Gaviotas: A Village To Reinvent The Worldby Alan Weisman
The eastern savannas of war-ravaged Colombia, known as the llanos, are among the most brutal environments on Earth, an unlikely setting for one of the most hopeful environmental stories ever told. Here, more than twenty-five years ago, an intrepid visionary named Paolo Lugari set out to create a village that could sustain itself agriculturally, economically, and
The eastern savannas of war-ravaged Colombia, known as the llanos, are among the most brutal environments on Earth, an unlikely setting for one of the most hopeful environmental stories ever told. Here, more than twenty-five years ago, an intrepid visionary named Paolo Lugari set out to create a village that could sustain itself agriculturally, economically, and artistically. He reasoned that if a community could survive in the Colombian llanos, it would be possible to live anywhere. The new village was named after the graceful river terns common in the area, los gaviotas.
The early inhabitants of Gaviotas soon realized that if they wanted even basic necessities, they would need to be very resourceful. So they invented wind turbines that convert mild breezes into energy, super-efficient pumps that tap previously inaccessible sources of water, and solar kettles that sterilize drinking water using the furious heat of the tropical sun.
They even invented a rain forest! Two million pine trees planted as a renewable crop have unexpectedly allowed the rain forest to re-establish itself. Paolo Lugari and the Gaviotans, in their quest to create a model human habitat, serendipitously renewed an entire ecosystem. This is why Colombian author Gabriel Garca M¡rquez has called Lugari as "The Inventor of the World."
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from the OVERTUREYears before Belisario Betancur became president of Colombia and proceeded to startlehis fractured nation by risking a fledgling peace with Marxist insurgents who, at that time,ruled more territory than the government; before he filled the halls of state with worksand recitals by Colombia's greatest painters, musicians, and poets, and invited the public into see and hear; before he had the wizards from Gaviotas outfit his presidential mansionwith their artful devices that coaxed the sun's bountiful energy through Bogotá's dour skies-- long before all that, he heard a story that he never forgot. It was the kind of thing, he explained thirty-five years later to Paolo Lugari, the founderof Gaviotas, that jerked everything else into perspective. "It still does. Listen." "I will, Presidente. And then I have one for you." This was March, 1996: They were in Betancur's northeast Bogotá apartment, sippingchamomile tea. Outside, a cold rain pummeled the 9,000-foot skirts of the Andes. Theroundfaced, silver-haired former president, now 73, sat in his leather chair, wrapped in athick blue sweater and red wool scarf. Lugari, bearded and burly, evidently oblivious to thechill, wore his usual lightweight tropical suit. In his large hands, the china cup and saucerlooked frail as eggshells. "The year," Betancur began, "was 1962. I was a senator then." A senator: Back then, the very notion had seemed miraculous. Belisario Betancur was oneof twenty-three children born to nearly illiterate peasants. When he was eight, he'd foundan illustrated volume of ancient history on his village school's bookshelves. Intrigued bythe quaint pictures, he learned to read it. Soon he was scouring encyclopedias for moreabout the Peloponnesian wars, about Carthage, about the Roman emperor Hadrian, aboutanything Greek or Latin. At his teachers' urging, his stunned parents eventually sent him to a seminary in Medellín,where he spent the next five years conversing solely in those classical languages -- evenon weekends, when Spanish was permitted, because he was routinely being punished forsome breach of cloister decorum. His masters ultimately concluded that, however brilliant,he was too impetuous for the priesthood; the rector who expelled him arranged hisplacement in a university. There he studied law and architecture, but ended up a journalist. It was not an auspicious time: In 1948, Colombia had fallen into a horrific civil war; overthe following decade, an epoch known today simply as La Violencia, hundreds of thousandsdied. There was little of comfort to report, but during those years Betancur discoveredsomething of which most of his compatriots seemed barely aware: To the east of the Andes,which bisect Colombia like a great diagonal sash, lay half the country, virtually uninhabitedsave for scattered bands of nomadic Indians. The destiny that led him over the mountains took the form of a pilot who invited him tosee exotic places seldom mentioned in the press. He went, and then returned as often as hecould. What he found was Colombia's Amazon forest and, further north, los llanos: a vastsavanna, drained by the Orinoco River, that stretched clear to Venezuela. Both were sohuge and untouched that Betancur was soon convinced that, one way or another, the key tohis country's future was there. Years later, in 1982, as a candidate for the presidency hewould fly over the llanos, spot the community known as Gaviotas, land, and conclude thathe'd been correct. It took the first and only military dictatorship in Colombia's history, which began in 1953and lasted four years, to finally snuff La Violencia. In its aftermath, Belisario Betancur, oneof a scarred generation of survivors who had dreamed for an anguished decade of settingtheir country straight, entered politics. "So there I was, a senator in a country trying to resurrect itself, having dinner inWashington D.C. one evening at the Inter-American Development Bank." At that time, 1962, the Inter-American Development Bank was a fresh offshoot of theWorld Bank, which had burst like a huge weed from the rubble of World War II and begun tobroadcast its seed everywhere. The directors of the new multinational monetary fundswere charged with cobbling together a battle-fatigued planet, by moving money intodistant places where frequently the locals never before knew they'd needed it. Sooner orlater, Betancur realized, these could include regions like Colombia's Amazon forest and losllanos. His country needed development, he believed, but who would decide what kind? Onhis last visit to the llanos, a Guahibo Indian shaman had peered into a cloud of ritualtobacco smoke and correctly divined the precise arrival time of Betancur's overdue bushpilot. What did bankers at international lending institutions understand about such peopleand places? That night over dinner, Bank president Felipe Herrera, a Chilean economist, told of a tinyIndian village on the high altiplano near Bolivia's Lake Titicaca, where he'd gone on afeasibility study for a proposed hydroelectric dam. Upon completing the site visit, histeam realized they hadn't used their entire travel budget. Since the village lackedeverything, they assembled the local chiefs and explained that they had some money left.In gratitude for hospitality and assistance, they'd like to give it to them as a gift. "Whatproject would you like us to fund here in the name of the Bank?" The Indian elders excused themselves and went off to discuss this offer. In just fiveminutes they returned. "We know what we want to do with the money.""Excellent. Whatever you want." "We need new musical instruments for our band." "Maybe," replied the Bank team spokesman, "you didn't understand. What you need our help are improvements like electricity. Running water. Sewers. Telephone and telegraph." But the Indians had understood perfectly. "In our village," the eldest explained, "everyone plays a musical instrument. On Sundays after mass, we all gather for la retreta, a concert in the church patio. First we make music together. After that, we can talk about problems in our community and how to resolve them. But our instruments are old and falling apart. Without music, so will we." "And now," said Betancur, offering Lugari a silver dish of fried plantain slices, "let's hear yours." "Señor Presidente," said Paolo Lugari, shaking his head, "you're not going to believe this."TOPIA "They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted thehardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere." -- Paolo Lugari, founder of Gaviotas Paolo Lugari was never tempted by the lush resources of places such as the Serranía dela Macarena. The vision gestating in his subconscious, as his Land Rover crawled acrossColombia's huge eastern plain in late 1966, involved a hunch that someday the world wouldbecome so crowded that humans would have to learn to live in the planet's least desirableareas. But where? His time in the Chocó -- Colombia's Pacific jungle, slated for a possibletrans-oceanic canal --had persuaded him that rain forests and excess people were a foolishmix. But in South America alone, there were 250 million hectares of fairly empty,well-drained savannas like these. One day, he was convinced, they would be the only placeto put bursting human populations. Los llanos were a perfect setting, he decided, to designan ideal civilization for the planet's fastest-filling region: the tropics. No one held much hope for him. The llanos were considered goodfor little except inspiring llanero musicians to write songs abouthow mournful life gets on an endless prairie. Biologists believedthat thirty thousand years earlier, this had been part of anunbroken rain forest clear to the Amazon. Then, climate change hadcreated new patterns in the predominant winds. The trade windsthat formed over the seas to the northeast blew inland, fanninglightning strikes into fires that burned the jungle faster thanwoodlands could regenerate. A few trees, including curatellaamericana -- the lonely, fire-hardened chaparro, a recurringleitmotif in regional folklore -- were able to adapt. For the mostpart, the jungle receded south, where the winds diffused, leavingshort-cycle, nutrient-poor savanna grasses in its stead. "It's just abig wet desert out there," Lugari was told repeatedly."The only deserts," he would one day reply, "are deserts of theimagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of imagination." September, 1968: Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanicalengineering department at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá,Colombia, leaned back at his desk. His last class of the week hadjust ended; outside his window, it was a rare Bogotá day, so clearthat the white mantle of the Nevado de Ruiz volcano gleamed twohundred miles to the west. He was headed out to stroll the grassyhills of the campus when someone knocked on his door. Even as heswiveled to answer, a tall, thick-chested young man wearing a lightkhaki jacket strode into his office. Extending a large hand as hesank into a chair, in lieu of introduction he demanded, "True orfalse: Can you build a turbine efficient enough to generateelectricity from a stream with just a one-meter drop?" The stranger propped his elbows on Jorge's desk, rested his bearded chin on his handsand leaned forward. He looked vaguely familiar, and despite his audacious entrance therewas something ingratiating about him. Zapp rubbed his moustache and thought a moment."True," he replied. "Why?" Then he recognized him. This was the Paolo Lugari he'd seen in the newspapers, theenfant terrible son of a brilliant Italian lawyer, engineer, and geographer who'd foundColombia's tropics so irresistible he married into a prominent family here and stayed.Educated mainly at home by this eclectic father, Lugari passed his university examswithout attending classes. On the strength of an inspired interview, he won a United Nationsscholarship to study development in the Far East. Upon returning from the Philippines, helaunched a highly-publicized, successful national campaign to save a historic village nearBogotá from being drowned by a federal hydroelectric project. "Come to Gaviotas and I'll show you," Lugari told Zapp. "Tomorrow." "Come to where?" "You'll see." Next, Paolo went to find Dr. Sven Zethelius, a soil chemist at the Universidad Nacional'sagricultural chemistry department. Zethelius was the son of a Swedish ambassador who,like Lugari's own father, refused to return to the relative boredom of Europe after adiplomatic stint here. Not long after his first trip to los llanos, Lugari learned thatZethelius was delivering a series of stirring lectures on the tropics. On evenings wheneverthe Universidad Nacional wasn't closed by strikes, he had gone to listen. The tall, graying, goateed chemist had been sent as a boy to Scotland to study, but he'dpromptly returned. "Europe is too organized," he told students. "I want a place wherethere's no fossilized order. I want a jungle. There are a hundred times more resources herethan in developed countries, where everything's been exploited. Colombia can be whateveryou want it to be." Lugari sensed a fellow dreamer. One afternoon he cornered Zethelius in his chemistry laband explained that he'd staked a claim to an abandoned highway camp he'd found in losllanos, along with ten-thousand surrounding hectares. "What can I plant out there?" heasked. "Probably nothing." The soils around Gaviotas, Zethelius informed him, were only abouttwo centimeters thick, quite acidic, and often high in aluminum toxicity. "Frankly, they'rethe worst in Colombia. A desert."
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This is an incredible story. A story that everybody should know about. Not just for the story itself, but for the possibilities that it could hold for our own communities and the world as a whole.
This is just a fantastic history of Gaviotas, and the persons who made the seemingly impossible a reality. Highly recommended for anyone entering the Peace Corps or other NGOs dedicated to improving living conditions in developing countries.