An Ecologically Sound Paradise in the Middle of a War Zone

Dispatches From a Colombian Utopia

An Ecologically Sound Paradise in the Middle of a War Zone

Dispatches From a Colombian Utopia

An Ecologically Sound Paradise in the Middle of a War Zone
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 18 2004 4:28 PM

Dispatches From a Colombian Utopia

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Blanca Nieves Gonzales and Isleny Alvarado Avdila, who both grew up in Gaviotas, with teacher Teresa Valencia 
Blanca Nieves Gonzales and Isleny Alvarado Avdila, who both grew up in Gaviotas, with teacher Teresa Valencia 

The seed that the village known as Gaviotas grew from was planted long before Paolo Lugari decided he could turn a barren savanna in eastern Colombia into a productive and ecologically sound industrial village.

"My father once told me, 'When you don't know the elderly in your community, it's time to form another community,' " Lugari said.

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Lugari didn't only have trouble with Colombia's elders. Looking around at a country that seemed to be suffocating under the weight of deforestation, air pollution, overpopulation, and pesticide contamination, Lugari decided he didn't understand anyone in his community.

There certainly could have been easier places to spawn a new paradise. Vichada province endures eight months of heavy rain every year, washing out all the roads. Winds whip its savannas on 104-degree days December through March. And its soils are too acidic for most crops.

But Lugari said he chose Vichada partly for the very challenge it poses. "When you are talking about sustainable development, the most difficult place in the world is Gaviotas. So, if you can do it there, you can do it anyplace."

He may also have had another reason: The harsh climate keeps out commercial agriculture.

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Whatever his motives, Lugari had no shortage of early successes when he jump-started the community in 1966. Even without the benefits of electricity, pesticides, or motorized vehicles, those who embarked on the Gaviotas dream quest were rewarded for their faith.

Early on, the village received funding from the Colombian government and the United Nations. And as the legend of Gaviotas spread around the world, it found favor with a strange amalgamation of dreamers, artists, scientists, and politicians.

In 1981, the community began planting pine trees and harvesting the resin used to produce turpentine and a gum rosin product called colofonia. Because the trees are sterile, and thus incapable of reproducing, they do not challenge the native fauna. In fact, the shade and nutrients they provide the earth encourage the growth of other plants. In recent years, the riparian zone has been pushing into the surrounding savanna, attracting plant and bird species normally seen only in Colombia's rain forests.

Today, the village survives by manufacturing and marketing an assortment of commercial products, trading on its name and legend to help sell solar panels, windmills, water pumps, bottled water, and tropical juices.

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Though much of the governmental support for Gaviotas has dried up over the decades, its whitewashed huts and buildings remain sodden with the air of utopia.

Oliver Holuer, Vincente Aguirre, Carlos Ortiz, and Viviano Lozano in the clubhouse playing billiards
Oliver Holuer, Vincente Aguirre, Carlos Ortiz, and Viviano Lozano in the clubhouse playing billiards

Gaviotas' 120 residents get free housing, food, and health care in exchange for their labor. On top of that, they are paid four times the region's prevailing wage—and they get weekends off to fish, wash clothes at the river, and play billiards in the clubhouse.

The smell of frying doughnuts permeates through a grove of flowering mango trees as Julian Ospina waits out the heat in a hammock. In his slender hands, the lanky engineer holds a pamphlet on the merits of clean-burning bio-diesel. Ospina's interested, but he's not sure the expensive fuel will work at Gaviotas, where money is in short supply. And developing the project would be expensive.

The following evening, Ospina discusses the subject with Teresa Valencia, Gaviotas' community coordinator, who has invited the engineer over to celebrate her 24th anniversary in the village.

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What Ospina feels as he ponders introducing a new fuel to the village, Valencia has felt for nearly a quarter-century: the wonder of possibilities.

"I remember when I arrived, because I had this feeling of incredible freedom," she says from her kitchen, as she slices potatoes and stirs peas and carrots over the stove. As Valencia prepares the vegetables, Ospina strikes up a conversation with 19-year-old Javier Lanheta, who works in the colofonia plant.

"Guess what?" Lanheta asks, leaning forward on the couch, his elbows on his knees. "I'm working on something that will revolutionize the world."

"What's that?" asks Julian, chuckling at the younger man's enthusiasm.

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"An electric car," Lanheta replies.

Like his father, Lanheta was born in Gaviotas. And like his father, he didn't get a chance to attend college. That hasn't kept either man from their inventions. They recently teamed up to build a hydraulic pump for the village.

Some day, Lanheta would like to study agriculture and then return to Gaviotas to develop other projects.

The clubhouse, where the community gathers to relax
The clubhouse, where the community gathers to relax

After dinner, residents climb on bikes or mopeds and speed toward the club, a whitewashed building with a steeply slanted metal roof. The community, dry by choice, gathers around pingpong and billiards tables, drinking root beer and smoking Mustang cigarettes, listening to men sing llano tunes, accompanied by a harp, a four-sting guitar, and rattles. They enjoy the music until the lights go out at 8:30. Then it's off to their houses.

Lugari remains humble about the benefits that Gaviotas' villagers have realized as part of his dream. "Life isn't better or worse in Gaviotas, it's different," he said. "But you can live well in Gaviotas without destroying the future. In other places, people live, but they destroy the future."

But there is a sadness in the words, spoken from the comfort of a high-rise apartment in Bogotá, because Colombia's 40-year civil war has made the father of Gaviotas a refugee from his own community. Because of his high profile and lecture tours around the world, Lugari is a target for kidnapping and ransom.

Kate Willson is a freelance journalist from Eugene, Ore.