"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."
—Paolo Lugari, founder of Gaviotas
Paolo Lugari was never tempted by the lush resources of places such as the Serranía de la Macarena. The vision gestating in his subconscious, as his Land Rover crawled across Colombia's huge eastern plain in late 1966, involved a hunch that someday the world would become so crowded that humans would have to learn to live in the planet's least desirable areas.
But where? His time in the Chocó—Colombia's Pacific jungle, slated for a possible trans-oceanic canal --had persuaded him that rain forests and excess people were a foolish mix. 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 place to put bursting human populations. Los llanos were a perfect setting, he decided, to design an ideal civilization for the planet's fastest-filling region: the tropics.
No one held much hope for him. The llanos were considered good for little except inspiring llanero musicians to write songs about how mournful life gets on an endless prairie. Biologists believed that thirty thousand years earlier, this had been part of an unbroken rain forest clear to the Amazon. Then, climate change had created new patterns in the predominant winds. The trade winds that formed over the seas to the northeast blew inland, fanning lightning strikes into fires that burned the jungle faster than woodlands could regenerate. A few trees, including curatella americana—the lonely, fire-hardened chaparro, a recurring leitmotif in regional folklore—were able to adapt. For the most part, the jungle receded south, where the winds diffused, leaving short-cycle, nutrient-poor savanna grasses in its stead. "It's just a big wet desert out there," Lugari was told repeatedly.
"The only deserts," he would one day reply, "are deserts of the imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of imagination."
September, 1968: Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, leaned back at his desk. His last class of the week had just ended; outside his window, it was a rare Bogotá day, so clear that the white mantle of the Nevado de Ruiz volcano gleamed two hundred miles to the west. He was headed out to stroll the grassy hills of the campus when someone knocked on his door. Even as he swiveled to answer, a tall, thick-chested young man wearing a light khaki jacket strode into his office. Extending a large hand as he sank into a chair, in lieu of introduction he demanded, "True or false: Can you build a turbine efficient enough to generate electricity from a stream with just a one-meter drop?"
The stranger propped his elbows on Jorge's desk, rested his bearded chin on his hands and leaned forward. He looked vaguely familiar, and despite his audacious entrance there was 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, the enfant terrible son of a brilliant Italian lawyer, engineer, and geographer who'd found Colombia'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 exams without attending classes. On the strength of an inspired interview, he won a United Nations scholarship to study development in the Far East. Upon returning from the Philippines, he launched a highly-publicized, successful national campaign to save a historic village near Bogotá from being drowned by a federal hydroelectric project.
"Come to Gaviotas and I'll show you," Lugari told Zapp. "Tomorrow."
"Come to where?"
Next, Paolo went to find Dr. Sven Zethelius, a soil chemist at the Universidad Nacional's agricultural 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 a diplomatic stint here. Not long after his first trip to los llanos, Lugari learned that Zethelius was delivering a series of stirring lectures on the tropics. On evenings whenever the 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'd promptly returned. "Europe is too organized," he told students. "I want a place where there's no fossilized order. I want a jungle. There are a hundred times more resources here than in developed countries, where everything's been exploited. Colombia can be whatever you want it to be."
Lugari sensed a fellow dreamer. One afternoon he cornered Zethelius in his chemistry lab and explained that he'd staked a claim to an abandoned highway camp he'd found in los llanos, along with ten-thousand surrounding hectares. "What can I plant out there?" he asked.
"Probably nothing." The soils around Gaviotas, Zethelius informed him, were only about two centimeters thick, quite acidic, and often high in aluminum toxicity. "Frankly, they're the worst in Colombia. A desert."
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"So I'm told. Look," Paolo urged, "the only deserts are those of the imagination. Think of them as different soils. Someday," he continued, "Colombians who want land will have three choices: burn down the Amazon, do the same to El Chocó, or move to the llanos
. If we could figure out ways for people to exist in the most resource-starved region in the country, they can live anywhere."
"Think of it. Gaviotas could be a living laboratory, a chance to plan our own tropical civilization from the ground up, instead of depending on models and technology developed for northern climates, like the Peace Corps wants to teach everybody."
Zethelius began to nod.
"Something for the Third World, by the Third World," Paolo persisted. "You know what I mean: When we import solutions from the United States or Europe we also import their problems."
Zethelius glanced outside. Protesters were again massing in the concrete plaza. Megaphones, then tear gas would shortly follow. He pulled the window shut. "True enough," he replied. "In Colombia, we've got enough problems as is."
"What exactly do you intend to beget here?" Sven Zethelius asked him. They were lying in canvas hammocks under an open-air maloca that local Guahibo Indians had built them, consisting of a hip roof of thatched palm-fronds supported at the corners by four thick poles cut from moriche trunks. By yellow Coleman lamplight, they watched a squadron of shadowy bats feast on the buzzing hordes attacking their gauzy mosquito netting.
"Exactly? I'm honestly not sure," Paolo confessed. He'd had a raw, barely formed idea of people coming out to los llanos and living together in productive harmony. Who they would be, and exactly what they would do, wasn't yet clear.
"I'll tell you once I know, myself. Or when people like you tell me what's possible."
Night after night, they fell asleep talking in their hammocks. Zethelius told Paolo about changes underway that alarmed him and his colleagues, such as a phenomenon called the greenhouse effect, and how the number of the earth's species was inexorably shrinking—both of which were news to Lugari in 1970. If they were going to colonize the llano, Zethelius insisted, they should aim for nothing less than a new, alternative, inhabitable bio-system. Maybe they should invite people from all over the world and make Gaviotas a confluence of cultures, the beginning of a new earthly society.
"I don't know if we should be thinking about saving the entire world out here."
Zethelius hooted. "I've seen what you're reading." Lately, Paolo had been gobbling the canon of utopian literature: Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Thoreau, Emerson, Karl Popper, Edward Bellamy, B.F. Skinner, Bertrand Russell, even revisiting Plato's Republic.
"You don't want to just survive out here," Zethelius's voice declared from behind his mosquito netting. "You're trying to create a utopia. In los llanos, no less."
Paolo tried to sit up upright in his hammock to look the older man directly in the eye. After flailing about briefly, he gave up. Lying back again, he said, "I want Gaviotas to be real. I'm tired of reading about all these places that sound so perfect but never get lifted off the page into reality. Just for once, I'd like to see humans go from fantasy to fact. From utopia to topia."