made out of rice husks, washed by a manure tea. By the late 1970s, they had created a square kilometre of hydroponic greenhouses and set up co-operatives to sell and exchange produce with villages in the region.

Today many of the indigenous Guahíbo people and rural peasants live in Gaviotas, riding to work on Gaviotas-designed savannah bicycles. The settlement has the things a town needs: a decent school and a solar-and wind-powered hospital, cited by one Japanese architecture journal as one of the 40 most important buildings in the world. There patients can enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of its shrubs and benefit from the 250 species of tropical medicinal plants cultivated in its greenhouses. This natural laboratory is considered unique in South America. In the wards indigenous hammocks alternate with traditional hospital beds.

Gaviotas also has a communal kitchen, swimming pool, meeting hall, horse stables and areas devoted to breeding all kinds of animals. Only dogs, like shotguns, are prohibited! Manure from the animals is used as a fertilizer, while methane from cattle is captured and used as a fuel. Most people get about by bicycle – any cars that exist are run on biogas.

The electricity needed to run Gaviotas comes mainly from the winds of the savannah. Around 58 types of windmill were tried and tested before the pioneers came up with one that functioned best in the Plains. That is how the gigantic ‘sunflowers’ so characteristic of Gaviotas, came into being. Originally manufactured at Gaviotas, there are now thousands throughout Central and South America as its creators are determined not to patent their invention.

Other Gaviotas inventions have included: biogas generators, a solar pressure cooker and a solar kettle. These too have been marketed and sold in other parts of Colombia.

Extracting water from its sources originally required considerable effort. But the Gaviotas inventors devised a lightweight hydraulic pump that could be powered by children playing on the swings and seesaws of a park constructed nearby. Nearly 700 Colombian villages now use these pumps.

Meanwhile, a large-scale solar system heats and sterilizes water to make it suitable for drinking. Gaviotas now supplies clean drinking water to many Colombian villages.

All Photos: Luis Guillermo Camargo / Zeri Foundation
All Photos: Luis Guillermo Camargo / Zeri Foundation

Ever-increasing circles

But perhaps the greatest achievements have been in the area of forestry and agriculture.

At the end of the 1980s Gaviotas ran into trouble. Colombia’s embracing of free trade was flooding the market with cheap food imports and driving local producers to grow coca instead.

The Gaviotas pioneers searched for a plant to cultivate that could survive the harsh llanos soil and provide them with a living. They struck upon a Caribbean pine that would grow if the roots of its seedling were dipped in a fungus that was missing from the soil. From the pine could be extracted resin with which to make turpentine used in paints, cosmetics, medicines and glues. Colombia was spending $4 million a year importing such resins. Making this point, Lugari managed to get seed money for the project from the Japanese Government.2

Around 8,000 hectares of forest were planted, in ever-increasing circles. As the pine forest grew, it provided shade for other seeds dropped by birds. The rainforest started to return – as did its creatures – deer, anteaters, capybaras and eagles.

The resin harvested from the trees made eco-friendly turpentine, replacing imported petroleum-based products. And the pollution-free factory built to refine the resin won Gaviotas the 1997 United Nations World Zero Emissions Award.

This search for an alternative life shows that it is possible to develop with near-zero emissions. Gaviotas remains entirely self-sufficient in power and almost entirely in food. Reliance on banks or donors is kept to a minimum. And, above all, Gaviotas has survived.

  1. Gila Z Reckess, Environmental News Network, 23 March 2000.
  2. Alan Weisman, Los Angeles Times, 25 September 1994. He tells the story of Gaviotas in in his book Gaviotas: a village to reinvent the world (Chelsea Green, 1998).
    For more see: http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org and www.zeri.org

Or, in the words of Ligare himself who, on being told that Gaviotas was a ‘utopia’, replied: ‘No, not utopia. Topia. Utopia means no place. Fantasy land. But Gaviotas is real’.2

Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin is a Colombian journalist specializing in environmental issues.

Obstacles

Farming is increasingly dominated by large companies using modern farming practices which are a major contributor to global warming. Globally farming is responsible for eight per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions.

  • Soil abuse
    Intensive tilling and lack of conservation causes the carbon in the soil to break down and be released into the atmosphere as CO2.
  • Fertilizer frenzy
    Nitrogen-based fertilizers release into the atmosphere nitrous oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas 310 times more powerful than CO2.
  • Animal husbandry
    Most of farming’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from farming cattle and pigs. Cattle, pigs and other animals release methane in the process of digestion, as does their manure.
  • Meat market
    Producing meat for human consumption requires at least 20 times more raw materials than producing grains, vegetables and fruit.
  • Gas guzzling
    Diesel fuel used to run farm equipment and to transport produce over vast distances to a globalized market releases yet more CO2.
  • Deforestation
    Industrial forestry clear-cuts in one area, leaving the forest to grow again from scratch. This damages the soil, drastically reduces the carbon stored in the forest and releases it as CO2 into the atmosphere. Half the world’s tropical rainforests have been cleared in the past 50 years, creating 12 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Reforestation
    Some reforestation projects, funded by rich countries as carbon credits to offset their CO2 emissions, are now taking place in poor countries. In Uganda and Ecuador this has already led to local communities being forced off the land to make way for forestry corporations. There are also scientific doubts that creating more forests can really offset rising CO2 emissions or indeed reduce global warming. The result could be just more forest fires.

Action

  • Practise soil conservation
    Zero-tillage or simple scratch-ploughing instead of turning the soil over helps build deep, biologically fertile soil. Other methods of soil conservation include planting trees along contour ridges and retaining rain-water in lakes and ponds. Alternating crops also enriches the soil naturally.
  • Shift to organic
    methods Organic farming builds carbon in the soil and works with nature’s biodiversity. It allows insects to control each other and fosters a rich ecological system.
  • Avoid nitrogen fertilizers and use organic instead.
    Soil tests can show if nitrogen is really needed.
  • Use manure well
    When manure rots in a liquid, oxygen-free environment it produces methane. It’s better to capture this and use it as a biogas to heat farm buildings than to let it escape into the atmosphere. Aerobic systems such as composting can yield less harmful dry manure ready to spread on fields.
  • Reduce animals’ methane output
    Fermentation in the stomachs of cattle, pigs, sheep and buffalo produce 43 per cent of agriculture’s methane. Improving the nutrient balance and quality of livestock feed can reduce emissions.
  • Make your own energy
    Farmers in windy areas such as the Canadian Prairies can earn $1,500 a year per wind turbine and generate green electricity without interrupting their farming. Farmers in Denmark can make even more money by forming their own wind co-operatives. Solar dryers can be used to dry fruit, vegetables, grains and herbs.
  • Stop eating animals
    As a consumer you can reduce the demand for meat and help reduce the source of most of farming’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Buy organic
    Support a growing market for sustainable agriculture and help campaign for subsidies of organic instead of industrial agriculture.
  • Buy local
    Support local and small-scale farmers against the domination of agribusiness and help cut CO2 emissions from transport.
  • Practise sustainable forestry
    This replaces clear-cutting with harvesting selected trees, leaving the forest standing.
  • Buy good wood
    As a consumer, buy wood from forests that are eco-certified and campaign against government subsidies for large industrial loggers.

Source: Stormy Weather by Guy Dauncey with Patrick Mazza (New Society Publishers 2001).

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