Gaviotas: Reflections on a Dialogue on Innovation and Perseverance
by Bill and Jeanine Christensen

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The real maturity in life is to realize your dreams
--Gaviotas saying

Click HERE for details about the 2003 retreat.


In 1998, Chelsea Green Publishing published Alan Weisman's book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World about an innovative social experiment in the "wastelands" of the savannas in the eastern part of Colombia. This was the first time many had heard of the now 30 year old Gaviotas and the unique collection of pioneers living and working there.

Book Lead by founder Paolo Lugari, the residents have a long string of achievements to their name, including developing windmill and water pump designs that are particularly efficient, solar refrigeration, and a huge reforestation project. In recent years Lugari has been working with Gunter Pauli of the Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI) in order to improve their already exceptionally well-integrated systems.


In September 2002, Lugari and Pauli gave a two-day workshop ("Dialogue on Innovation and Perseverance") in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was the first public lecture Lugari has given in the United States in 17 years. About 150 others from a broad range of backgrounds jumped at the chance to attend the event which took place at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center. The location is striking. The conference center is nestled next to cliffs in a landscape made famous in Georgia O'Keefe's paintings.

Robert Schorlemmer and his wife Karen signed up to attend the originally scheduled event at the Omega Institute in New York state. When that was cancelled eight weeks prior to the event due to a "lack of interest," the couple decided to arrange the event themselves (see the posts online Planeta's Colombia and United States forums.)

They figured that if 50 people attended, they'd cover the costs. So in seven weeks -- and by scouring the Internet for likely accomplices who could forward their email announcement -- they were able to sign up 150 and had to turn people away. We were among those who received an email from Robert, and by passing it along to a number of discussion lists we recruited a handful of the attendees.

It's a wonder that Alan Weisman (who was also in attendance) managed to write that book. Lugari is SUCH the contrarian. He has an illuminated, steeplechase mind. Keeping up with him is pretty vigorous work.

Pauli, in some ways a younger version of Lugari, has some spot-on things to say. He is most definitely on The Right Track. Kind of a permaculturist-social-justice-guy with a penchant to use fairy tales to illustrate his points. His website, though good, unfortunately doesn't really convey the depth that Gunter conveys in person.

The name "Zero Emissions Resarch Institute" immediately brought to my mind people working to reduce automobile pollutants. Though we're sure Pauli would be happy to see such pollutants reduced, this is NOT the area that ZERI is directly concerned with. ZERI's focus is on taking things that are considered "waste" and finding new uses for them.

The trick to "zero emissions" is to use the "waste" of one of the five kingdoms as food for another. We've seen the kind of problems that arise when one kingdom eats its own waste - dead cows fed to live cows produces things like mad cow disease. But that same waste that is toxic to one level is food for another.

Pauli has an amazing ability to weave a web of complex interrelationships between, say, the production of a hanger from bamboo, the regeneration of costal rainforests, the replacement of lost sugar industry jobs, and twenty other seemingly disparate activities. Each activity's "waste" emissions becomes a resource that can be used for another activity.

An excellent example is the ongoing reforestation work in Gaviotas. On the surface, it's a fairly straightforward effort to plant Caribbean Pines. It has evolved to the point where it has spawned a major set of industries for the village as well as other benefits. The growing pines shade the soil and the needles add a mulch layer, changing the soil PH, which allow long-dormant seeds of hundreds of varieties of rainforest plants to sprout. Animal life has followed. The forest structure acts as a sort of biofilter, and produces much improved water quality over the surrounding region, which in turn spurred an industry which supplies potable water, eliminating a large proportion of the health problems in the area.

The pines also produce resin used in paints, lacquers and cosmetics. Low quality residuals of the resin production that can't be sold are used as a stabilizing/waterproofing element in rammed-earth blocks, which are used to construct most of the village's buildings. The plastic bags used to collect the resin are recycled into plastic irrigation pipe for the tree nursery.

The short planting season of the pines caused the Gaviotans to develop some of the most efficient tree planting equipment to be found anywhere, capable of planting one tree a second. Their remote location and the difficulty of obtaining outside materials brought on the development of a new way of containerizing the resin in specialized cardboard boxes, lowering costs, eliminating waste, and standardizing shipping in compact 25-kilogram containers.

On top of all that, the Japanese pay for the reforestation as part of a carbon pollution reduction credit system. Carbon-polluting Japanese industries "buy" the sequestration of carbon in the forest.


Paolo Lugari spoke in Spanish. We understood the translation, of which we paraphrase the following points:

"Nothing brings success on more quickly than a string of failures." (Lugari added that in Gaviotas, if you don't have several major failures to your credit no one really respects you.)

"There is opportunity in every crisis." (He quoted the Chinese ideogram and added that if there hasn't been a crisis in a year or two at Gaviotas, he makes one to keep people thinking.)

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." (He quoted Einstein here; Lugari absolutely has NO faith in university education, because in his opinion if it were so damn great how come no one has solved the problem of poverty, and because in his opinion universities typically only offer answers. He praised his philanthropist dad for not forcing a university education on him, which he says allows him not just to think outside the box, but to be utterly unconcerned and unrestrained in his methodology, since he doesn't know the 'right way' to start.)

Similarly, after hearing from so many scientists that various things he wanted to do were impossible, he just stopped listening to scientists. He has little respect for the scientist at universities, and much more for those out in the field -- literally outside.

He also pointed out problems with the Internet as it offers only answers, and in Lugari's opinion, each problem has at least 10 solutions, the best of which will be site- and time-specific. Solutions are also works-in-progress. The windmill water pumps in Gaviotas have gone through at least 40 separate physical incarnations, and they are STILL playing with the design. Wasn't it Picasso who once said that 'Computers are useless; they only gives answers.'?

"When we started using petroleum, we stopped thinking." (Lugari has very little good to say about internal combustion engines. He likes the promise of fuel cells.)

"Children learn better outside than indoors because the capacity for joy is greater outdoors."


In the Q&A part of the meeting, one man asked "what makes us sure that Gaviotas won't die when you do?", to which Lugari responded:

"The Gaviotas Foundation is what really runs things in Gaviotas now. The place runs much better when I am not there. There are lots of people involved in Gaviotas. Several generations of people work there now and will keep it going. Gaviotas is a state of mind, more than anything. It is not really so much a place. It's a way of living and thinking. It means not just thinking outside the box, but constant innovation and re-invention. For one problem there are ten solutions. In any crisis, there is an opportunity to try out any or all solutions.

"Scientists have often been wrong about what Gaviotas could, can and will accomplish. It's more important to imagine, to give people their dignity (for instance, Gaviotas will never get a machine that takes away anyone's job) and to play and celebrate. The earth will celebrate with you."


The intent of the workshop in New Mexico was, not surprisingly, not so much to give answers but to begin a continuing dialog. There is already talk of another similar workshop next year, and there will soon be email discussion groups set up to delve deeper into some of the areas touched on at the workshop. A new "Friends of Gaviotas" foundation is being formed in order to provide a channel for donations to the village's projects and to bring some of their many inventions and innovations to the rest of the world.


Bill and Jeanine Christensen run Sustainable Sources, where they design and host websites for a growing number of environmental businesses, including and their own site which offers information and resources on sustainable building. Contact


Grow Your Own House: Simon Velez and Bamboo Architecture
- Prominently featured is the ZERI pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany.




g Review of Gaviotas Book
g Eco Travels in Colombia
g Green Building in Latin America
g Spanish Language Schools in South America


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