The Book Shelf

Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World

By Alan Weisman

Chelsea Green Publishing
Box 428, White River Junction, VT 05001
ISBN 0-930031-95-4

By Sue Potvin

In a world where so much seems to be tainted by greed and falling apart, the incredible community of Gaviotas offers us hope. In the pages of his book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, Alan Weisman describes how Gaviotas began as the dream of one Paolo Lugari, how it grew and thrived as the result of the dreams and contributions of many, and how it lives as an example for the world today.

"People who dare to build a utopia use the same materials available to anyone," Weisman writes. It is merely a matter of creating a simpler way of life with different attitudes and ideals.

For his wonderful experiment, which began in the early '70s, Lugari chose the most barren and inhospitable area, possibly in the world -- los llanos in the eastern interior of Colombia. Hundreds of crops were tested but nothing would thrive in the highly acidic, leached tropical soils, whose natural levels of aluminum bordered on toxicity. But thanks to a suggestion at a chance meeting, tropical pine seedlings were tried and found amazingly successful. And so began the rebuilding of a new forest, later followed by a forest products industry that surpassed all expectations.

The alternative technology created by the people of Gaviotas over the years has been incredible. The project captured the imagination of some of the most innovative minds at the university in Bogota. Both teachers and students found themselves in Gaviotas, contributing ideas and learning from each other. The results speak for themselves. Some stayed a few months, some a year and others have never left.

At the office Gaviotans now must maintain in Bogota, one cannot miss the brick and glass cubes surrounded by colourful bursts of oddly graceful machinery rising above the eucalyptus. Several windmills are mounted on glossy yellow masts of varying heights, their blades aluminum skewers, tipped with paddles. Beside them stand bright red canisters with blue pipes and levers and silvery rectangular surfaces. The silver rectangles, solar panels, are seen throughout the city -- despite the fact that Bogota is overcast for more than half the year. Gaviotas has developed coatings for their solar panels that gather the energy of even diffused sunlight. These solar collectors now adorn Bogota's condominiums, apartments, convents, orphanages and the largest public housing complex in the world.

Communities throughout Colombia also benefit from the research and development carried out at Gaviotas, many of them able to drink pure water for the first time in their memory.

Guerillas and the many violent factions Colombia is known for, long ago knew that Gaviotas was a special treasure to be preserved. Something very wonderful was happening there and an unspoken "hands-off" policy has been observed over all these years.

Gaviotas became another kind of world. No one knew when they'd get paid for their work but it didn't matter. Room and board was supplied and people survived as considerate, sharing beings, driven by something other than competition or pecking orders. Everyone was, and is, equal there, content in this dynamic, humane co-existence.

When asked why Gaviotas has not been duplicated around the world, Paolo Lugari replied, "It's one thing to sell them windmills. It's another to replicate the spirit of Gaviotas somewhere else. How can we sell that?"

Today, in Gaviotas, one can drink ice water from a solar kettle that has gone through a refrigerator. Twelve photovoltaic modules have orange-capped saffron finches cavorting over them. And, while playing on the see-saws or the swings, the small children are automatically pumping water.

If you are losing faith in the world as you know it, read this book. Absolutely anything is possible!