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Toward an ecology of peace PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ron Nicholls   
Monday, 10 May 2010 22:33

On Colombia’s barren eastern plains, the community of Gaviotas has become a rich source of innovative and locally appropriate technologies as it demonstrates the state of mind and ways of living essential for sustainable development.

The late twentieth century has seen the development of a new awareness of the fragility of the relationship between human societies and the earth. A recent World Wildlife fund (WWF) study (2006) argues that we have been living beyond our ecological means for at least two decades and it is becoming clear that the effects of an outdated and fragmented worldview may well be destroying the very systems upon which our survival depends. Climate change, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of habitat are stark reminders that humanity may be approaching a state of ecological, economic, and social breakdown. Indeed, according to many leading scientists and environmentalists, the next 25-50 years will be among the most crucial in history.

One of the most important challenges for the present century is the search for viable alternatives to the unsustainable practices of the hypermaterialist ‘Western’ model of production and consumption. In one such approach American theologian and cultural historian Thomas Berry has proposed the need for a new ‘story’; an alternative paradigm that can evoke the psychic and spiritual resources required to establish a new dialogue between humans and the non-human world. Berry offers a post- modern and post-denominational belief system that sees the earth as a living being fundamental to our existence and argues that “there can be no peace among humans without peace with the planet’. Central to this idea of dialogue, Berry is calling for a consciousness that recognizes and embraces the possibilities of sustainable development; a participatory consciousness that recognizes the need for a new relationship with the earth and the development of new knowledges and practices modeled on natural systems.

Remarkably, on the previously unproductive eastern savannas (llanos) of Colombia, a working embodiment of the consciousness called for by Berry is flourishing in a community known as Gaviotas. For thirty-five years, Colombian visionary Paolo Lugari has spearheaded this sustainable development project, which has gained recognition around the world for its innovative technological solutions and the conversion of large tracts of once-barren land into lush and productive forests. By integrating technological solutions, local knowledge, and ecological sensitivity, Gaviotas has become a strikingly successful example of sustainable development and the community’s numerous awards include the World Prize from the United Nations Zero Emissions Research Initiative in 1997.

Whose sustainability?

The nature of sustainable development has been the subject of much debate in recent years and many have argued that applying knowledge gained through a rationalistic and objective scientific methodology ensures the best use of the planet’s mineral, plant, and animal resources. Others, however, question this premise and are struggling to define a new model of how the planet’s resources can best serve humanity. One expression of that model is the call for an embedded ecological consciousness requiring an active and an ecologically literate citizenry that views natural systems as models for sustainable design and appropriate technologies.

It is in this sense that Gaviotas represents a practical example of a community pioneering a radical approach toward achieving sustainability.  Using the concept of autopoesis proposed by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela as a necessary characteristic for self-organizing and self-maintaining systems, one of the community’s key innovations has been a multi-dimensional approach to sustainable development and the practice of a unique balance between both the ecological and technological positions. As proposed by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, autopoiesis is inherently manifested in self-organizing and self-maintaining systems, which maintain their internal organization through active self-healing and self-generation. “All living systems are autopoietic,” they state. Autopoetic systems are not autonomous, however. They must be coupled with other autopoietic systems and are intimately related to the environment or medium in which they exist.

Sustainable development, therefore, can reasonably take on the goal of establishing human communities as living or autopoietic systems within their environment. Such communities may be self-sufficient to varying degrees, but they would also necessarily be part of a web of interdependent communities encircling the planet. Autopoiesis provides an expanded view of organisms, individuals, communities, and societies within their environments as complex, interdependent living systems. As human societies more completely mirror the processes of natural systems, of which they are an interdependent part, they can move beyond the fragmented and instrumental approach that is proving so detrimental to the Earth’s natural systems. As Gunter Pauli, director of the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation states, “Gaviotas has moved from a one problem–one solution approach, to a systems approach where all problems are tackled at once, and all solutions jointly provide more opportunities than ever imagined thanks to an autopoietic process that seems unstoppable.”

In a distant place

Coming of age in the 1960s, Lugari, a son of one of Colombia’s prominent families, graduated from Bogotá’s Universidad Nacional and with a scholarship from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization he traveled and studied development in Asia. Lugari had flown over the Llanos in the late 1960s, and, fascinated by the immense landscape was convinced that this was the perfect place to design and implement an ideal society. As author Alan Weisman notes, Lugari would later say, ‘they always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere’.

In 1971 Lugari led a small group of idealistic researchers, students, and laborers to a land of barren soil and muddy streams, a hard two-day drive from Bogotá. This place would become Gaviotas, named after the small, yellow-billed terns that frequent the area. As they struggled to find a way to survive on the land, the Gaviotans have developed a unique social and cultural environment. Although the site was remote, Lugari maintained relations with the university and was able to attract an eclectic group of academics, students, and researchers who would supplement their studies or undertake research sponsored by the community. Two of the most urgent tasks in the early years were producing fresh food and securing clean water. After several unsuccessful attempts to grow fruit trees and vegetables and after further marginally productive attempts to improve the thin and unproductive soils, the group developed large hydroponic greenhouses and grew a comprehensive array of vegetables and fruits.

Much of the surrounding surface water was contaminated, a factor that contributed to many of the region’s health problems. As an aquifer with good water was too deep to be accessible by conventional pumps, the community developed revolutionary double-action hand pumps that could draw clean water from far greater depths than conventional models. The pump operates by lifting a lightweight plastic sleeve rather than the heavy internal piston in conventional models and was utilized to provide a ready supply of clean water for Gaviotas and many of the Guahibo farms and villages in the surrounding areas. The pumps were so easy to operate they were attached to children's see-saws and swings and over the years Gaviotas technicians have set up many of these to provide clean water for schools and villages across Colombia which also provided an income for the community.

In 1979 Gaviotas was granted UN funding to develop and distribute some of its innovative technologies. As wind power was the cheapest energy source available, and using the double-action pump, the community’s technicians created a lightweight windmill that was designed to take advantage of the area’s soft equatorial breezes. One of the central aspects of the Gaviotas philosophy is the application of their technologies for the alleviation of poverty and subsequently, thousands of these windmills have been installed across Colombia. The community refuses to patent inventions and prefers to share them with others and the lightweight windmills have been copied and installed extensively throughout Central and South America.

In the early 1990s the Gaviotans embarked on a four-year program in which they designed and constructed a self-sufficient, sixteen-bed hospital reflecting the unique social environment emerging from the llanos.  The facility featured passive heating and cooling, produced its own solar energy, distilled its own water, and cooked locally grown food. On completion of the building a Japanese architectural journal selected it as one of the forty most important buildings in the world because of the many innovative solutions that were integrated into its design.

To grow a forest

One of the community’s most successful ventures has been a massive reforestation program. According to biologists, the llanos supported a vast rain forest stretching to the Amazon River until climate change and devastating fires destroyed the forest about 30,000 years ago. Finding that no indigenous tree would grow on the depleted soils the community eventually hit upon a spectacularly successful alternative.

After difficulties with early plantings it was discovered that if the roots of the seedling Caribbean pine, a native of nearby Venezuela, were dipped in a mycorrhyzal fungus solution that was missing from the llanos soil, but obtainable from the pines’ native territory, the trees flourished and grew at a startling rate. The Gaviotans have planted millions of them on approximately 8,000 hectares (19,000 acres) surrounding the community. Furthermore, they collect a natural gum resin from mature trees and process it (using solar power) into “colophon,” which is sold in Colombia as a substitute for imported petroleum-based substances used in making paint, glue, cosmetics, perfume, and medicines.

The colophon factory, designed and built by Colombian engineers with the aid of a $2 million grant from the Japanese Extension Fund for International Cooperation, has a unique zero-emissions production process that recovers and utilizes all wastes. The innovative approach adopted by the community has also resulted in the development of a prize-winning triple-layered packaging made from recycled materials. The package is easy to fill and handle. It cools readily and is readily recycled. Gaviotas is also committed to sustaining indigenous cultures and the reforestation and colophon projects have resulted in the employment of 160 full-time staff, most of whom are local indigenous people.

Although the decision to introduce a non-indigenous monoculture of trees was criticized by community members knowledgeable about the many examples of ecosystem disruption wrought by introducing a nonnative species, the reforestation program is promising to be an exception to the rule. One unforeseen aspect of the project has been a remarkable regeneration of the area’s natural biodiversity in the understory of the pines. According to Pauli, renewing the forest has brought a significant increase in precipitation to the area. He states, “The meteorological statistics confirm that the arrival of the forest has generated an additional 10 percent rainfall.”

The added water, filtered by the forest’s rich humus, has become an important feature of the community’s economic development by increasing the groundwater supply. As Pauli writes, “‘Gaviotas planted trees, brought back biodiversity, regenerated the rainforest, created jobs, fixed carbon dioxide, while offering a permanent solution to the health issues that had dominated the region for decades.” Though full regeneration will take decades, all the signs suggest that with the pine forests as a base, the rain forest can be brought back to the region.


One of the strengths of Gaviotas has been the ability to be flexible and adjust to changing circumstances and according to Pauli, The community has moved from a one problem approach to a systems approach that ‘link[s] numerous problems and provide[s] flexible and adaptive solutions that evolve over time’. For example, when the Colombian government passed legislation imposing minimum requirements for equipment, specialized doctors, and medical insurance, the Gaviotas hospital fell below the minimum and was closed by the state. Disappointed but not discouraged, the Gaviotans converted the original building into a facility for collecting, distilling, and packaging water at a low cost (in the community the water is free). Because an estimated 70 percent of local health problems are related to water quality, the facility continues to contribute significantly to preventative health care while also providing jobs and income for the community.

In addition to using pine resin to make colophon and as a way to provide sufficient energy for the community in the early years, Gaviotas also burned resin and aging trees in place of diesel fuel to drive steam-driven turbine-engines. However, thanks to the extensive use of solar/thermal technologies and a recent collaborative project with the University of Colorado and Boulder biodiesel to build the first Biodiesel facility in Bogotá, Gaviotas has now become energy independent. The plant has a capacity to produce up to 400,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel a year. Much cheaper than petroleum-based fuel, the biodiesel is made from waste grease from local restaurants and oil from locally grown palms.

Seeing the gradual renewal of the natural biodiversity in the pine forest understory, the community, in a striking example of its flexible and adaptive approach, has decided to let the emerging native forest gradually choke out the older pines. More recently, Gaviotas has embarked on an expansion program. It will involve adding 80,000 hectares (197,600 acres) to the present 8,000 hectares (19,000 acres) of forest and creating a new 45,000 hectares (111,100 acres) of forest in Marandua (approximately one hour east of Gaviotas).

Based on the experience of creating one sustainable community, Lugari envisions initiatives to establish more such communities in the region and possibly to construct larger (and even more ambitious) biocities. As part of its massive tree planting efforts, Gaviotas has also decided to modify the original pine monoculture by planting some of the 300 varieties of palm trees that thrive in the Amazon forest among the pines. The palms will serve as a source of vegetable oil to be used in making biodiesel fuel for the community.

Inspired by the work and distinctive methodology adopted by Gaviotas, Pauli decided in 2005 to assist in financing the expansion of the rain forest through a fund managed by the United Nations Development Programme. Impressed by the renewal of the forest, Colombian President Àlvaro Uribe has agreed to reserve the area for an enlarged sustainable development program. And as Pauli points out, one of the most significant features of the agreement signed by Uribe is that it places the Colombian military “‘under contract to turn over the land to those who live off the land sustainably’.”

Transferable lessons?

What can we learn from a community that was established in such a desolate area? Which of these lessons could be transferred and applied to other locations? At first glance, the potential for broad-based application seems dishearteningly limited. It is easy to dismiss Gaviotas as a special case in which some people had the good fortune to invest their efforts in a place with a unique potential for the support and development of a small, sustainable community.

In a recent interview, Gunter Pauli suggested that “transference” of the Gaviotas solutions is not what proponents of sustainable development should be seeking. He believes, rather, that the Gaviotas method itself can serve as an inspiration for other initiatives. Significantly, this requires that the methodology must be applied in a way that is unique to the understandings and demands of individual localities.

One of the most intriguing features of Gaviotas is its example of moving toward sustainable development by adopting of an ecological consciousness that shapes, and is in turn shaped, by collaboration with others and the natural world. Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) a British/American anthropologist introduced new terminology that is appropriate for describing this consciousness. Using the term ecology, which in its traditional form is used to define “the totality and pattern of relations between organisms and their environment” as a metaphor, Bateson’s insightful contribution (the unit of evolutionary survival is identical with the unit of mind) was to describe the extended information pathways that include humans and the larger biotic community. As his writings suggest, the necessarily interdependent relations between organisms and environment are recursive (involving progressive interaction cycles) and participatory (entailing active involvement in the interactions), rather than instrumental (routine and fixed.)

Applying Bateson’s metaphor in an educational setting, C. A. Bowers, emeritus professor of education at Portland State University, discusses the educational space as an ecology of ideas or an ecology of power. In a similar way, Gaviotas can be seen as embodying an ecology of peace or an interactive autopoietic system of ideas and practices that seeks to establish a balance between the social, cultural and ecological features of a region, both as a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness.

Similar insights are expressed by Grimaldo Rengifo of the Andean Project for Peasant Technologies (PRATEC) when he argues that in the Andes humans naturally live as beings “in relation” in a community comprising both humans and the natural world. All are interconnected in a network of relations created and sustained by a process of nurturance through dialogue, and participation. Nurturing in this sense is entails no hierarchical relationship but rather reciprocal conversations between equal partners. These conversations become encounters between nurturers that regenerate life in a strong empathy engendering mutual affection.” Thus, nurturance—mutual nourishment—becomes a primary dimension of a living relationship with the natural world. The health of the human community is intimately associated with the health of the whole of nature, and nurturance is learned through conversation and attentive listening. It becomes a mode of relating to place, one characterized by an emerging expression of peace.

The meeting of the social and the natural

Pauli, in recognizing the processes within the Gaviotas community as being autopoietic in nature, is highlighting the same nexus between the social and natural spheres that is referred to by Bowers, Bateson and Rengifo. According to Maturana and Varela, autopoietic systems are living systems whose goal is to maintain their internal organization, and through regeneration, reproduction, and healing, to become distinctive and ultimately interdependent wholes. Considering Gaviotas as an autopoietic system of interdependent relations between individuals, community, and the wider biotic community, we can recognize its environment as undergoing the kind of creative adaptation characteristic of living systems. As Pauli points out in an article regarding Gaviotas:

Whereas nearly the whole country [Colombia] is colored red as a symbol of insecurity, this green spot in this seemingly desolate region is perhaps the safest on Earth. The concept of development, the re-emergence of peace, and the thriving path of co-evolution towards tropical rainforest with peaceful self-sufficient settlements is indeed a surprise for a country that is all too often only known for its violence, corruption and human rights violations.

In its struggle to build a coherent and integrated community Gaviotas is an inspiring example of the potential for creating dynamic social environments that provide employment, health care, social stability and economic development in sustainable ways. The practical examples of diverse zero-emissions strategies extending across a range of initiatives indicate the necessary shift from singular to multiple programs and financing opportunities. The approach represents a shift to integrated strategies and solutions that mimic the sustainable cycles of natural systems, and demonstrate the viability of decentralized social and economic initiatives. As Lugari points out, Gaviotas is a state of mind rather than a place, a way of living and thinking. In another sense, the community can be seen as a way of being, one characterized by unique practices of sustainability within living systems that are inclusive, just and nurturing. In essence: An ecology of peace!


On the Internet

Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation



Friends of Gaviotas


Additional Reading

Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Vermont, 1998

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 May 2010 19:51