Gaviotas | The World’s First Eco-Village

eco village columbia 01 Gaviotas | The World’s First Eco Village

We need to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, right? Colombia is perhaps best known for its history of trafficking narcotics, high-profile kidnappings and a futbol player with a huge afro. In the next 50 years it may become better known as the birthplace of small, green, eco-cities.

The project to turn Colombia’s Vichada region into a series of eco-villages has been under way since 1971 when eco-pioneer Paolo Lugari created the small “city”, Gaviotas. A second rendition is currently underway by Lugari’s protégé Gunter Pauli, who plans to expand the concept by creating Gaviotas II about 250 miles away.

Gaviotas is actually a 20,000 acre, man-made forest of Honduran pine that houses a self-sustained community of engineering renegades, peasant farmers, and university interns – all in Colombia’s harshest, most arid climate. The surrounding land is so inhospitable that, until a few years ago, Colombia’s government allowed squatters to settle the land for free as long as they made improvements for 5 years – that’s how Lugari got his land for Gaviotas I.

This queer mix of eco-capitalism, environmental stewardship, utopian communism, and human-engineering has produced viable inventions at a rate that outstrips even Edison’s workshop. Most of the inventions focus on sustainable energy production, such as a 30-kilowatt water wheel that is powered by a paltry 1-meter drop in water and a solar-powered hot water system that could support 30,000 residential units. Future projects include planting oil-rich, easy-to-grow, jatropha that could eventually supply the world with biofuels.

eco village columbia 02 Gaviotas | The World’s First Eco Village

The odd couple of Lugari and Pauli has bigger plans for their mission in Colombia. They want to create a model of sustainable development for all emerging economies to follow – especially in countries that are just starting to join the rush towards globalized markets (and the associated energy consumption that comes with it), and particularly nations in Southeast Asia that have climates similar to Colombia’s. In fact they would love to see the world taken over by eco-villages in the Gaviotas model. Pauli admits that his dream is to create eco-city-states like those in ancient Greece, a vision that includes a capping population at 10,000.

What makes this place so unique? From what I can tell, what sets Gaviotas apart is that it dispenses with the westernized corporate model of business. In Gaviotas there is no special preference given to Ph.Ds or fancy titles; everyone enjoys equal input and all ideas are discussed. Problems are solved by the collective, not from the top down. Leave your ego at home if you’re going because all of Gaviotas’ inventions have undergone multiple changes as each member sees a different way to make the product better.

For example, the major products that support Gaviotas’ economy are derived from pine pitch. A cook noticed the trees “weeping” and a peasant farmer told the bigwigs about the pitch’s usefulness. Practically overnight the village was harvesting the pitch and refining it for sale. Their major competition is in China, but Gaviotas’ can produce at lower costs due to the village’s many energy-saving adjustments to the refining process.

eco village columbia 03 Gaviotas | The World’s First Eco Village

I am, however, a bit confused about the overall focus of Gaviotas. The project produces chemical products from a non-native species on reclaimed land. It seems that there is a significant negative ecological impact wrapped up in there somewhere – more of the same man-over-environment model. And I don’t think biodiesel is the panacea that everyone claims. Rather, I think the world needs to move on technologically and ditch the internal combustion engine. Finally, Gaviotas hasn’t invented any new sustainable technology, it has simply refined and re-designed current ones. The hydro-power, for example, will still require damming rivers.

On the other hand, there’s this idealistic, utopian part of me that wants to live in an off-the-grid eco-village, and there is an equally-sized part of me that wants to see the fall of modern capital/global-ism. Most important, however, Gaviotas proves that companies can thrive using a sustainable, eco-conscious model.

Hopefully I can hold out for Gaviotas 12 or 13.

More on Gaviotas here.

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