Colombia’s Model City

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 6
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute


With the world’s population set to double within half a century, people will soon have to live on land previously considered unlivable. This knowledge guided visionary Paolo Lugari to his decision to build a sustainable tropical civilization in Colombia. He explained to a team of scientists, agronomists, engineers, and doctors that he believed they had three choices for where to develop a new community: burn down the Colombian Amazon, do the same to El Choco, the large rainforest on Colombia’s western coast, or preseve the forests and follow him to los llanos, the barren plains east of the Andes. In 1971, Lugari staked a claim to 25,000 acres of the llanos, where the group began to transform the worst soils in Colombia into the miraculous community of Gaviotas.

Gaviotas is a compound of neat white cottages with laminated roofs, shaded by mango trees and bougainvillea. The fresh air is gardenia-scented; yellow warblers and dazzling scarlet tanagers sing in the trees. There are guest houses, a refectory, commissary, and school. Across a field horses graze in front of a meeting hall with a radically vaulted roof. Its aerodynamic appearance is echoed by clusters of brightly painted family dwellings, whose pitched roofs are studded with solar panels. Solar water heating systems developed at Gaviotas now heat water in the president’s palace in Bogota, as well as in the three largest public housing developments – one with 7,500 units – in Bogota and Medellin. At Clinica San Pedro Claver, one of the nation’s biggest hospitals, Gaviotas is installing not just solar water heaters, but boilers, coaxing from Bogota’s cloudy climate temperatures sufficiently hot to sterilize instruments around the clock.

Although Gaviotas families have their own kitchens, they mostly eat in the open-air dining room. A hundred-plus people gather at long tables for lentil soup, salad, rice, meat-and-potato stew, cassava, and papaya juice. Vegetables, beef, pork, and fish are produced here.

Custom Windmill Power

Bright aluminum sunflowers signal the approach to Gaviotas. Although this tropical plain floats atop a vast subterranean lake, Indians and early settlers had to haul water from muddy streams. Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department of Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes, studied 58 different types of windmills before creating a custom model to pump the llanos. The result was a compact unit weighing barely 100 pounds, its blade tips contoured like airplane wings to trap soft equatorial breezes.

Gaviotas provided a chance to plan a tropical civilization from the ground up, instead of depending on technologies developed for northern climates. "When we import solutions from the US or Europe," said Lugari, founder of Gaviotas, "we also import their problems."

Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed thousands of the windmills across Colombia – in some places gaviotas is the local word for windmill. Since Gaviotas refuses to patent inventions, preferring to share them freely, the design has been copied from Central America to Chile.

Electricity comes from a low-head turbine powered by a stream, except in the short dry season, when it is backed up by a diesel generator. "In 24 years we’ve learned to cover 70 percent of our food and energy needs," says Gonalo Bernal, administrator of Gaviotas. "The trees we plant more than compensate for any greenhouse gases we emit. Imagine if the rest of the world lived like us."

Gaviotas began as a collection of researchers, students, and laborers sharing vehicles, bedding, dishes, clothes – and decisions. In time several of their families joined them and a permanent colony with individual houses emerged. Government was by consensus and unwritten rules. To limit public disorder, alcohol is confined to homes. To preserve wildlife, dogs and guns are banished. A need for police, jail, or door locks has never arisen. Anyone who violates protocol, like a storekeeper who recently admitted to overcharging, is ostracized by the community until his debt is paid. Loafers aren’t tolerated, but with wages above the Colombian minimum wage, plus free meals, medical care, schools, and housing, loafing isn’t a problem.

Revolutionary Inventions

A techno-tour of the llanos shows how Gaviotas has revolutionized life here. The most significant invention is a simple hand pump capable of tapping aquifers six times deeper than conventional models, but requiring so little effort that children can operate it. In normal pumps a heavy piston must be raised and lowered inside a pipe. Gaviotas engineers realized they could do the reverse; leave the piston stationary and lift an outer sleeve of lightweight, inexpensive PVC tubing instead.

At a windmill-fed cattle trough, surrounded by a sloping cement floor, cowboys have just brought several thirsty calves. As they drink, their dung slides down the slope into a gutter, which sluices it to an enclosed anaerobic fermentation tank, where the cow-pie slurry turns into compost and methane.

The methane flows through pipes to the 16-bed Gaviotas hospital, which a Japanese architectural journal has named one of the 40 most important buildings in the world. It is at once both futuristic and ancient, a maze of angles formed by white walls, glass awnings, skylights, brushed steel columns, and exposed supports trimmed in blue and yellow enamel. The interior is cooled with underground ducts whose hillside intakes face the prevailing breeze. Opposing layers of corrugated roofing create a series of air channels that further bleed away the heat. The combined effect is cost-free, maintenance-free air conditioning. Solar collectors on the roof alternately heat, boil, and distill water. Electricity is from solar photovoltaic cells.

The only hospital within a 12-hour radius, it serves all comers, including both guerrilla and army forces battling in the area. "The rule here is never to ask," says Bernal. "Like the Red Cross, everybody respects us."

A short, vine-covered walkway connects the Gaviotas hospital to the maloks, a separate wing built by the local Guahivo Indians. Instead of beds, patients and their families lie in hammocks hung from wooden beams under a great thatch roof. Relatives of the sick tend crops of tomatoes, lettuce, and onions in an adjacent hydroponic greenhouse.

If the National University’s pharmacology department and the Guahivo shamans have their way, this greenhouse will one day become the finest medical plant laboratory in the tropics. But money is a critical factor, and Colombia’s expanding, government-owned oil and gas industry has dampened Gaviotas’ solar collector sales by blocking tax benefits for investing in alternative energy. At the same time revenue from windmills and pumps dropped as Colombian agriculture was battered by an unexpected onslaught of cheap imported foods, the fallout of new free trade policies.

So Gaviotas has decided to scale down its manufacturing. But no one is getting laid off. "Gaviotas isn’t a company," Lugari says, "we’re a community. In fact the solution means that both employment and Gaviotas will grow."

The solution is the nearly 20,000 forested acres. In the past 12 years, Gaviotas has planted 1.6 million Caribbean pines (after finding that no indigenous tree would grow on the prairie). To the surprise of foresters, Gaviotans chose not to cut their standing timber. Instead they are converting their windmill factory to process pine resin. Colombia spends $4 million annually to import such resins for the manufacture of paint, turpentine, and paper. Armed with that fact, Lugari persuaded the Japanese government to provide the seed money, via a grant through the Interamerican Development Bank, to begin tapping and processing resin for the domestic market.

Environmentalists initially questioned the wisdom of introducing a monoculture of an exotic tree into the llanos. Lugari countered that since nothing else grew there, Gaviotas was displacing no native species. In fact, quite the contrary.

Primeval Forest Reborn

In the moist understory of the Gaviotas pine forest, dormant seeds of native trees probably not seen here for millennia have sprouted. So far, biologists have counted nearly 40 species. Sheltered by pine trees, a diverse, indigenous forest is regenerating here with surprising speed, and Gaviotas intends, over decades, to let it choke out the pine and return the llanos to what many ecologists believe was their primeval state: an extension of the Amazon. Already the populations of deer, anteater, and capybaras are growing. As the process continues, Gaviotas will keep planting more treees. They’ve given away thousands of seedlings to neighbors, and groves of young pines are thriving all over the llanos.

"Elsewhere they’re tearing down the rain forest," Lugari says. "In los llanos, we’re putting it back."

"This place is utopia," someone once told him.

"No," he answered, "not utopia. Topia. Utopia literally means ‘no place.’ Fantasy land. But Gaviotas is real."

This was adapted from an article by Alan Weisman in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, Sept. 25, 1994. Alan Weisman is an international journalist based in Sonoita, Arizona.

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