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(Editor's Note: Gaviotas' Paolo Lugari will be speaking in New Mexico, United States in September 2002. Consult our forums Planeta Colombia and Planeta USA for details.)Despite long and persistent political and environmental problems in Colombia, in 1971 a group of visionaries led by Paolo Lugari decided to create a new community based simply with what was on hand in a barren savanna in the eastern part of the country.
Now almost three decades later, the village called Gaviotas has survived numerous challenges by changing with the times. The epic story of its success is documented by master storyteller Alan Weisman in his book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, (Chelsea Green Publications, 1998, 232 pages, $22.95).
This book is simply hard to put down. The real-life characters are richly drawn, and the author provides a surprisingly fresh and favorable portrait of Colombia. Here is the country that sits on the frontier of North and South America. Weisman writes:
"Geologists speculate that South America may have been the first continental chunk to break away from the original planetary land mass, separating from what is now Africa nearly ninety million years ago; thus, its flora and fauna are among the most primitive on earth. Later North America followed, and where they joined, barely five million years ago, an intense biological interchange commenced. That juncture was present-day Colombia."
Because of its location on the equator in addition to its mountain ranges, the nation of Colombia has an incredible array of ecosystems. For example, it has more species of birds than any other country in the world. Only Brazil has a greater number of total species, but as Weisman points out, Brazil is seven times larger than Colombia.
The biological wealth of Colombia parallels the creative talents exercised in the village of Gaviotas, sixteen hours east of Bogota by jeep, past the ancient Sierra Macarena mountains - occupied by the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas - to an isolated savanna between the Meta and Vichada Rivers. This is an area far from the tourist trail and unknown to many Colombians.
Founder Lugari grew up in Popayan, a colonial city just south of Cali in southwestern Colombia. After finishing his studies, he spent time in the more rustic provinces of eastern Colombia. In this rural setting, he began to theorize about developing settlements in the fairly empty, well-drained savannas.
Weisman writes: "Later he would tell everyone: 'They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.'"
Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez has called Paolo Lugari the "inventor of the world." If so, Lugari seems to have accomplished this with friends and colleagues. Scientists and artists responded to Lugari's call to find a way to improve living conditions in this remote part of the country. In due course, they innovated and created solar ovens, clay irrigation systems and windmills that pumped and filtered the water. Great ideas - and well documented with clear illustrations.
This work did not pass unnoticed. The United Nations said the village of Gaviotas was a "model for the developing world." It continues to receive kudos, including the 1997 World Prize in Zero Emissions from the U.N. While Weisman recounts the contributions of development agencies and foundations, the book remains unclear about the actual role the bureaucrats played.
Institutional support of Gaviotas was often superficial. When consultants deemed to check out the programs in the field, they would arrive in an expensive land cruiser, with only time for a weekend visit. Why does this type of behavior not elicit some criticism?
In the third section of the book, Weisman describes the other momentous leap that took place in this community. They planted pine trees.
With a donation of three kilos of Pizolithus tinctorius, they began a new experiment. They found financial reward not in raising the trees and chopping them down for wood pulp, but by cultivating the resin - the ooze underneath the bark.
In Colombia alone, Weisman writes, companies making paints and varnishes had been importing four million dollars' worth of pine resin a year. Gaviotas began to sell to that market. Plus, the residents of Gaviotas had a renewable resource. A pine could be tapped for at least eight years, and with a rest of another eight years, it would be ready to be tapped again.
Gaviotas is the story of the Colombians who learned to value a particular place - both as a natural habitat and as a 20th century community. Instead of importing costly technological solutions from the "First World," they developed their own sustainable technologies as well an evolving environmental ethic. In the book's afterword, Weisman writes that the community elected to sell its cattle herd in favor of raising rabbits, chicken and fish.
Weisman writes: "'It exemplifies our recognition,' Paolo Lugari told me, 'that too much red meat is bad for us, that too many cow pastures are bad for the environment, and that too much "hamburgerizacion" is bad for the world."
Creating words or villages comes easily to Lugari. When some called Gaviotas a "utopia," its founder insisted that "Utopia means no place. We call Gaviotas a 'topia,' because it's real."
There is no doubt that Lugari is inspired, perhaps a genius. But what the book does not explain is whether or not the community of Gaviotas would succeed without its founder. While many people came and went, it was Lugari who held this community together. I wonder whether this "topia," was a one-man effort? If it is, it's a wonderful creation but, unfortunately, not something that it is "sustainable" - which is what the experiment was all about.
Currently, this book is only available in English, though it certainly deserves to be translated and published in Spanish. Author Weisman fleshes out the details in a complex and telling story. Reading this book raises the question of whether there are other efforts like this in the world. For example, are Mexicans creating their own topias? If so, we should hear their stories as well. And if not, we should be asking, "why not?"
To order Gaviotas from Amazon.com, click here. Note - versions of this review have appeared in Communities and South American Explorer magazines and the Mexico City News.
Author and journalist Ron Mader lives in Mexico and hosts the award-winning Planeta.com website -- www.planeta.com -- and is the author of the Mexico: Adventures in Nature guidebook and the Exploring Ecotourism resource guide. Ron leads workshops throughout the Americas.
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