Magazine article New Internationalist

Time for Utopia: Pioneering Colombians Have Created a Model for the World- in the Most Unpromising Place They Could Find. Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin Tells the Extraordinary Tale of Gaviotas

Magazine article New Internationalist

Time for Utopia: Pioneering Colombians Have Created a Model for the World- in the Most Unpromising Place They Could Find. Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin Tells the Extraordinary Tale of Gaviotas

Article excerpt

Pioneering Colombians have created a model for the world - in the most unpromising place they could find. Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin tells the extraordinary tale of Gaviotas.

FIVE o'clock in the afternoon. The sun is setting over the monotonous green of the tropical plains, sculpting in bronze the creatures that cross the savannah. A flock of birds surges impetuously from the thickets and takes flight towards the windmills that decorate the landscape.

From there they contemplate the steam that rises from kitchens belonging to the 200 people settled over these 10,000 hectares of harsh, infertile land. The scent of dusk mingles with that of dishes being prepared for those who, one day 30 years ago, decided to live away from contaminating technologies.

This place is called Gaviotas - named after a bird that enlivens the rivers at dusk. In 1965, when Colombian activist Paulo Lugari was flying over the impoverished region, he mused that if people could live here they could live anywhere. 1 The following year Lugari and a group of scientists, artists, agronomists and engineers took the 15-hour journey along a tortuous route from Bogota to the Llanos Orientales (eastern plains) bordering Venezuela.

They wanted to immerse themselves in the ecosystem and develop alternative technologies that could meet the basic needs of any community. So an easy, fertile place was out of the question.

They chose well. According to one of the pioneers, chemist Sven Zethelius, the soil of the Llanos is `the worst in Colombia - a desert'. 1 In addition, the Llanos Orientales was a place of poor employment prospects and a high level of violence - not helped by Colombia's ongoing civil war involving government forces, paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. The local population - including the indigenous Guahibo people, accustomed to the violence of the `white man' - were naturally suspicious of newcomers.

Natural laboratory

Soon the Gaviotas pioneers were planting trees and digging gardens to grow food for their day-to-day needs. The soils of the river banks were too poor for vegetables so they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and eggplants in containers made out of rice husks, washed by a manure tea. By the late 1970s, they had created a square kilometre of hydroponic greenhouses and set up co-operatives to sell and exchange produce with villages in the region.

Today many of the indigenous Guahibo people and rural peasants live in Gaviotas, riding to work on Gaviotas-designed savannah bicycles. The settlement has the things a town needs: a decent school and a solar- and wind-powered hospital, cited by one Japanese architecture journal as one of the 40 most important buildings in the world. There patients can enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of its shrubs and benefit from the 250 species of tropical medicinal plants cultivated in its greenhouses. This natural laboratory is considered unique in South America. In the wards indigenous hammocks alternate with traditional hospital beds.

Gaviotas also has a communal kitchen, swimming pool, meeting hall, horse stables and areas devoted to breeding all kinds of animals. Only dogs, like shotguns, are prohibited! Manure from the animals is used as a fertilizer, while methane from cattle is captured and used as a fuel. Most people get about by bicycle - any cars that exist are run on biogas.

The electricity needed to run Gaviotas comes mainly from the winds of the savannah. …

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