IDDS Part II: Brandon Pitcher on Tech at Gaviotas

If it is possible,we will do it today. If it is impossible, it will take a little longer
– Paolo Lugari (Founder of Gaviotas)

Where in the World in Gaviotas Brandon Pitcher, a renewable energy developer who specializes in sustainable construction, spoke to the IDDS attendees about Las Gaviotas and the Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI).

Las Gaviotas, a community called a model of sustainable development by the UN, was founded in the 1970’s by a group of scientists, teachers and artists in the llanos region of Colombia. The 200 residents have built what many consider a utopia based on sustainability, appropriate technology and a creative use of resources. The reality check to this fairy tale, however, is that you need a military escort to get there as the area is surrounded by armed guerrillas. Hey, nothing’s perfect, right?

ZERI is a global NGO whose primary motivation is simple: to use waste materials as resources and to promote sustainable development. One of their major projects has been a large scale reforestation effort at Las Gaviotas.

The story of the success of the reforestation project is fairly extraordinary. The Gaviotans seem to have benefited from a healthy dose of serendipity coupled with ready access to super smart people. The llanos is an inhospitable tropical savannah. The soil is acidic (pH: 4), rainfall is low, and the sun is scorching. It’s a no-man’s land for trees and animals. Yet with the advice of soil scientists, foresters and a commercial pine cultivation operation in Venezuela, the Gaviotans were able to plant Caribbean pine; acres and acres of them. (With their new souped up planting machine, they can plant one tree per second, 24 hours a day, three months a year.) The Central American trees were not native to the area and couldn’t grow in the existing soil. However, with careful application of Mycorrhiza fungi to the roots (to digest the llanos soil), the trees thrived.

Gaviotas Community Building
Gaviotas Community Building viewed from Truck. Photo Source: Hollister Knowlton

As they grew and the pine needles shed periodically, the soil pH increased to 5 and could support a wider range of plant life. Here is where the really interesting thing started to happen. The new tree cover generated a different micro-climate. Wide expanses of shaded areas slowed evaporation after rainfall; water had more time to soak into the soil and replenish the ground water supply. There was a 10% increase in precipitation. The rainforest started to creep back and choke out the non-indigenous species of pine. Anteaters, birds and other animals followed. It’s a fascinating study of forest ecology and the role that pioneer species play in the dynamics of ecosystems.

Before I wax lyrical about succession in forests (ah I miss biology classes), let’s move on to how all this goodness helped the Gaviotas community keep going. In the early years of Gaviotas, the community had dire issues with financial sustainability. The technologies that they created with ingenious and innovative, but finding a reliable stream of customers proved more difficult than they’d anticipated.

Through some research, Paolo Lugari (the founder) discovered that there was an increasing global demand for natural pine resin “especially for use in quality paints, glues, cosmetics, perfumes, and medicines” [ref: Alan Weisman’s book on Gaviotas]. From the Venezuelans, they learned that they had a viable product if they invested in Caribbean pine. The resin factory that now exists in the community was made possible with a $2 million investment from the Japanese government through an extension fund provided by the Inter-American Development Bank. The initial planting was 8,000 hectares.

Resin Factory
Resin Factory. Photo Source: Hollister Knowlton

In cooperation with the Columbian government, Gaviotas is now planting the 6.4 million hectares of land that surrounds the community. They are pushing for a rate of 10,000 HA/year. Interestingly enough, the military sees the project as being important to national security. Employment opportunities for indigenous farmers in the area mean folks have less reason to grow cocaine elsewhere.

Other Developments at Gaviotas

Bottles being labeled. Photo Source: Hollister Knowlton
  • The improvement in water sources that came with their reforestation work gave the Gaviotans another idea. Why not bottle the water and sell it? Nearby residents don’t have good access to non-contaminated water stocks and bottled water from Bogotá is too expensive. The trick for them will be finding an environmentally friendly way to do this, especially given the recent backlash against bottled water. They are looking into biodegradable plastics, specifically yucca based starch plastic. A currently available option is a GMO-based corn plastic, but they want to stay away from GMO right now.

    Another idea they are kicking around for the plastic bottles is to make them interlocking, like Legos so that empty bottles could become toys or building blocks for children.

  • They are currently planting jatropha for biodiesel production.
  • Gaviotas won a world environment prize for innovation in packaging. “Resin extracted from the pine is drained into boxes made of recycled cardboard” [ref].
  • They are linking their reforestation work to carbon sequestration initiatives which opens up an additional funding mechanism for the community.

An abbreviated and paraphrased version of the question and answer session

Q. How does the reforestation work?

A pine tree planted today in the llanos will take 18 months to get to maturity and will be cut down after 6-10 years. Without special attention from the foresters, the trees don’t seed and are instead outcompeted by native species.

Q. Monoculture, eh? Isn’t that bad?

It is a monoculture, but with the exception of using the fungus to help the seedlings take root, etc., their operation is as organic as possible. (I think a big issue with monoculture is the battle a farmer has to wage to keep them that way, generally using copious amounts of herbicides. ) Because the Gaviotans have so much land available to them and because they are not trying to maintain a one plant species equilibrium, they can allow nature to take to its course for the most part. When one section of land starts to be overrun by “encroaching” forest species, they can move on to the next chunk. Slash and burn in reverse.

Q. Gaviotas, not so well known in Colombia. Why?
A. They don’t want to be known as “a model for the world” internally. They’ve generally been left alone by the guerrillas – there hasn’t been a kidnapping in 22 years – and too much extra attention would likely change that.

Q. Are they planning to sell their bottled water overseas?
They want to, but they are having “bacterial issues” with the water; it has a high bacterial count. Luckily these are either beneficial or neutral bacteria, but having any bacteria doesn’t fly with the US FDA or its equivalents in Japan and Europe.

Q: Founder effect issues? Can Gaviotas continue without the founder?
Paolo Lugari now lives in Bogota. The community members in Gaviotas essentially takes care of business themselves.

Q. Who is doing the R&D?
They are. They try to minimize the number of outside experts coming in except for certain things. For instance, the biodiesel project required outside input from the University of Colorado, et al.

Related Links:
The village that could save the planet
How two men plan to extend the ecological miracle that is Gaviotas, Colombia, across the rest of the Third World.

The ZERI Children’s Stories
Transcript of Gaviotas Film
Resurrecting the Book Club: Gaviotas (Part 1)

Full Series of Posts:
International Development Design Summit: Jock Brandis
IDDS Part II: Brandon Pitcher on Tech at Gaviotas
IDDS 2007 Part III: A List of Projects
International Development Design Summit in the News