The village that could save the planet
People fight for the chance to work here because the minimum wage is 50 percent higher than in the rest of the region. Tree planters here, for example, make about $400 per month and receive free food and housing. Gaviotas has no mayor, no police, no laws, no priests. "People use their conscience, not rules," Lugari boasts. "That's why we have creativity."
It wasn't always like this. When Lugari first scouted the site in the late 1960s, it was a wasteland. He was a freelance ecobuccaneer in his mid-20s, born into a wealthy Colombian family populated by government officials. He drove to the region with his brother in an open-top Land Rover, at one point hiring a barge made of logs and oil drums to get across a river.
At the time, Lugari was obsessed with the global population explosion and convinced that the invention of sustainable technologies was all that lay between human civilization and denuded ruins like the savannas of Vichada.
He conned and cajoled professors and students at Colombian campuses to contribute work-study semesters to the establishment of the project he dubbed Gaviotas, after a seagull he spotted when he first visited the site.
"About twice a month, candidates could find Lugari in a rented house in Bogota leaping up from his desk to pump their hands to listen and nod and assure them that they could be 'pioneer technicians in a vast tropical frontier,'" writes Alan Weisman in Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. "They later learned he meant that they would get a hammock, mosquito netting, food, and a share in the cooking duties. Usually, they didn't learn this until 500 kilometers of roadless [savanna] separated them from home."
Lugari acquired the land that makes up Gaviotas's holdings through the Colombian equivalent of squatter's rights. The law stated that raw, unused land in the wilds of Vichada could be yours for the taking as long as you lived on it and worked it for two years.(The government suspended the statute last year because opportunists began to stake speculative claims as rumors spread about the Gaviotas II megaproject.)
One of Lugari's first converts was Jorge Zapp, the head of mechanical engineering at one of BogotŠ's major universities. By 1975, 10 families were living in thatched cottages at Gaviotas and Zapp had quit the university to work there full-time.
Like other arid parts of the developing world, the community lacked access to potable water; the water table had sunk below the reach of conventional hand pumps. So Zapp and a group of students invented a double-action pump: The piston pumped water as it moved in both directions, not just one. Then, thanks to Mother Nature, they came up with a cheap power source to operate it automatically: the wind turbine that now pumps the water for the bottling plant.
Few of Gaviotas's inventions can be attributed to a single author. The wind turbine went through 57 prototypes in two years with input from visitors and residents who drifted into and out of the project. "These inventions came out of spontaneous, collective thinking," Lugari says. "We don't like prima donnas."
He also doesn't like formal brainstorming sessions. In his vision, the mad scientists of Gaviotas would turn every working day into one continuous mind-meld. "At Gaviotas," he says, "creativity is at a peak because people live and think together all the time, just like the ancients in the small towns in Greece."
Another trick of Lugari's is to eliminate organizational charts and the hierarchy of professional and academic titles. Ideas from peasant workers, or campesinos, and other nonexperts receive the same consideration as those of specialists. It was this kind of democratic, open-source thinking that led to the discovery that made possible the reforestation of Vichada's stingy soil - a discovery that will also provide the ecological cornerstone of Gaviotas II.
When the community began its first experimental plantings with Honduran pines in the early 1980s, the needles of the trees quickly turned yellow. Lugari and his colleagues eventually realized that the missing ingredient was a mycorrhiza fungus that would allow the trees to absorb nutrients through their roots. They stumbled on soil samples containing the fungus while visiting farmers in Honduras. Without the fungus, Gaviotas wouldn't exist.
This horticultural breakthrough - unknown in the finest forestry labs and universities around the world - led indirectly to a commercial bonanza, thanks to a chance observation by a Gaviotas cook. She liked to take walks among the pines, and when she saw sap seeping from their bark, she reported that the "trees were weeping."
An amateur astronomer who'd taken up residence at Gaviotas chimed in that he'd read how resin could be extracted from such trees and used in commercial products. His investigation of the chemistry of resin laid the foundation for the Gaviotas factory that now refines ingredients for paint and turpentine from the pine pitch, along with industrial coatings like colofonia. A for-profit subsidiary, it enjoys double-digit margins and provides Gaviotas with 20 percent of its annual revenue.
The factory's main customers are manufacturers in BogotŠ, and its chief competitors are colofonia producers in China. But Gaviotas created efficiencies in the operation that would be the envy of any supply-chain guru. During the past decade, Lugari and his team have cut production costs by 50 percent. One trick: replacing the diesel generator that powered the facility with a biomass turbine whose fuel source is pine prunings. The diesel engine cost $3 or more per gallon to feed; the new generator, next to nothing.
Another cost-cutting discovery: Colofonia can be solidified and stored in cardboard boxes rather than the metal drums found in most factories. Cardboard is two-thirds cheaper. "Others just hadn't thought of it," says one of the workers at the plant, a peasant displaced from his home by conflicts between narcotics traffickers, the Army, and FARC. "It's fun for us to compete with China."
The official name of Gaviotas II - the megaproject that is poised to put Gaviotas on the world stage - is Marandua. It's an area of Vichada about an hour east by plane from the original village. Marandua is Pauli's baby. For this project, Lugari has assumed the role of chief scientist and promotional figurehead. He's in the military convoy today to show the VIPs test plantings of his latest passion, an oil-producing shrub called jatropha.
It was Pauli who dug up the research that Rockefeller Foundation scientists had done on jatropha in Africa and who later discovered that it could flourish in Vichada. Unlike palm, currently the craze in tropical biodiesel production, jatropha doesn't need irrigation and can be planted directly into the ground without a root bag.
The oil in the fruit it bears within a year is equal in BTUs to palm oil. As a global-warming bonus, each jatropha plant sequesters the equivalent of 8 kilograms of CO2 over 30 years. "You're producing bio-fuel at the same time as you're capturing significant volumes of carbon," Pauli says.
The convoy has reached the Tomo River, the banks of which resemble the jagged outline of the Grand Canyon, just as the temperature hits 110 degrees. While commandos machete mangos from a small grove, a couple of visitors scurry to cool their feet in the water - until Pauli warns them that it may be infested with piranhas.
His vision for this seemingly inhospitable habitat is in sync with Colombian government policy. For more than two decades, the nation's political leaders have dreamed of opening up Vichada the way Brazil did its Amazon basin. They didn't know how to do it until Pauli and Lugari gave them their road map.
The plan is to start by reforesting 250,000 acres with pine trees and jatropha, employing 12,000 field workers and 300 managers over five years - all the while creating spinoff businesses in the Gaviotas tradition. The forest's aquifers would feed a series of water-bottling plants, and the jatropha would supply biodiesel.
Eventually, the government plans to expand the project to 15.6 million acres, a step that would require 1 million workers and create an infrastructure that the government estimates would ultimately support a population of 5 million. It would also transform Colombia into a major exporter of biodiesel.
The jet-setting Pauli was Gaviotas I's biggest champion in international business circles, and he is now Gaviotas II's principal promoter. Over the past two years, he has run political traplines from Asia to Europe to arrange funding from abroad and created a commercial company called Marandua Inc. to manage it.
The company is currently owned by Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, a foundation headed by Pauli, but its stake will be distributed among a growing number of institutional investors, including JPMorgan's emerging markets division, which committed itself to the project last summer, as well as Colombian banks, the European Union, and the governments of Japan and Spain. A deal worth as much as $327 million has been approved by Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, who has to guarantee the investors a long-term lease to federally owned land, and currently awaits lawyering.
According to Pauli, the project will generate returns on top of direct sales of water and fuel in at least two ways: Improvements to the land will increase its value from $1 per hectare to $3,000 within the first five years. And the sale of carbon credits could bring in more than $200 million during the next 25 years. Pauli says he stands to gain nothing personally from the project. He rolled his earlier ecoprofits into his foundation, which he runs out of Tokyo, and he juggles 50 other green projects around the world. "I'm a catalyst," he says. "Remove the obstacles, and get it going."
Pauli has brought a parade of bankers and bureaucrats to Marandua to show off the tranquil landscape and demonstrate in person how their investments would be secure. Thanks to the presence of Gaviotas, he argues, Vichada is free of drugs and violence, making it the one part of the country uncontaminated by guerrillas and cartels. "These inventions and projects have kept Vichada free of coca cultivation," Pauli says. "There are no more kidnappings, no killings, no human rights violations."
But Gaviotas II still faces some very real hurdles, as we soon learn. Back at the military base, the cargo plane that brought us here has sprung a hydraulic leak. As we wait for repairs, Lugari waxes on about the future. He's dreaming about model cities that will be built in Vichada 50 years from now. Independent of fossil fuel imports and the national electric grid, their populations would be limited to 10,000, he says, in the fashion of the cities in ancient Greece.
But a listener is distracted when the base's acting commander and a couple of aides rush off to deal with an urgent report. The neighboring DEA radar base, it turns out, has a hit. The FARC is up to no good on the Tomo River, just 18 miles away. The base dispatches jet fighters to lead an assault. Gaviotas may be an ecological Shangri-la, but this is still Colombia.
To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.