Image a savanna where the soil is to acid to plant new trees and yet it has been restored into an amazon oasis thriving with biodiversity life. The soil restored, bringing back rain and regeneration of the forest. The initiators, an innovative community driven to prove nature can be restored, humans can live in collaboration with nature and innovative thinking can solve energy, food and housing challenges.
Our economies are structured around burning fossil fuels for fuel, pharmaceuticals, packaging, plastics and much more; we burn and chop down ancient living forests for farmland, wood production and cattle grazing. The result is a downward spiral, recent reports predict our soil can only sustain 60-100 harvests before depletion; wood production leaves behind barren land and substitutes ancient trees with GMO trees for consistent yield; and the list continuous in search for more profiT.
Yet there is really no need to destroy so much living carbon (biomass), to leave our terra soil barren and to destroy biodiversity. We need to implement a better business model, which supports local communities (education, skills and jobs), supports business and supports nature in its driver for biodiversity. How to restore our forests, we need to travel to Colombia, south of Bogota, to find the community Las Gaviotas which has been leading the way on how to create a working business model that does just that.
In the last 40 years the community of Las Gaviotas has done the impossible. Under the guidance of Paulo Lugari, they brought back the amazon jungle to the savanna by the largest (4000 ha), for that time, tree planting program. It has been the first time ever where a soil with a ph level of 4, viewed by experts as impossible to restore, has been brought back to life. The reforestation is now the birth place of a new amazon jungle (800km) away from the real amazon. Las Gaviotas has attracted the attention of the UN and many academics who, until this date, are still stunned and amazed of this achievement. Las Gaviotas is the global exemplary case how restoring biodiversity can be done in an inhospitable and horrendous place and turning the land into a restorative business model.
Las Gaviotas is located in the los llanosthe area, a barren endless wetland prairie, mainly grass vegetation only suited for cattle grazing. During the rainy season the large parts of the area is flooded up to 1 meters of water and during the dry season the soil is very dry. It is believed Los Ilanosthe in the past was connected to the amazon rainforest before a large climate shift around 30.000 years. The result is the nutrient poor grass vegetation of the savanna provides little resources for other plants to grow.
The story of Las Gaviotas starts in the 1960’s when a young man, Paulo Lugari, than in his 20ties, started dreaming and envisioning an ambitious project. Paulo is dreaming to create a sustainable village in a remote place to push the imagination to use what locally is available. Paulo wanted to show it is possible to restore the wet desert of los llanosthe into a sustainable and thriving community. Paulo understood with the continuous population growth within Colombia the future would need more space of his fellow Colombians. In 1971 Las Gaviotas was founded. Over the years Paulo found a dedicated team of dreamers who were given the opportunity to experiment and figure out how to make it work. His dream faced many challenges over the years and the result has turned Las Gaviotas into the global eco village example cited by many !
Las Gaviotas is the largest forest restoration initiative (more than 4.000 Ha) in the world. And the engineering marvel of finding self-supporting innovative solutions for a remote village using what nature is providing for their food, energy and water production. The Goviatos have engineered innovations which have been implemented throughout Colombia and beyond. Now there is a thriving local community of around 200 inhabitants that can use the editable productive forest for all it provides for food, water, energy (incl gas) and healthcare.
It’s the remarkable dreaming of the people involved to make it happen, using durable low tech solutions.
So how did Las Gaviotas do it?
Las Gaviotas has two stories to tell. One is about how a community has been able to sustain themselves of the grid and the other is about how Las Gaviotas did the impossible, restoring over 4.000 Ha of savanna into a thriving forest.
I’ll will start with the latter, the reforestation project.
As I mentioned before, the savanna consists of grass land with a soil PH value of 4. By scientific standards this soil is to acid for anything else to grow than grass. What the team achieved was to increase the PH value to over 6.5 and bringing back life to the soil. How did they do it?
The magic turned out to be the symbiotic relationship of a specific Caribbean pine trees (Pinus caribbaea) and a mycorrhizal fungi.The pine tree species turned out to be one of the few species able to grow in a low ph soil and to survive successfully the planting season consisting of only 3 months (after that its either to hot or to wet). The team discovered during the years certain trees where growing faster than others. It turned out some seedlings were infected with the mycorrhizal fungi by accident in the nursery. The fungus protected the seedlings root system in his first years and helped it to adapt to the soil faster. So 1, there is a symbiotic system between the trees and fungus which helps them to survive.
The tree planting activities is being paid by carbon credits companies invested into Las Gavitas. So 2, carbon credits enabled Los Gavitos to pay for its nursery and tree planting activities.
Additional the growth of the pine trees started to protect the soil from the sun. This triggered an increase in moist of the soil and lowering the temperature of the soil. Slowly step by step, this has impacted the local climate system by adding 10 percent more rainfall over the years, restoring the local aquifer. So 3, more trees is more water.
The pine trees started to allow the increase of the biodiversity of the forest, due to the lower soil temperature and the moist containment in the soil. Estimations show 200 new species of plants including medical ones have settled themselves in the forest. It turned out the Pine trees provided a shady under story for other plants and animals to thrive. Now, after 20 years, the pines are slowly being crowded out by the regeneration of indigenous species. It is assumed these seeds are dormant seeds of ancient rainforest that once covered the region or birds brought them from the amazon.
So 4, by restoring the soil, life returns with a cascading abundance effect. So 5, even medicinal plants are returning opening up their use for the local health care treatment of the local population.
Over the years Paulo and his team had a forest and they were asking themselves what to do with it.
It turned out their pine trees have a high valuable resin in their bark. After 8 years these pine trees are productive to tap the resin, they stay productive for another 8 years and need another 8 years to rest. The resin turned out to be a high‐grade quality and can easy be converted with a simple heating process into Turpentine and Colophon. The turpentine is partly locally used as fuel after purification for the agricultural equipment and to fuel their transport runs to Bogota. The colophon is a high value ingredient for the national and international market (paints, enamels, and varnish, soap, ink, newsprint, cosmetics, perfume esters, drying agents, medicines, and to rosin the bows of musical instruments). So 6, resin from pine trees can create 2 cash flows for high end products and be used as biofuel for your own facilities.
They discovered an enzyme having a beneficial relationship with the pine tree, when they would cut the bark to tap the resin. Normal industrial standard of tree tappers is to use sulfuric acid when making the incisions in the bark. Again an unexpected outcome was revealed; the enzyme increased the resin production, with no side effect for the tree. So 7, enzymes have a symbiotic relationship with trees, increasing resin production.
In the last 10 years indigenous amazon palm trees are started to be planted to increase the biofuel production and supply sustainable palm oil to the Colombia market. The palm oil trees are planted inside the growing forest as part of the forest biodiversity. These palm trees are native to the amazon jungle and as such can growth together with the other indigenous species which are starting to take over the forest. So 8, by bringing back biodiversity original species can return to diversify the forest production possibilities.
With more wood starting to emerge in the forest, this high quality wood is used for making music instruments, which are sold in the cities. So 9, more trees, is more wood resources to be used to for more cash flows, without disrupting the biodiversity in the forest.
The increase of rainfall has restored the aquifer creating a new source of fresh water for the local community and a cash flow selling the bottle water to Bogota. The fresh water created a much needed access to clean water, reducing illness in the region. So 10, more trees, becomes more water, becomes restoring the aquifer level, provide access to high quality mineral water and improve the health of the local community.
The Gaviotas designed an ingenious pumping system. The water pump is designed as part of the children playground. When children play with the seesaw, they are pumping the water up. So 11, incorporate the energy of the community to make most out of it.
The local food production was also a challenge. The soil would not sustain vegetable to its low ph value. The solution was to build a greenhouse with a hydroponic system, using the water from the aquifer and the kitchen waste for their substrate. So 12, closing the circles of water and food to generate local food production.
Now let us investigate the technical innovative hardware the Gaviotas designed to harness the energy sources available to them.
Firstly they had to customise their agricultural equipment in order to cope with the short tree planning period of 3 month. In order to plant thousands of trees per year, the equipment needed to increase its yield. And it required fuel to do its job. Originally diesel, now they are able to fuel their own equipment from the pine tree resin and its output turpentine. So 13, adjust, improvise and be inventive.
|The list of Las Gaviotas innovations is long
“ cork-screwing manual well-digger; parabolic solar grain dryers; rotating-drum peanut shellers; ox-drawn land graders; a manual baler that compressed hay into bricks; a pedal-powered cassava grinder that reduced 10 hours of work to one; and a one-handed sugar cane press”
A one-metre drop would be sufficient to supply electricity, but that micro-hydropower station is still operational more than 30 years later. Sources: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/peace-makers/823
Secondly the Gaviotas created a zero waste factory and zero waste packaging for the resin. The resin is poured directly into cardboard boxes so they can easy to be transported in the factory to cool and have easy handling for transport to Bogota and beyond. The factory is powered by special designed solar panels and solar boilers (made from burned-out neon tubes) made by Gaviotas and the Engineering University of Bogota. So 14, with simple physics and material locally available it is possible to manufacture high quality products with a Zero Waste Ambition. So 15, by inspiring the Engineering University in Bogota, engineering students were given the opportunity to come to Bogota and design low cost, highly efficient energy solutions.
So 16, effective energy innovations turned into cashflow by selling the innovations to other communities.
Thirdly in order to provide healthcare for their community they had to design and build their own hospital. The building is a marvel of ingenuity. It use natural airflows created by physics to ventilate the building. The cellar cools the air, the air is pushed through the walls to increase the cooling and the solar panels on the roof cool the rooftop. The room of the patients uses roof windows to stimulate UV light penetrating the wardroom so UV light can kill bacterias. The operation room required distilled water, so the team created a water distillation unit, using the solar kettle from neon light bulbs to sterilize the water. For the local tribes a separate wing was created where hammocks could hang under a rooftop. So 17, low cost and smart architecture can create high quality accommodations and even to hospital standards.
The water bottling activities are being done using the sterilisation facilities of the hospital. The water bottles can also be reused after they are empty; Gaviotas have specially designed them to be used as toys for children in the city. So 18, design with multi facility use in mind.
The Social component of the Las Gaviotas community is another amazing story. Las Gaviotas is located in the middle of the FARC controlled area, where kidnapping and conflicts was the daily reality. Paulo decided Las Gaviotas would become a neutral place, where nobody was allowed to carry weapons including the rebels when they visited the village and healthcare would be offered to any who needed. This allowed Gaviotas to thrive in the middle of the conflict and push the minds of the community to find solutions for their daily challenges. This unique situation was one driver why Gaviotas was able to generate so many innovations. Additional Paulo paid his workers double than the average salary, in return for dedication to make Gaviotas work.
Only through a clear vision, determination and perseverance Paulo and his team were able to achieve what they set out to do. Bold ambitions and a team of talented young minded people can do the impossible and challenge the current status quo. The legacy of Paulo’s achievements is accomplished by many who understand what it takes to do it. It is the example how communities can restore nature, invent innovative solutions and find innovative business models to finance their aspirations!
Sources for further reading
Weisman, Alan (1999). Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company. ISBN 1-890132-28-4.
Pauli, Gunter. The Blue Economy