May 2005 Trip to Las Gaviotas


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This article and photos are by Dick White. It was published by the Durango Herald on September 18, 2005.

In May 2005, fellow Durango resident Katherine Holt and I were among the first Americans in 12 years to visit Las Gaviotas on the savannah of eastern Colombia. Our guide was Gunter Pauli, head of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI). We had heard Gunter cite Las Gaviotas as the world's premier example of sustainable development, read Alan Weisman's 1998 book, Las Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, and met Paolo Lugari, its visionary architect. Now we could see for ourselves. As a birdwatcher's bonus, I would see some of the 1700 bird species that represent part of Colombia's exceptional biodiversity.

Shown in the photo on the left are Katherine Holt and Dick White, ZERI practitioners from Durango, Colorado, on the plains at Marand�a, Colombia.

We knew that for 30 years at Las Gaviotas, Lugari and his ever-changing team of university graduates and students, street kids, and indigenous people have used ingenuity and local resources to create livelihoods for 200 workers, who support some 2000 family members in the region. We met some of the residents, saw demonstrations of their renewable energy systems, and visited their award-winning self-sufficient hospital building. Although the hospital was closed by a shift in government policy, the building now provides a sterile environment for a new water and tropical fruit juice bottling operation, itself a result of Gaviotas' most remarkable accomplishment, reforestation of the plains.

The savannah landscape reminded me of central Nebraska, grassland with narrow forest bands along perennial streams. Lugari's team discovered that Caribbean Pines would take root in the exceedingly acidic grassland soil. The pines provided shade and new organic matter and Nature did the rest: the regenerating forest has recruited more than 200 species of plants and animals from the nearby "gallery" forests. In addition, the pines provide commercial resin products to support the community. Serendipitously, the altered microclimate yields more rainfall and the enriched soil is an efficient filter, so for the first time Gaviotas has an abundance of potable water.

An aerial view of the savannah, showing the "gallery" forests, can be seen in the photo on the right.

In the course of its constantly evolving experiment on the Colombian plains, Las Gaviotas has become an oasis of harmony in a country wracked by violence. The village community center, a rakish building that provides both natural air conditioning and wonderful acoustics, houses a mural showing Gaviotas' accomplishments and dreams. We experienced much of what it depicts, including music enthusiastically performed by happy people. The mural includes the inscription: "True maturity consists in realizing your dreams."

Photo on the left shows the Las Gaviotas community center.

In 2004, the Colombian government adopted the dream of reforesting 25,000 square miles of savannah. As part of this "Megaproject," ZERI is managing expansion of the Gaviotas forest from 32 to 320 square miles and also initiating reforestation on land donated by the Air Force at Marand�a. At Marand�a - an indigenous name that translates as "Good News" - we had conversations with high-ranking officers who bear responsibility for logistical support of the project. The men expressed their dedication to sustainable development as a path away from poverty and violence toward security in their country.

Their vision further includes Gaviotas and Marand�a as centers for ecological research and ecotourism. Often fleeting glimpses of hummingbirds, macaws, and other birds both pleased and teased me. They exemplify the riches that await amateur and professional naturalists on the savannah, especially in pristine Tuparro National Park across the impressive R�o Tomo from Marand�a.

For more information about Las Gaviotas, here are two links.
2005 Update on Las Gaviotas, Colombia
Biodiesel, Energy for the Tropics

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This page was last updated on September 19, 2005

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