02 May 2010

Las Gaviotas: A Sustainable Community Cut Off From the World Almost 40 Years Ago

It sounds like something out of a fairy tale or a children's book, a community deep in the wild jungle of Colombia, cut off from society almost 40 years ago. Then, after the rest of the world turned their back on them, they suddenly take great interest as it turns out this community has found something the rest of the world needs. Energy. And not just a new supply source but something even better. They've figured out how to be sustainable without outside influence or resources, reports The New York Times.

In the 1960's a Colombia developer named Paolo Lugari, while on a road trip through the country, stopped at an abandoned parcel of land and imagined an entire village before his eyes. The land was so poor and the area so remote - "visitors" have to pass Guerrilla check points or fly in to make it there - that no one wanted to live there. Mr. Lugari was in his very early 20's at the time. He wanted to find one of the hardest places to live and see if he could make it work. This was before the oil crisis of the 70's, but even then he knew fuel and other resources would be scarce.

Today there are 200 residents and they, "have no guns, no police force, no cars, no mayor, no church, no priest, no cellphones, no television, no Internet. No one who lives in Gaviotas has a job title." So what do they have? How did this community of 200 people create a society that is now the envy of urban planners, including Amory Lovins, around the world?

When you live in the middle of nowhere, you have to get creative. Initially scientists helped design the buildings, homes, laboratories and factories in the area but don't come around much these days thanks to all of the violence. Today they have a solar kettle for sterilizing water and solar kitchen, and a 19,800-acre reforestation project with species chosen to produce resins for biofuels, as well as, for creating conditions upon which other native plants can flourish. A children's seesaw powers the local water pump. Community members feel they are there to "try to lead a quiet life, depending on nothing but our own labor and ingenuity." Sounds pretty idyllic today.

The reforestation project is one of the most successful in the world, considering that everywhere around it is still a "tropical desert." To say Las Gaviotas is doing okay for itself is an understatement. People from outside the village trek to Las Gaviotas to earn $500 a month, which is double what they would earn in other rural areas. A mycorrhiz fungus was added almost 20 years ago to help break up and digest the poor soils and in its place other species grew up. They use the resin from the trees to power their motorbikes and tractors and sell the excess. When China dumped cheap resin imports in Colombia, the community was forced to drop their prices by almost 40% to compete.

It might sound like a fairy tale, but Las Gaviotas also has hardships too. Their remote location makes them a likely target for guerillas and organized crime trying to sneak shipments out to other areas, or at least likely that someone trying to hide something will stumble upon them. There are several guerilla and paramilitary groups that are located not too far from Las Gaviotas, but as one resident said, "we don't take part in this war, and we ask those who enter our village to do so without their rifles. So far, for us at least, this has worked." Journalists and visitors who have come this year must only stay the day and leave before dark under fear of kidnapping.

Also, the community itself is very small, and with only 12 children in school, many question how long this "experiment" can go on. As many of the residents have said, "we have survived. Maybe, at this time and place in Colombia, that is enough."

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