Associated Articles 2
Gaviotas, An Update on a Sustainable Village in Columbia
Published: February 13, 2009
February Print Edition
by Eve Quesnel
“To this day, the village of Gaviotas in the remote eastern savannas of war-torn, drug-ridden Colombia remains the most hopeful portent I’ve ever seen amidst the hell that too often defines our modern world.”
~ Alan Weisman
Three years ago I wrote a feature article in Moonshine Ink (Feb 16, 2006) concerning a sustainable village in the heart of los llanos, the vast savannah drained by the Río Orinoco outside of Bogata. In this desolate climate and environment, a dreamer of dreams, Paolo Lugari, realized a sustainable community complete with solar and wind generated appliances, a tree resin tapping business (to be used in paints, glues, medicines, etc.,), and a hydroponic nursery. The book, “Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World,” written by renowned author and journalist Alan Weisman, recounts Lugari’s passion toward this project, revealing one man’s aspirations to build a sustainable community while inspiring the rest of us to reach for the stars. Last fall, “Gaviotas” came out in a new 10th anniversary edition with an afterward by Weisman recounting the community’s evolution over the last decade.
Recently an email crossed my desk with the headline “Friends of Gaviotas Update.” Not having realized I was a ‘friend’ I was nevertheless glad to receive the email and pleased to learn that Lugari’s dream had continued indeed, sustainably. Before I recount the update, I thought I might return to the original article to disclose the sense of what this isolated community looks and feels like.
Gaviotas…a tranquil village shaded by a forest of a tributary of the Río Orinoco and filled with flowers, bright melodious birds, and chattering monkeys. The people rise before dawn, topple out of their hammock or dorm bed and fresh from a solar shower and breakfast made at the community kitchen, bike to work. Examples of jobs include tinkering on engineering projects, tapping tree resin, teaching at the school, cooking in the solar kitchen, or bottling water into bottles that double as a children’s toy (stacked like Legos). Near the resident dwellings children play on a seesaw that powers a water pump that replenishes their school’s water tank while a path nearby leads to a community hall with a parabolic metal roof that deflects the sun. South of town, a tall pine forest towers over the savannah and in another area the landscape is dotted with tall windmills that resemble “bright aluminum sunflowers.”
Friend of Gaviotas Update: January 2009
From Paolo Lugari: “For years, Gaviotas has been generating its electricity by means of a steam turbine running on wood culled from its forest. This year, the villagers have developed a novel fuel mix made of turpentine (distilled resin tapped from the pine trees in the forest) and plant oil (extracted from the fruit of the palm trees in the forest or from recycled cooking oil) that now runs all their diesel engines – electric generators, tractors, and soon trucks as well. All that was needed were stainless steel filters (developed in-house) to replace the regular paper oil filters in their engines. This new fuel mix doesn’t require any changes to the engines’ diesel fuel injection pumps.
“Gaviotas features a community dining hall that is very popular with the villagers. Its kitchen makes about 200 meals a day. The massive cooking stoves have now been equipped with internal piping through which water is heated to near boiling and is then circulated without a pump, simply via natural convection (thermosiphon). This new heat exchange system replaces the 30 solar collectors that used to sit on the roof of the dining hall. The old collectors (also thermosiphon with no moving parts) are still in top shape, so they will simply get a new paint job and be sold for $1,000 a piece!
“Biodiversity in the Gaviotas forest continues to increase. The villagers have planted a mix of pine and palm, and now fruit trees, and nature is adding the rest: hundreds of native plant and animal species are emerging that had not been seen on these arid plains in ages.”
Attention Techy People! Check out the Friends of Gaviotas website (although the site isn’t very techy – they’re looking for website help) to download manuals of the double-action sleeve pump and tropical windmill. Also included are “living science” models and videos of Lugari and Weisman.
~ For information about Gaviotas, visit friendsofgaviotas.org. Discuss this article with the author. Email her at [email protected]
The village that could save the planet
How two men plan to extend the ecological miracle that is Gaviotas, Colombia, across the rest of the Third World.
By Paul Kaihla, Business 2.0 Magazine senior writer
September 27 2007: 3:53 AM EDT
(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- We're rumbling across eastern Colombia in a convoy of military jeeps and pickup trucks. Salsa music blasts out of speakers somewhere, and an unrelenting 100-degree sun is bleaching the bone-dry savanna. Although there's not a plane in the sky or a living thing on the ground for miles around, our convoy is armed to the teeth.
Commandos in fatigues and flak jackets ride shotgun - with M-4 machine guns dangling from their shoulders and automatic pistols strapped above their right knees. One soldier is perched in a turret with a 7.72-mm machine gun. Another mans an MK-19 grenade launcher.
This rolling armada of arms and men has been seconded for a business mission from a military base near Colombia's eastern border that forms a front against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - the main opposition in a narco-insurgency that has made this drug-ridden country one of the most feared destinations on the planet. The base doubles as a sentry for a nearby U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration radar station that tracks smugglers flying loads of cocaine to transshipment points in Venezuela, just a few miles away.
But it's the human capital our convoy carries, not cocaine, that has brought out the big guns today: two men whom an Army general sitting near me describes as holding the future of Colombia - if not the world - in their hands. And our destination is not a Venezuelan drug drop, but the site of an economic miracle in the making called Gaviotas II.
The first Gaviotas, located 250 miles to the west, is the creation of the more senior of the two dignitaries at the center of our convoy. Paolo Lugari, 63, is a self-taught inventor who has become a folk hero in South America for founding a model community of sustainable development in the parched Colombian lowlands.
His fellow traveler, Gunter Pauli, 51, has the aura of a matinee idol and the charismatic charm of a European Barack Obama. He's a globe-trotting entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer who speaks seven languages, makes his home in Tokyo, and carries a Belgian passport.
The men make an odd couple, bound together by an audacious ambition to extend the Gaviotas model of green development and self-sufficiency across first Colombia and then the rest of the Third World.
Their shared vision begins with Gaviotas, the ecovillage Lugari launched in 1971. It's one of the most improbable field experiments in the annals of science and engineering: a freewheeling center of innovation devoted to building a sustainable society in one of the globe's least hospitable climates.
Built from scratch in a treeless corner of the country, this community of scientists, tinkerers, and refugees - now numbering more than 200 - has created a verdant rainforest where once there was nothing but scrub grass. It has also devised and deployed dozens of inventions with a frequency and success rate that puts some of America's most storied technology companies to shame.
Its products include a hydroelectric microturbine that generates 30 kilowatts and thousands of RPMs from a mere 1-meter drop in a low-fall dam; a system of solar panels, spherical boilers, and tanks that can provide hot water for housing projects as large as 30,000 units; and a remote-controlled zeppelin that uses videocameras to spot forest fires.
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Unlike the startups that dot Silicon Valley, Gaviotas has done all this and more with virtually no funding, no well-endowed university backing, no incubators or venture capitalists, and no access to a national power grid, airport, or freeway system. In fact, Gaviotas lies 15 hours east of Bogotá, the nearest city of note, by a two-lane road that traverses the estates of narcotics traffickers and disappears occasionally into sloughs of mud.
Gaviotas has been occupied from time to time by guerrilla bands. Lugari himself is a perennial kidnapping target who was captured once and let go only after the president of Colombia intervened and pleaded for his release.
The magic of Gaviotas is in the corporate counterculture that Lugari has fostered. It eschews formal meetings and time-management conventions, promotes jacks-of-all-trades over specialists, and conjures the kind of devotion to discovery that produced great mathematicians in the villages of ancient Greece. (See "Father of Invention," below) "The surrounding region has had no law, high crime, and roving bands of paramilitary units," Lugari says. "Gaviotas is an experiment built on crisis management. You can't learn how to do this in a university."
Pauli is Lugari's younger alter ego. He first discovered Gaviotas in 1984 as an idealistic 27-year-old graduate of Insead, France's prestigious business school. "Gaviotas seemed almost biblical," Pauli recalls. "I took it on as my life's work." After a long internship as Lugari's intellectual disciple, Pauli has come into his own.
A serial eco-entrepreneur who has made millions by running, and selling, companies like Holland-based biodegradable-detergent maker eCover, Pauli represents a new generation of leadership for Gaviotas. Under an agreement with the Ministry of Defense, he has spent the past three years drawing up plans and enlisting support to build out the Gaviotas model across the entire northeastern quadrant of Colombia - a vast area roughly the size of England.
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On today's trip in the military convoy, Pauli and Lugari are laying out their master plan for a group of government officials and business leaders, detailing how they can take this savanna - a region that experts had written off as agriculturally and economically barren - and through aggressive planting and careful development turn it into a clean-tech economy with a population of 5 million.
If the enterprise succeeds (and Pauli has already lined up funding pledges worth hundreds of millions of dollars from investors such as JPMorgan (Charts, Fortune 500)), this area could become one of the largest biodiverse reforestation projects on earth. At the same time, it would put a measurable dent in global climate change: Gaviotas II's carbon sequestration would offset the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from all of Japan.
Pauli's deeper purpose is to create a living laboratory to show other developing countries how to do the same - how to end their dependence on oil imports and grow their economies by becoming exporters of biodiesel. "This is a high-risk, high-reward project," Pauli says. "You need an example of how you can make it work before big investors come in with a lot of money. That example is Gaviotas."
This stretch of eastern Colombia is known as the province of Vichada, and from the lofty vantage of a mini Hercules cargo plane on the first leg of our journey, it looks like Montana with sections of the Mississippi River running through it. There are no trees, roads, houses, or people - just reddish turf with sparse grasses and shrubs, etched by a meandering river punctuated by oxbow bends.
Pauli and Lugari, who are harnessed into the plane's netting alongside the other VIPs like a row of would-be paratroopers, point through the portholes with proprietary pride as Gaviotas comes into view. Suddenly an amoeba-shaped oasis of verdant forest fills the vista below, an oasis that covers 20,000 acres.
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The cargo plane lands on a dirt strip on the edge of Gaviotas's forest, and commandos quickly set up an armed perimeter for their high-ranking entourage. A tractor tows bewildered visitors in a motorless carriage fashioned out of a Bogotá city bus while Lugari explains that the forest around them was planted by hand with a single species, Honduran pine. Over three decades the evergreens spawned - without human intervention - an ecosystem that now boasts more than 200 plant and animal species.
This reconstituted forest also feeds raw materials like pine resin to a handful of businesses in the village, a value-added economy in the outback that was initially built by selling inventions like the solar-powered hot water system. (The U.S. embassy in Colombia is a customer.) Gaviotas, which is administered by a nonprofit foundation, sinks all its surplus into its primary asset: those Honduran pines. The entourage halts to watch a team of five men in peasant garb, with the help of a biodiesel-fueled Ford tractor, trench and plant two rows of 50 pine shoots in two minutes flat.
The group passes one of Gaviotas's earliest inventions, a tall wind turbine. It powers a pump that funnels deep aquifer water to a commercial bottling plant, an open-air building with mosaic tiles that sits near the village's cinder-block school and residential complexes. There a group of women in their 20s and 30s wearing white work coats shyly greet Lugari, Pauli, and their guests. They tell Lugari about minor tweaks they've made to the plant since his last visit a few weeks ago.
Pauli has brokered a deal with the Juan Valdez chain - Colombia's version of Starbucks - to exclusively distribute Gaviotas water, which is packaged with a playful utopian logo. Like other bottled waters, it's a high-margin business. The production cost is about 5 cents per unit; the retail price is about $1. After transportation costs and the retailer's markup, Gaviotas enjoys a gross 30 percent profit.
Margins this generous have allowed Gaviotas to fund a free municipal water system for the village, invest in new inventions like the remote-controlled zeppelin, and position the place as eastern Colombia's equivalent of the Googleplex.
People fight for the chance to work here because the minimum wage is 50 percent higher than in the rest of the region. Tree planters here, for example, make about $400 per month and receive free food and housing. Gaviotas has no mayor, no police, no laws, no priests. "People use their conscience, not rules," Lugari boasts. "That's why we have creativity."
It wasn't always like this. When Lugari first scouted the site in the late 1960s, it was a wasteland. He was a freelance ecobuccaneer in his mid-20s, born into a wealthy Colombian family populated by government officials. He drove to the region with his brother in an open-top Land Rover, at one point hiring a barge made of logs and oil drums to get across a river.
At the time, Lugari was obsessed with the global population explosion and convinced that the invention of sustainable technologies was all that lay between human civilization and denuded ruins like the savannas of Vichada.
He conned and cajoled professors and students at Colombian campuses to contribute work-study semesters to the establishment of the project he dubbed Gaviotas, after a seagull he spotted when he first visited the site.
"About twice a month, candidates could find Lugari in a rented house in Bogota leaping up from his desk to pump their hands to listen and nod and assure them that they could be 'pioneer technicians in a vast tropical frontier,'" writes Alan Weisman in Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. "They later learned he meant that they would get a hammock, mosquito netting, food, and a share in the cooking duties. Usually, they didn't learn this until 500 kilometers of roadless [savanna] separated them from home."
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Lugari acquired the land that makes up Gaviotas's holdings through the Colombian equivalent of squatter's rights. The law stated that raw, unused land in the wilds of Vichada could be yours for the taking as long as you lived on it and worked it for two years.(The government suspended the statute last year because opportunists began to stake speculative claims as rumors spread about the Gaviotas II megaproject.)
One of Lugari's first converts was Jorge Zapp, the head of mechanical engineering at one of Bogotá's major universities. By 1975, 10 families were living in thatched cottages at Gaviotas and Zapp had quit the university to work there full-time.
Like other arid parts of the developing world, the community lacked access to potable water; the water table had sunk below the reach of conventional hand pumps. So Zapp and a group of students invented a double-action pump: The piston pumped water as it moved in both directions, not just one. Then, thanks to Mother Nature, they came up with a cheap power source to operate it automatically: the wind turbine that now pumps the water for the bottling plant.
Few of Gaviotas's inventions can be attributed to a single author. The wind turbine went through 57 prototypes in two years with input from visitors and residents who drifted into and out of the project. "These inventions came out of spontaneous, collective thinking," Lugari says. "We don't like prima donnas."
He also doesn't like formal brainstorming sessions. In his vision, the mad scientists of Gaviotas would turn every working day into one continuous mind-meld. "At Gaviotas," he says, "creativity is at a peak because people live and think together all the time, just like the ancients in the small towns in Greece."
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Another trick of Lugari's is to eliminate organizational charts and the hierarchy of professional and academic titles. Ideas from peasant workers, or campesinos, and other nonexperts receive the same consideration as those of specialists. It was this kind of democratic, open-source thinking that led to the discovery that made possible the reforestation of Vichada's stingy soil - a discovery that will also provide the ecological cornerstone of Gaviotas II.
When the community began its first experimental plantings with Honduran pines in the early 1980s, the needles of the trees quickly turned yellow. Lugari and his colleagues eventually realized that the missing ingredient was a mycorrhiza fungus that would allow the trees to absorb nutrients through their roots. They stumbled on soil samples containing the fungus while visiting farmers in Honduras. Without the fungus, Gaviotas wouldn't exist.
This horticultural breakthrough - unknown in the finest forestry labs and universities around the world - led indirectly to a commercial bonanza, thanks to a chance observation by a Gaviotas cook. She liked to take walks among the pines, and when she saw sap seeping from their bark, she reported that the "trees were weeping."
An amateur astronomer who'd taken up residence at Gaviotas chimed in that he'd read how resin could be extracted from such trees and used in commercial products. His investigation of the chemistry of resin laid the foundation for the Gaviotas factory that now refines ingredients for paint and turpentine from the pine pitch, along with industrial coatings like colofonia. A for-profit subsidiary, it enjoys double-digit margins and provides Gaviotas with 20 percent of its annual revenue.
The factory's main customers are manufacturers in Bogotá, and its chief competitors are colofonia producers in China. But Gaviotas created efficiencies in the operation that would be the envy of any supply-chain guru. During the past decade, Lugari and his team have cut production costs by 50 percent. One trick: replacing the diesel generator that powered the facility with a biomass turbine whose fuel source is pine prunings. The diesel engine cost $3 or more per gallon to feed; the new generator, next to nothing.
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Another cost-cutting discovery: Colofonia can be solidified and stored in cardboard boxes rather than the metal drums found in most factories. Cardboard is two-thirds cheaper. "Others just hadn't thought of it," says one of the workers at the plant, a peasant displaced from his home by conflicts between narcotics traffickers, the Army, and FARC. "It's fun for us to compete with China."
The official name of Gaviotas II - the megaproject that is poised to put Gaviotas on the world stage - is Marandua. It's an area of Vichada about an hour east by plane from the original village. Marandua is Pauli's baby. For this project, Lugari has assumed the role of chief scientist and promotional figurehead. He's in the military convoy today to show the VIPs test plantings of his latest passion, an oil-producing shrub called jatropha.
It was Pauli who dug up the research that Rockefeller Foundation scientists had done on jatropha in Africa and who later discovered that it could flourish in Vichada. Unlike palm, currently the craze in tropical biodiesel production, jatropha doesn't need irrigation and can be planted directly into the ground without a root bag.
The oil in the fruit it bears within a year is equal in BTUs to palm oil. As a global-warming bonus, each jatropha plant sequesters the equivalent of 8 kilograms of CO2 over 30 years. "You're producing bio-fuel at the same time as you're capturing significant volumes of carbon," Pauli says.
The convoy has reached the Tomo River, the banks of which resemble the jagged outline of the Grand Canyon, just as the temperature hits 110 degrees. While commandos machete mangos from a small grove, a couple of visitors scurry to cool their feet in the water - until Pauli warns them that it may be infested with piranhas.
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His vision for this seemingly inhospitable habitat is in sync with Colombian government policy. For more than two decades, the nation's political leaders have dreamed of opening up Vichada the way Brazil did its Amazon basin. They didn't know how to do it until Pauli and Lugari gave them their road map.
The plan is to start by reforesting 250,000 acres with pine trees and jatropha, employing 12,000 field workers and 300 managers over five years - all the while creating spinoff businesses in the Gaviotas tradition. The forest's aquifers would feed a series of water-bottling plants, and the jatropha would supply biodiesel.
Eventually, the government plans to expand the project to 15.6 million acres, a step that would require 1 million workers and create an infrastructure that the government estimates would ultimately support a population of 5 million. It would also transform Colombia into a major exporter of biodiesel.
The jet-setting Pauli was Gaviotas I's biggest champion in international business circles, and he is now Gaviotas II's principal promoter. Over the past two years, he has run political traplines from Asia to Europe to arrange funding from abroad and created a commercial company called Marandua Inc. to manage it.
The company is currently owned by Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, a foundation headed by Pauli, but its stake will be distributed among a growing number of institutional investors, including JPMorgan's emerging markets division, which committed itself to the project last summer, as well as Colombian banks, the European Union, and the governments of Japan and Spain. A deal worth as much as $327 million has been approved by Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, who has to guarantee the investors a long-term lease to federally owned land, and currently awaits lawyering.
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According to Pauli, the project will generate returns on top of direct sales of water and fuel in at least two ways: Improvements to the land will increase its value from $1 per hectare to $3,000 within the first five years. And the sale of carbon credits could bring in more than $200 million during the next 25 years. Pauli says he stands to gain nothing personally from the project. He rolled his earlier ecoprofits into his foundation, which he runs out of Tokyo, and he juggles 50 other green projects around the world. "I'm a catalyst," he says. "Remove the obstacles, and get it going."
Pauli has brought a parade of bankers and bureaucrats to Marandua to show off the tranquil landscape and demonstrate in person how their investments would be secure. Thanks to the presence of Gaviotas, he argues, Vichada is free of drugs and violence, making it the one part of the country uncontaminated by guerrillas and cartels. "These inventions and projects have kept Vichada free of coca cultivation," Pauli says. "There are no more kidnappings, no killings, no human rights violations."
But Gaviotas II still faces some very real hurdles, as we soon learn. Back at the military base, the cargo plane that brought us here has sprung a hydraulic leak. As we wait for repairs, Lugari waxes on about the future. He's dreaming about model cities that will be built in Vichada 50 years from now. Independent of fossil fuel imports and the national electric grid, their populations would be limited to 10,000, he says, in the fashion of the cities in ancient Greece.
But a listener is distracted when the base's acting commander and a couple of aides rush off to deal with an urgent report. The neighboring DEA radar base, it turns out, has a hit. The FARC is up to no good on the Tomo River, just 18 miles away. The base dispatches jet fighters to lead an assault. Gaviotas may be an ecological Shangri-la, but this is still Colombia.