The Paradigm Shifted: The Renaissance of the Rainforest


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How Las Gaviotas (Colombia) moves from a pilot to a megaproject.

By Gunter Pauli, Member of the Club of Rome, Founder of ZERI. Summer 2005

When the Club of Rome visited Las Gaviotas in the Colombian Orinoco in 1984, it was clear that Paolo Lugari had a great dream. It was clear to all participants that Paolo was a dreamer. Paolo, a young man who was home schooled by his father, imagined that this desolate region where he spotted a seagull far from any coast, could one day become an inspiration for sustainable development. This rarely visited region has a population of less than one inhabitant per four square kilometers. Long periods of extreme heat are followed by months of daily torrential rains. This lead to the conclusion that the reconversion of the savannah to the rainforest it once used to be is more than a dream. Nearly all scientists described Paolo's quest as a pipedream.

The Club of Rome, chaired by its founder Dr. Aurelio Peccei, witnessed the planting of the first Caribbean pine trees back in January 1984. This club of systems thinkers, Nobel laureates, prominent international public officials and business executives left inspired by the determination of the diverse group of Gavioteros. They already had a proven track record of creativity and innovation. This included locally designed and produced renewable energy systems from a windmill (without a tail), a seesaw which combines joy for kids with the pumping of water, and a water pump with a moving jacket and a fixed piston which is four times more efficient than the pumps with a moving piston and a fixed jacket pipe.

The American author Alan Weisman, funded by the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation set out to document Las Gaviotas in the early nineties. The book "Las Gaviotas" offered a mid-term romantic review of where Gaviotas stood in 1995. It became a bestseller. Yes indeed, against all odds the environmental research center Las Gaviotas had by then succeeded in planting some 5,000 HA. Whereas the forestry academia continued to claim that the rebirth of the rainforest in a soil with a pH of 4 is impossible, no one could negate the fact that the newly created forest stood tall and beautiful. To everyone's surprise, the symbiosis between the pine tree and the mycorrhizal fungus not only permitted the treelings to survive the harsh conditions of the savannah, as soon as the young pine offered shade, and the pH turned less acidic, a completely new forest emerged.

The Colombian Orinoco has the potential to be a tropical rainforest, just like its Venezuelan alter ego on the other side of the river that became so famous thanks to the music of Enya. The geologists explain that the crash of the Nazca and Latin American tectonic plates first created three mountain ranges in Western Colombia. The subsequent volcanic eruptions and massive erosion simply covered the part of the rainforest West of the Orinoco River some 800,000 to 1 million years ago. All the rivers, including the Amazon, which used to flood towards the Pacific Ocean, were forced to find their way to the Atlantic. It is no surprise that this dramatic reversal of hydro systems caused biodiversity to explode. Nature embarked on a fantastic path of adaptation and co-evolution exemplified by the 550,000 HA National Tuparo Park in Vichada, just outside Gaviotas. It is claimed that the largest biodiversity of birds in the world exists there.

The Vichada is void of industry, and agriculture is sparse. However, the young forest creates conditions that permit the natural tropical ecosystem to retake its natural course. The planting of a monoculture, i.e. the Caribbean pine, quickly resulted in the arrival of over 250 tropical plant species. This converted the hypothesis into a thesis: indeed this zone is a natural rainforest waiting to re-emerge. The regenerative model is very encouraging indeed. Each pine tree generously offers 7 grams of resin per day, which is locally processed into colophon, a key ingredient for the paint and paper industry. The planting of the trees, the tapping of resin and the industrial processing brings value added products and jobs to a part of the world where the creation of jobs was previously unknown.

The power of the Gaviotas pilot project, which completed 8,000 HA in 1998, is that it rewrote the science of forestry. It also redrafted the framework for social development. The Vichada population suffers from gastro-intestinal diseases due to the lack of adequate drinking water. Traditional solutions offer antibiotics or the digging of a deep well. These options hardly work in the Vichada for the simply reasons that there is no electricity to keep the medicine cool, and whenever the pump needs a spare part, the delivery could take months if not years. Paolo Lugari realized that the regeneration of the rainforest would bring additional benefits to the local population beyond jobs and the regeneration of the humus cap, the thriving undergrowth and the diverse forest, it also increased precipitation.

The meteorological statistics confirm that the arrival of the forest generates an additional 10 percent rainfall (an estimated 13.75 cubic meters of extra water per day). Thanks to the healthy undergrowth with a higher pH and the excellent filtration through the soil, this water is quickly becoming a key ingredient in preventive health care and a revenue generator for Las Gaviotas.

How often do we wonder about the financing of sustainable development? Las Gaviotas planted trees, brought back biodiversity, regenerated the rainforest, created jobs, and fixed carbon dioxide while offering a permanent solution to the health issues that had dominated the region for decades. Today the local population has free access to drinking water. This is considered a basic right at Las Gaviotas, and combined with the regular exercise everyone gets since the only means of transportation is the bicycle; the local population has now the best health indexes in the country. The surplus water is sold in Bogot� competing with Evian and Fiji water.

Gaviotas never committed to publicize its achievements. On the contrary, Paolo Lugari refuses to be considered a model for the world, and claims that he has the right to be wrong and correct himself as he learns new things every day. His genuine act of modesty is a hard act to follow, but the systemic evolution he and his 200 colleagues have brought about is an exceptional inspiration. Actually it demonstrates that this initiative in the middle of nowhere, where most consider that there is nothing, and the future is bleak, actually offers us an insight on how the paradigm has shifted towards true sustainable development.

The shift that Gaviotas demonstrates is that it is impossible to solve one problem with one solution. Gaviotas moved from a one problem - one solution approach, to a system approach where all problems are tackled at once, and all solutions jointly provide more opportunities than ever imagined thanks to an autopoetic process that seems unstoppable. How come we are so obsessed by tackling one issue at the time, when the system solutions require you to link numerous problems and provide flexible and adaptive solutions that can evolve over time? This is so simple and easy to understand once you've had the chance to see Gaviotas with your own eyes.

I was fortunate to be amongst the first to visit Las Gaviotas in 1984, and have accompanied the strides of Paolo Lugari for over two decades. After twenty years I realized that the time had come to bring this pioneering example from its pilot phase of 8,000 HA to a megaproject. Colombia is a nation where 52% of the population lives in poverty, and where millions are refugees, fleeing from the violence and the chemical warfare against cocaine farming. The total agricultural land is a mere 4.1 million hectares. This business cannot absorb the millions of displaced families and the young population looking for the chance to meet basic needs and make a peaceful sustainable livelihood.

The whole Vichada has an estimated 6.3 million HA of land similar to the ecosystem that Gaviotas reconverted to the rainforest it once used to be. The available land is no one's land, and excludes private farms, the thin forests along the rivers, national parks and land reserved for the native population. This piece of land is twice the size of Belgium, and with the proof offered by Gaviotas it was not difficult to convince HE Alvaro Uribe, the President of Colombia to reserve this area for the largest sustainable development project ever imagined. The realization of a dream formulated in 1984, now gives rise to a new dream. Utopia becomes reality and creates a new utopia.

Whereas the goal of the "Renaissance of the Tropical Rainforest in the Colombian Orinoco" is only reached in 20 to 25 years, the first intermediate goals are not only set and legally secured, the execution of the second phase of regenerating the rainforest has already started. The short term plan foresees the expansion of the present 8,000 HA of Las Gaviotas to 80,000 HA, and the creation of a new 45,000 HA tropical rainforest development pole in Marandua, about one hour to the East of Gaviotas. Whereas Gaviotas can obtain land adjacent to its present site, the availability of the area around Marandua is in itself a paradigm shift. Indeed, the military obtained title to the land but concluded that peace and development is only feasible if and when this land generates income. Whereas the task of the military is well defined, the absence of combat and the absence of human rights violations is not yet a sustainable livelihood. Therefore, it is key to recognize the leadership of the military who are under contract committed to turn over the land to those who live off the land sustainably. It is the first time in my experience that the military command has been prepared to look at peace and development in such a pro-active manner.

Under these conditions, slowly but steadily this initiative will create self-sufficient settlements and perhaps even biocities. The natural dynamics are surprising and the regenerative capacities of the ecosystem now offer insights into the new economics that will underpin this shift in paradigm. The paradigm shift offers a financial and business logic that surprises even the most hard-nosed economists.

Over and above the planting, tapping, and processing of non-wood products from the newly generated forest, Gaviotas recently started bottling drinking water. The catalytic effect of purchasing this water, versus any other kind of water is impressive. Say a university or a large company were to buy drinking water from Gaviotas at the rate of one cubic meter a day, the equivalent of 2,000 half liter bottles. Then this purchasing decision maintained over 25 years offers Gaviotas the financing to regenerate 6,000 to 9,000 HA of rainforest1. It is the first time that we realize that our purchasing power indeed has the power to shift the paradigm of development and bring the rainforest back. However, this is only the very first step in a catalytic process that simply gets better all the time. Finally we see autopoetic systems evolve before our eyes.

If one plants 1,100 trees per HA, then after the sixth and before the 10th year some 500 trees need to be removed in order to let the tropical rainforest grow through in its full biodiversity. The space so created permits the birds and the bees, the wind and the dormant seeds to populate the enriched soil that is now well protected from the heavy rainfall and the harsh sunshine. The one cubic meter of water purchased overseas and the subsequent renaissance of 6 to 9,000 HA of rainforest now offers 3 to 400,000 tons of wood and wood pulp2. Did you ever imagine that you could have wood pulp while regenerating biodiversity and sequestering up to 18 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare3 per year? This is becoming a powerful case of autopoesis considering that this process at first only aimed to tackle all social, economic and environmental problems at once.

Gaviotas has now decided to include 100 palm trees amongst the 1,100 trees planted. Some 300 varieties of oil producing palm trees thrive in the Amazon forest. After at least 36 months these palm trees could generate a vegetable oil, which can be pressed and used crude as biodiesel. The one cubic meter of drinking water purchased is now generating 3 to 4.5 million liters of biodiesel4 making the whole region independent of petroleum while generating one permanent direct job per 40 hectares. Drinking one cubic meter from Gaviotas each day thus generates 150 to 225 permanent jobs forever!

The work force is well paid, and the health services are free. Actually housing, food, electricity and water are all free. It is no surprise that over the past 21 years this region has been free of combat, free of kidnappings and that no one has denounced anyone for human rights violations. Whereas nearly the whole country is colored red as a symbol of insecurity, this green spot in this seemingly desolate region is perhaps the safest on Earth. The concept of development, the re-emergence of peace, and the thriving path of co-evolution towards a tropical rainforest with peaceful self-sufficient settlements is indeed a surprise for a country that is all too often only known for its violence, corruption and human rights violations.

If we take a peak into the year 2030 when this project, as imagined today, is coming to full fruition, then we could imagine a population of 5 to 10 million, self-sufficient in water, food, health care, housing, energy and of course generously sharing its learning processes. There will be many jobs, and the land known for its poverty will be the land of abundance, especially when it comes to water, the spring of life and the symbol of peace. Since it was possible to create a sustainable livelihood out of nothing for a community of 2,000, why not imagine multiple centers throughout the Colombian Orinoco, each zone adapting to the unique characteristics that the tropics bring to the world.

The key question is IF the transformation from a pilot to a mega project is feasible. Paolo Lugari and I are convinced that there is no other way than to wholeheartedly go for it. In the end, maturity in life is only achieved when we realize our dreams � and if you have no dreams then you must be asleep!


1 2,000 half liter bottles x 365 days x 25 years x 0.33 cents = US$ 6,022,500 and the cost of regenerating the rainforest starting with Caribbean Pine is US$ 1,000 per HA. Thus the purchase of water permits the funding of approximately 6,000 HA. If on the other hand the client would purchase 4,000 quarter liter bottles of water with araz� fruit rich in Vitamin C, then it would fund more than 9,000 HA of rainforest since 4,000 250 mil bottles x 365 days x 25 years x 0.25 cents= US$ 9,1250,000.

2 500 trees provide each 50 kg of wood for a total of 25 tons per HA multiplied by 6,000 and 9,000 HA offers a total of 150,000 to 225,000 tons of wood for pulping and paper.

3 The carbon fixing is considerably higher than what is traditionally expected from a pine forest since we have three mutually reinforcing fixing agents: the regeneration of the top soil, the growth of a lush undergrowth, and the arrival of multiple fast growing tree species.

4 One tree generates some 50 liters of oil, or 500 liters per HA, or 3 million liters in 6,000 HA, or 4.5 million liters (one million gallons) in 9,000 HA.

About the author

Gunter Pauli has visited Gaviotas dozens of times over the past decades. He has been inspired by this prime case of sustainable development, and the remarkable paradigm shift that has been implemented. Trained as an economist, leading an international network of scientists and vigorous operators who are keen to make things happen, he has taken the responsibility to finance the "Renaissance of the Tropical Rainforest in the Colombian Orinoco" through a fund managed by the United Nations Development Programme. The Fund was launched in 2005 in Japan, Europe ( and North America.

More links to information about Las Gaviotas.
May 2005 Trip to Las Gaviotas.
Biodiesel, Energy for the Tropics.

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