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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gavoitas, Colombia: A Radio Documentary

Air Date: Week of

27 years ago, a group of South Americans envisioned a society in which limited resources would form the base of a sustainable future. To bring their experiment to life, they chose a site in the sparsely populated and nearly arid plains of eastern Colombia. They called their village "Gaviotas" and from which they created a host of ingenious and relatively affordable technologies. A book on Gaviotas has just been published. Its author is Alan Weisman who produced a documentary on Gaviotas for National Public Radio a few years back. Mr. Weisman provides an update on Gaviotas later in the program, but first, here is his original report.


CURWOOD: Nearly three decades ago a group of South Americans envisioned a society in which limited resources would form the base of a sustainable future. To bring their experiment to life, they chose a site in the sparsely-populated and nearly arid plains of eastern Colombia. They called their village Gaviotas, and created there a host of ingenious and affordable technologies that are now used in other nations, both in the developing as well as the developed world. A book on Gaviotas has just been published by Alan Weisman, who produced a documentary on the village for National Public Radio a few years ago. And we'll get an update on Gaviotas from Alan later in the program. But first, let's listen to his original report.

(Creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: Driving to Gaviotas takes sixteen hours over a rutted track through the llanos of Colombia, a barren plain that stretches over half the country clear to the Venezuelan border.

(An engine revs; more creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: 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 guerillas.

(A man shouts)

WEISMAN: Except for a few sparse grasses, little grows in these thin, sun- baked soils. The sluggish rivers swarm with piranhas and malarial mosquitos. But I recall what Paolo Lugari, a Colombian founder of Gaviotas, told me back in Bogota.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. If we could do it there, we could do it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of the imagination.

WEISMAN: Twenty-three 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, savannahs 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.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] 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.

(More creaking and engines)

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 Lugare lured here from Bogota's finest universities to create the right technology for the tropics.

(More creaking; fade to bird song)

WEISMAN: 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 bougainvillea filled with yellow warblers and dazzling crimson tanagers. The air smells like gardenias.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish, no translation]

WEISMAN: For the next few days, my guide is Gonzalo 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. Gonzalo, formerly a journalist, tells me he arrived here in 1978.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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: become an artist or become a guerilla. Then I saw a TV program on Gaviotas and learned that what I dreamed already existed.

(Bird song; a cock crows)

WEISMAN: For years Gaviotas has been a nonprofit 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, Gonzalo says, since Gaviotas refuses to patent their inventions, preferring to share them.

(Metal clanking; an engine revs up)

WEISMAN: 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.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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 Gonzalo 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 cassava.

(Mechanical sounds, clanking)

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish; no translation]

WEISMAN: Gonzalo and factory foreman Juan Navoa next take me outside to what they call Gaviotas' most significant achievement.

(Bird song)

WEISMAN: All I see is a yellow pump handle attached to a covered well.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: This double action pump pumps water six times deeper than normal models. Instead of raising and lowering the heavy piston inside a pipe, this one leaves the piston stationery and lifts the pipe made of plastic tubing.

(Creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: I try it. It's so light a child can do it.

(Splashing water)

WEISMAN: 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 Gonzalo has something even more imaginative to show me.

(Women and children singing; creaking sounds)

WEISMAN: When we arrive at the open-air Gaviotas preschool, children are on the playground. Their see-saw is actually a pump in disguise. As they rise and descend, water gushes from a vertical pipe into an open cement tank.

(Splashing water and creaking)

WEISMAN: Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards, using kid power to provide villages with clean water.

(Woman calls and children repeat: "Buenos dias!")

WEISMAN: We're joined by Gonzalo's wife Cecilia, who's a therapist, and their son Federico.

(Cecilia calls out in Spanish)

WEISMAN: 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, Gonzalo and Cecilia suggest, perhaps that's why families remain a manageable size and why there's no crime in Gaviotas.

BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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?

C. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It's not a problem, because no one gets married here. Couples live in free union.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: There is no judge, 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.

C. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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.

(Mooing cows)

WEISMAN: Not far from the hydroponic farms where the Gaviotans grow the produce they eat, I visit the corrals where they raise their beef.

(More mooing, cranking sounds)

WEISMAN: One of them is a water tank surrounded by a sloping cement floor. As cattle come to drink, their cow pies slide down to an enclosed vat.

(Splashing water, more cranking)

WEISMAN: Atop the vat, a Gaviotas cowboy turns a large hand crank to make a sort of dung soup.

(More splashing and cranking, bubbling)

WEISMAN: Inside, natural fermentation converts the slurry to compost and methane.

(More bubbling)

WEISMAN: The methane flows through pipes to an extraordinary building set on a rise, a maze of angles formed by sky lights, glass awnings, solar collectors, and brushed steel columns. A Japanese architectural journal has named this, the 16-bed Gaviotas hospital, one of the 40 most important buildings in the world.

(Voices speaking in echo)

WEISMAN: Inside, Gonzalo shows me the air conditioning system, a blend of modern and ancient technology.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: These are solar pressure cookers. Photovoltaic cells on the roof run this pump.

(Water runs from tap)

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: You add water, put in the food, and turn on the solar motor.

(A small motor runs)

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: And solar heated oil circulates around the stainless steel pot.

WEISMAN: Yet even more impressive than all the solar gadgetry is a separate hospital wing that's a large thatch ramada, built for llanos-dwelling Guahivo Indians.

(Children and adults speaking)

WEISMAN: Instead of beds, these patients lie in hammocks hung from wooden beams.

(Voices continue)

WEISMAN: While the doctor treats the sick, their families stay with them because the Guahivo believe that to wall someone off away from his people is the ultimately unhealthy confinement. To earn their keep, the relatives tend vegetables in an adjacent greenhouse. If Paolo Lugari, the Guahivo Indian shamans, and the pharmacology department of Columbia's National University can find the money, this greenhouse will also become one of the finest medicinal plant laboratories in the tropics.

(Harp and percussion music plays)

WEISMAN: On my final evening, the community gathers for a concert of traditional Yanos music by Gaviotas musicians.

(Singing and playing)

WEISMAN: After a while, Gonzalo and I slip away to see what the Gaviotans hope will be the key to their future.


WEISMAN: By the moonlight I can see it: a forest rising up from this formerly empty plain. Twelve 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 Gonzalo reminds me that's not the point.

G. BERNAL: [Speaks in Spanish] 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 Columbia's Llanos, something amazing has happened.


WEISMAN: 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.

(Crickets; fade to guitar music up and under)

WEISMAN: Elsewhere they're tearing down the rainforest, but I've come to a place where they're actually putting it back. Even as they create more liable space for people. I remember asking Paolo Lugari back in Bogota if Gaviotas is really Utopia.

LUGARI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Not Utopia, but Topia. In Greek, a 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 continues)

WEISMAN: I'm Alan Weisman reporting.



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