By Donella Meadows
–March 12, 1998–
Nearly everyone who has been to the solar village Gaviotas, east of the Andes in Colombia, calls it a utopia. But it isn’t, says Paolo Lugari, its founder. That word means in Greek “no place.” Gaviotas has existed, however improbably, for more than 30 years now. Lugari says it’s a “topia” — simply a place.
When he first saw it, looking down from a small plane in 1965, it surely looked like no place. There were two crumbling warehouses abandoned by a road crew at the end of a failed attempt to cut a highway across the huge, wild, wet savanna called the llanos. No one lived on the llanos except a few scattered ranchers and the Guahibo Indians, who fished and hunted in mosquitoey forest strips along the rivers. The soil was so toxic that nothing but tough grass could grow.
If people can live here, they can live anywhere, Lugari thought. He set out to show that they could.
His secret weapons were the professors and students of the universities of Bogota. Lugari dropped into the office of a mechanical engineer named Jorge Zapp and asked, “Can you build a turbine efficient enough to generate electricity from a stream with just a one-meter drop?” He went to Sven Zethelius, a soil chemist and asked, “What can we grow in that soil?” He posted notices inviting doctoral theses on how to press oil from palm nuts, how to raise hundred-pound wild capybaras for meat, how to make fiberboard out of llano grass.
Most of these experiments didn’t work, but once the engineers got out to Gaviotas, a 16-hour tire-destroying jeep drive from Bogota, they began having other ideas. Necessity surrounded them, and they produced a stream of invention.
They found that 14 parts of that terrible soil combined with one part cement hardened into a stony substance they could use for dams and buildings. They made water pipes by lining ditches with soil-cement, laying down long polyethylene tubes filled with water, pouring more soil-cement on top, letting the whole business harden, then draining the water and pulling out the plastic. Trucks could drive over those pipes without crushing them.
They attached water pumps to see-saws; kids provided the pumping power. They designed ultra-light windmills to catch the mild but steady llanos wind without being blown over by the occasional llanos gale. They invented solar water-heaters so cheap and effective that Gaviotas started a business back in Bogota, installing them everywhere from the president’s house to a 30,000-resident slum housing project. Often engulfed in mountain clouds, Bogota is no ideal place for solar power, but the Gaviotans developed a collector so efficient it could catch scattered sun energy even on cloudy days.
The technical and architectural triumph of Gaviotas is its hospital, cooled by the wind, heated by the sun. The sun also provides hot water, boiled sterilized water, and the heat for six pressure cookers in the kitchen, plus enough electricity for the lights. By the time the hospital was built, Gaviotas had several hundred inhabitants, including the only doctors, nurses, and teachers for hundreds of miles around. People came there for medical care and sent their children there to school.
There were fish in the river, and cattle could eat the grass. Zethelius had discovered enough decent soil on the riverbanks to plant mangoes and cassava and cashews, but not enough to provide fresh vegetables for a growing population. So the Gaviotans learned to grow lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers in containers of nutritionless rice hulls, washed with manure tea.
They kept searching for some plant that could survive the llanos soil and finally found it. A Caribbean pine from Venezuela thrived, they discovered, as long as they dipped the roots of its seedlings in a fungus, a mycorrhyza, which was missing from their soil but importable from the pines’ native territory. Without knowing quite why, they planted hundreds of acres of pines.
As the pines grew into forests, the Gaviotans found a use for them. They tapped their oozing gum, which could be distilled (with solar energy) into turpentine and a valuable resin used in paints, glues, cosmetics, perfume, and medicines. There was a huge market. Gaviotas had a new industry.
The pines dropped needles and built up soil. They cooled the ground, slowed the wind, raised the humidity. Suddenly new kinds of plants sprang up beneath them — hundreds of kinds of plants. The rainforest, not far to the south, had once grown here, and now, through seeds carried by birds or roots creeping up from the river-edges, it was returning.
The Gaviotans imagine themselves planting pines in expanding circles out into the llanos, harvesting gum for 100 years, leaving rainforest behind. Meanwhile their technologies for pumps and collectors and windmills, all simple, affordable, and purposely unpatented, are spreading throughout the world.
“This is what the world needs,” said Aurelio Peccei, aged founder of the Club of Rome, who visited Gaviotas ten days before he died. I agree, not only because of Gaviotas’s technical ingenuity, but because of its attitude. Gaviotans live in peace surrounded by narcotics dealers and guerillas. They live without guns, without pesticides, willing to serve and teach all comers. They count their wealth in sun, water, and community. They believe that solutions can come from anyone, anywhere, even from, most especially from, the Third World.
(Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman, has just been published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction VT.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998