Time For Utopia
New Internationalist 357 June 2003
Climate Change / TRANSPORT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Source: Stormy Weather by Guy Dauncey with Patrick Mazza (New Society Publishers 2001).
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