Searching for a Sustainable Paradise in Central America


By Alan Weisman

Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

227 pp., $22.95

The longing to return to self-sufficient living off the land today seldom gets past rereading Henry David Thoreau's "Walden."

One rare exception is a group of Colombian scientists, artisans, rural peasants, former street kids, and Guahibo Indians. In 1971 they began building a village called Gaviotas, figuring that surging populations must someday learn to live in even the world's harshest regions.

Journalist Alan Weisman was part of a National Public Radio team assigned to document possible solutions to the world's worst environmental crises. In "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," he aptly offers up a lesson for the future.

Living in Gaviotas is certainly a challenge. Sixteen hours from the nearest major city and accessible only by an almost impassible dirt road, it sits amid the barren, rain-leached savannas east of the Colombian Andes.

Still, Gaviotas has emerged as a human triumph for drug-ravaged Colombia and as a sustainable environmental model for the rest of the world. The creators managed to bring modern comforts to a barren area without the usual accompanying pollution and deforestation. They invented windmills light enough to convert subtle tropical breezes into energy, solar collectors that can work in the rain, pumps hooked to children's seesaws to replenish their school's water supply, and soil-free systems to raise crops.

"Everywhere they're tearing down the rain forest. Here, we're putting it back," said Paolo Lugari, founder of Gaviotas. "If we can do this in Colombia, there's hope that people can do it anywhere."

A gifted storyteller, Weisman takes us on a splendid journey by jeep through army road blocks, past the mansions of Colombia's drug lords and through the thick forests of the Macarena.

His words make us part of the team building Gaviotas, sitting in as bearded and burley Lugari and mechanical engineer Jorge Zapp figure out how to pump fresh water to the village or how to grow lettuce and tomatoes in impoverished soils.

Realizing a village is more than water systems and electricity, Lugari brought in musicians, a key part of Colombian culture. He struck a cord with Gustavo Yepes, director of the faculty of music at Bogota's prestigious Universidad de Los Andes.

"People who dare to build a utopia use the same materials available to anyone, but they find surprising ways to combine them," Yepes tells Lugari. "That's exactly what composers do with the 12 tones of the scale. Like you, they're dreamers. In a dream you aren't limited by what is assumed to be permissible or possible."

The United Nations in 1976 named Gaviotas a model village for the developing world and gave it a grant of $350,000. Weisman does an excellent job of finding and bringing to life this oasis in a country whose rich heritage too often gets lost in the din of drug-runners and guns.

He holds Gaviotas in awe, perhaps buying too much into the idea of a utopia. But readers can readily forgive Weisman. He describes its unique and well-deserved reputation as a small village that likely will prove a model of sustainable life for the future.

"Despite sustained efforts to mobilize all human wisdom and will in defense of nature and sanity, we have yet to quench the flames that consume our forests, or to dampen the greed that stokes our excesses," Weisman writes. "Yet a place like Gaviotas bears witness to our ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances."

Through the eyes and ears of the artisans who built Gaviotas, we learn the lessons the jungle gives to those who listen and observe. Like Thoreau's "Walden," "Gaviotas" will warrant rereading any time we want to return to a kinder way of living.

* Lori Valigra writes about science and technology in Cambridge, Mass.

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