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

Gaviotas Book Out and Update

Air Date: Week of

Since producing his radio documentary in 1994, Alan Weisman has maintained an avid interest in Gaviotas. He's returned to the village several times in the past few years, and has just finished writing a book that updates the Gaviotas story. It's called "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," and it's published by the Chelsea Green Press. He spoke with Steve Curwood from station K-U-A-T in Tucson, Arizona.


CURWOOD: Since producing his documentary in 1994, Alan Weisman has maintained an avid interest in Gaviotas. He's returned to the village several times in the past few years and has just finished writing a book that updates the Gaviotas story. It's called Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, and it's published by the Chelsea Green Press. Alan is in the studios of KUAT in Tuscon, Arizona. Hey, thanks for joining us.

WEISMAN: Sure, Steve. Good to be here.

CURWOOD: Alan, I think it's safe to say that once you went on your first trip to Gaviotas it became a very important part of your life as a journalist. When did you know that you just had to tell this story and keep going back there again and again?

WEISMAN: Well, for a few years I was doing several stories that were taking me to some of the worst environmental disasters on Earth. I was at Chernobyl. I was in Antarctica looking at the ozone hole. I was in Brazil where forests were coming down. And in Colombia, which some people consider to be the most problematic country on Earth, I had found this place that was always reassuring to me, always encouraging to me, that there was an opportunity to get things right. It became the place that I could escape to. It just feels like life the way it's supposed to be.

CURWOOD: In the Afterword of your book you talk about some of the recent developments in Gaviotas. And maybe you could take some time now to give us an update on some of the changes there. Let's talk about what happened to the medicinal plant labs that you mention in the report.

WEISMAN: A couple of years ago Colombia began a national managed health care plan, under which rather absurdly the wonderful Gaviotas hospital became illegal, because it didn't staff enough specialists or see enough patients every month to qualify. So the Gaviotans renamed the building the Gaviotas Medicinal Plant Research Center, and they converted to an all-herbal pharmacy, which has been stocked by one of South America's most celebrated medicinal plant experts. They also set up a water bottling plant to distribute clean water to all their neighbors as a preventative measure, since 80% of all tropical diseases are water-borne. And a former Gaviotas doctor, who's now a plant pharmacology professor at a university in Cali, has pledged to make Gaviotas the university's field laboratory.

CURWOOD: What about the energy situation at Gaviotas? That's one of the most fascinating aspects of your documentary and of your book. The way that they invented just so many different things to get energy to run their systems. Are they self-sufficient now at last?

WEISMAN: They have moved extremely close to it. When I was there originally they had a diesel plant that they used during the dry season when their turbine wasn't running. But now they've hooked up a steam-driven turbine to the boiler of their new pine resin processing plant, which is making them basically self-sufficient in energy to run the town. They still use gasoline for some of their vehicles. But as a result, they were awarded something called the 1997 World Prize in Zero Emissions from the United Nations Zero Emissions Research Initiative.

CURWOOD: Are people moving to Gaviotas? Is its population picking up?

WEISMAN: Well, the civil unrest in Colombia these days has, I think for the moment at least, halted any huge stampede of people crossing the Andes to take advantage of Gaviotas' kind of life. But yes, the place is growing, slowly now, as their pine resin industry comes on line.

CURWOOD: What if your book is so successful that hordes of people decide to move to Gaviotas?

WEISMAN: I think that Gaviotas will find a way. They envision in the near future starting smaller satellite communities all within no more than a twenty minute bicycle ride of either each other or of the original Gaviotas, and that way they'll be able to have sort of a manageable type of balance between human occupation and the ecosystem that supports them. They realize, they understand, that outreach to the world is part of their mission. That they don't live in isolation. They've always had commerce with the outside world. They've always used products, and they've used ideas that have come from elsewhere in the world.

CURWOOD: What do you think are the major lessons from Gaviotas for the rest of us?

WEISMAN: There is a sense at Gaviotas that you never give up. That if something doesn't work, you try something else. The founder of Gaviotas, Paolo Lugari, once said to me, there's nothing more unstable than stability. And I thought there was a lot of wisdom in that; trying to maintain something perfectly is bound to make it rigid, and when something gets rigid it starts to crack. The Gaviotans simply respond to whatever is going on around them and they try to move in a direction that will preserve their ideals of living a sensible environmentally harmless existence and be part of the greater world around them as it moves. If you can do it in Columbia, there's really hope that we can do it anywhere.

CURWOOD: Alan Weisman's new book is called Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Alan.

WEISMAN: Thank you, Steve.



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