Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Colombian village’s story inspires dreams of sustainable communities

By Hannah Pullen-Blasnik

In July, the sustainability book group discussed the book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman. This true story chronicles the vision Paolo Lugari sets out to make a reality: a sustainable, energy-efficient community in the llanos of Colombia, one of the most inhospitable environments in existence. He reasoned that if a village could survive agriculturally, economically, and artistically in the war-ravaged Colombian llanos, a village could survive anywhere in the world.

Although the odds seemed stacked against them, slowly a village sprouted from the infertile soil; a village run on wind turbines converting the mild breezes into energy, efficient water pumps that tapped water sources that had previously seemed inaccessible, solar-powered kettles that sterilized the water so it was suitable for drinking, and much more.

The most amazing feat they accomplished was to turn the fallow savanna into a beautiful rainforest. Starting with a single pine tree that managed to grow, the village planted two million pine trees that encouraged the regrowth of a previously extinct rainforest, thereby re-establishing an entire lost ecosystem.

At the book group meeting, our discussion started with the awe of a small village regrowing an entire rainforest. In order to meet their goal of two million trees, the villagers worked 24/7 planting trees, each taking a shift after finishing their normal workday performing other tasks for the community. The pine trees, in addition to giving root to the rainforest, provided a source of economic stability for the village as they collected the pine resin to sell. Once the pines became old, they cut them down to use as biofuel so as to use every aspect of the pines. The pines were eventually replaced by the natural growth, serving as a starting point that allowed a natural rainforest to reemerge.

We then approached the big question: can it be replicated? Does Gaviotas serve as a plan for the future, for other seemingly inhospitable environments, or is it simply a one-time miracle? In creating Gaviotas, Paolo Lugari certainly seemed to think it could be replicated. He specifically placed Gaviotas in the relatively inhospitable llanos to prove that villages can be created anywhere. He was concerned with the world facing overpopulation and viewed these environments as new habitats for people to live in. He devised the village as a model society for the third world, by the third world. But not every Gaviotas will have a Paolo Lugari to guide them. Was Lugari himself essential to the village’s survival?

In Maine, paper companies have tried to regrow the forests by planting trees for all the trees being cut down. However, it does not take on the same life that the forest once had, as the variety in plant life that creates the forest is missing. These forests are not regrowing in the way Gaviotas regrew a forest in the llanos. In fact, although Gaviotas was created over twenty-five years ago, nowhere else have people been able to replicate the amazing success Gaviotas had on a comparable scale.

Perhaps the most important ingredient to Gaviotas’ success was found in the social structure they established. In the village, there was no hierarchy. In the community everyone was equal, and everyone was expected to do work to help the entire community survive. They met with many obstacles in their struggle for success, and all villagers were involved in thinking up solutions to the problems again and again until they met with success. There are many inventions that can be taken away from their experience, but maybe the most important takeaway is the journey they went through and the community they built, rather than the incredible destination they eventually arrived at.

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