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August 29, 1994
Utopia Rises Out of the Colombian Plains
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host: 23 years ago, a group of South American visionaries offered one solution for an overpopulated planet. They realized that population pressures could one day force people to live in areas considered unsuitable for human habitation, so they designed a model community in just such a place the desolate plains of eastern Colombia. Today, Gaviotas, as the tiny village is called, is a bright example of how to fashion a tropical society using affordable technologies. As part of our series Searching for Solutions leading up to the United Nations conference on population next week, Alan Weisman has this report. [sounds of truck driving on bumpy road with straining engine ]
ALAN WEISMAN, Reporter: Driving to Gaviotas takes 16 hours over a rutted track through the Llanos of Colombia,. a barren plain that stretches over half the country, clear to the Venezuelan border. The road bumps for miles, past huge cattle haciendas belonging to drug barons, and through checkpoints where travelers are searched and questioned sometimes by the army, sometimes by leftist guerrillas. Except for a few sparse grasses, little grows in these thin sun-baked soils. The sluggish rivers swarm with piranhas and malarial mosquitoes, but I recall what Paolo Lugari, the Colombian founder of Gaviotas, told me back in Bogota.
PAOLO LUGARI, Founder, Gaviotas: [through translator] We always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. If we could do it there, we could it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of the imagination Gaviotas is an oasis of imagination.
WEISMAN: 23 years ago, Paolo Lugari, the brilliant son of a tropical geographer, flew across the Andes behind Bogota, over the Llanos, and had a vision. One day, Lugari thought, savannas like these would be the only place to put growing populations. This was a perfect setting, he decided, to design the ideal civilization for the tropics.
Mr. LUGARI: [through translator] All our development models have been created in countries with four seasons, with totally different conditions from tropical countries. When we import solutions from northern countries, not only don't we solve our problems, but we import theirs. [sounds of truck driving over bumpy road ]
WEISMAN: A few miles from Gaviotas, I see the first signs of the new civilization Lugari has in mind. What appear to be bright aluminum sunflowers begin to dot the landscape. They are windmills, unlike any I've ever seen light, compact units whose blade tips are contoured like airplane wings to trap soft equatorial breezes. They were designed by engineers that Lugari lured here from Bogota's finest universities to create the right technology for the tropics. (sound of birds singing) The first thing I see as I enter Gaviotas are the town's steeply vaulted, nearly aerodynamic roofs, studded with solar panels. The buildings are shaded by mango trees and bougainvillaea filled with yellow warblers and dazzling crimson taningers. The air smells like gardenias. For the next few days, my guide is Gonsalo Bernal administrator of Gaviotas. Paolo Lugari is meeting in Bogota with the president of Guyana and the prime minister of Jamaica, who want Caribbean versions of Gaviotas. Gonsalo, formerly a journalist, tells me he arrived here in 1978.
GONSALO BERNAL, Administrator, Gaviotas: [through translator] I grew up in the 60s. My friends and I had romantic dreams of a better world. Back then, there were just two alternative paths the common artist or the common guerrilla; then, I saw a TV program on Gaviotas and learned that what I dreamed already existed.
WEISMAN: For years, Gaviotas has been a non-profit foundation, a model for the United Nations development program; but to finance themselves, the Gaviotans must also market their technology. That isn't so easy, Gonsalo says, since Gaviotas refuses to patent their inventions, preferring to share them. The factory at Gaviotas employs many of the 130 Gaviotas residents, as well as people from surrounding communities. Here, they produce the innovative devices that Gaviotas uses and sells, such as the windmills I saw on the way here.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator] We studied 56 different windmills from all over the world until we got to this version.
WEISMAN: Its design has since been copied from Central America to Chile. In one corner, Gonsalo shows me stacks of solar panels that can heat water with diffused sunlight in rainy climates, then he leads me across the factory floor to a machine resembling a stationary bicycle, which uses pedal power to strip stalks of posada. Gonsalo and factory foreman Juan Navoa next take me outside to what they call Gaviotas most significant achievement. All I see is a yellow pump handle attached to a covered well.
JUAN NAVOA, Resident, Gaviotas: [through translator] This double action pump taps water, six times deeper than normal models. Instead of raising and lowering a heavy piston inside a pipe, this one leaves the piston stationary, and lifts the pipe, made of plastic tubing. [sound of pump action and water gushing ]
WEISMAN: I try it. It's so light, a child can do it. This simple, inexpensive pump has revolutionized rural life across Colombia for people who used to haul their water in buckets from muddy tropical rivers, but Gonsalo has something even more imaginative to show me. [sounds of a teacher and children singing] When we arrive at the open-air Gaviotas preschool, children are on the playground. Their seesaw is actually a pump in disguise. As they rise and descend, water gushes from a vertical pipe into an open cement tank. Over the years, Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards, using kid power to provide villages with clean water.
CECILIA BERNAL, Resident, Gaviotas: Buenos
CHILDREN: Buenos dias.
Ms. BERNAL: [laughs ] Buenos dias. [sounds of classroom]
WEISMAN: We're joined by Gonsalo's wife Cecilia, who's a therapist, and their son Federico. Besides schooling for their children, I learn that housing, health care; and food are free here, and everyone earns the same above-minimum-wage salary. With no poverty, Gonsalo and Cecilia suggest, perhaps that's why families remain a manageable size and why there's no crime in Gaviotas.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator] We have no police or jail, because nothing gets stolen. There is no need for laws or written rules. In Gaviotas, we just have codes of common sense.
WEISMAN: Anyone who violates these unwritten social protocols, Cecilia adds, is simply ostracized by the community. What about crimes of passion, I ask, or adultery?
Ms. BERNAL: [through translator ] It's not a problem, because no one gets married here. Couples live in free union.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator ] There is no churches and no politicians, either. Politics and religion don't matter here. We respect what others believe, but we don't need them in Gaviotas.
WEISMAN: Cecilia points to a family of monkeys swinging over the children's heads.
Ms. BERNAL: [through translator] For me, God is in the birds, in the monkey, in the trees. That's how I explain it to the kids. People ask how I left a world where I was a successful professional, but here, I feel I'm in paradise.
WEISMAN: It's been years since I've heard anyone talk like this. Yet these aren't free love hippies, they're serious people committed to flourishing in a world of shrinking resources; After nearly a quarter century, Gaviotas makes already stale phrases like sustainable development and appropriate technology seem not just believable, but fresh and surprising. [sound of cows mooing]
Not far from the hydroponic farm where the Gaviotans grow the produce they eat, I visit the corrals where they raise their beef. [sound of man whistling, gate opening] One of them has a water tank surrounded by a sloping cement floor. As cattle come to drink, their cow pies slide down to an enclosed vat. [sound of crank turning and slush churning] Atop the vat, a Gaviotas cowboy turns a large hand crank to make a sort of dung soup. Inside, natural fermentation converts the slurry to compost and methane. The methane flows through pipes to an extraordinary building set on a rise, a maze of angles formed by skylights, glass awnings, solar collectors, and brushed steel columns. The Japanese Architectural Journal has named this, the 16-bed Gaviotas hospital, one of the 40 most important buildings in the world. Inside, Gonsalo shows me the air conditioning system, a blend of modern and ancient technology.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator] These underground ducts have hillside intakes that face north to catch the breeze. Egyptians used this kind of wind ventilation to cool the pyramids.
WEISMAN: In the hospital kitchen, we meet the head of the Gaviotas hydroponic farm, Carlos Sanchez, who's brought a load of vegetables. He explains how the methane generated by Gaviotas cows provides the gas for stove-top burners, but most of the cooking is done with something truly novel.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator] These are solar pressure cookers.
WEISMAN: Photovoltaic cells on the roof run this pump. You add water put in the food and turn on the solar motor, and solar-heated oil circulates around these stainless steel pots; yet even more impressive than all the solar gadgetry is a separate hospital wing that's a large thatch ramada, built for Llanos-dwelling Guaievo Indians. [ sounds of people speaking Spanish, and a baby] Instead of beds, these patients lie in hammocks hung from wooden beams. [sound of people speaking Spanish] While the doctor treats the sick, their families stay with them, because the Guaievo believe that to wall someone off away from his people is the ultimate unhealthy confinement. To earn their keep, the relatives tend vegetables in an adjacent greenhouse. If Paolo Lugari, the Guaievo Indian shamans, and the farm ecology department of Colombia's National University can find the money, this greenhouse will also become one of the finest medicinal plant laboratories in the tropics. [music ]
On my final evening, the community gathers for a concert of traditional Llanos music by Gaviotas musicians. After a while, Gonsalo and I slip away to see what the Gaviotans hope will be the key to their future. By the moonlight, I can see it: a forest, rising up from this formerly empty plain. 12 years ago, researchers here discovered that pines from Honduras thrive in these thin soils. Since then, Gaviotas has planted more than a million. Instead of cutting them for timber, they're selling the renewable sap for making paint and turpentine. They don't earn as much money this way, but Gonsalo reminds me that's not the point.
Mr. BERNAL: [through translator] We believe austerity is a better path to happiness than too much comfort. In Colombia's oil camps, what have they gotten? Prostitution and alcoholism, because salaries are too high. Then the oil is gone. What's left is misery. Meanwhile, we plant trees, so the atmosphere won t disappear.
WEISMAN: Although ecologists originally questioned bringing a Central American species into Colombia's Llanos, something amazing has happened. In the moist understory of the Gaviotas forest, dormant seeds of native trees probably not seen in Los Llanos for millennia are sprouting. Biologists have now counted at least 40 species, which are sheltered by Caribbean pines. Over the coming decades, Gaviotas will let these new native trees choke out the pines and return the Llanos to what many believe was their primeval state, an extension of the Amazon. Already, the population of deer and anteaters is growing.
[ music] Elsewhere, they're tearing down the rain forest, but I've come to a place where they're actually putting it back, even as they create more livable space for people. I remember asking Paolo Lugari back in Bogota if Gaviotas is really Utopia.
Mr. LUGARI: [through translator] Not Utopia, but Topia. In Greek, the prefix "u" signifies 'no". Utopia literally means "no place". It s just an idea; but Gaviotas is real. We've gone from fantasy to reality, from Utopia to Topia. (music]
WEISMAN: I'm Alan Weisman, reporting. [music]
[The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not been proofread against audiotape and cannot, for that reason, be guaranteed as to the accuracy of speakers words or spelling.]
- END -
Since that broadcast, the narrator, Alan Weisman, has published a book -- Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. For details, see the Resources section, below.
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Revised on August 17, 2000
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