Las Gaviotas: sustainability in the tropics.

AuthorWhite, Richard E.
PositionPaolo Lugari designed sustainable village

In the early 1970s, facing overwhelming obstacles, a young visionary named Paolo Lugari set out to build a sustainable village on los llanos, the remote plains of Colombia, some 500 kilometers east of the country's capital, Bogota. Lugari and a diverse and creative team of collaborators worked on the supposition that if it could be done there, it could be done anywhere. Supported by ingenious renewable energy technologies, hydroponic farming techniques, and--improbably--a regenerating rainforest, Las Gaviotas has survived and flourished for 30 years, even in the midst of Colombian internal conflict.

The son of an Italian geography professor whose fieldwork led him to settle in southwest Colombia, Lugari first visited the inhospitable llanos in the 1960s. Here, during the December-to-April dry season, a merciless tropical sun bakes the savannah; the rest of the year, severe rains inundate the landscape, making the unpaved roads impassable for several months. In this climate, forests exist only alongside permanent streams, which thread the savannah like tendrils creeping upland from the massive rivers that drain the eastern slopes of the Andes into the Orinoco River and finally the Caribbean Sea.

At a time when the OPEC oil embargo was creating worldwide energy shortages, the restless Lugari conceived the idea of returning to the llanos to build a sustainable village that would support itself with renewable energy. During the first trip with his brother, Lugari camped in an abandoned and overgrown settlement originally meant to support construction of a road that was never built. A visit to their camp by a yellowbilled tern (Sterna superciliaris), commonly called gaviota (gull) by the local people, inspired the name of the project.

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Lugari assembled a team of engineers, artists, students, natives, and even orphans from the streets of Bogota. Among their early products was a super-efficient turbine to generate 10 kilowatts of electricity from the flow over a small dam just one meter in height. Later they created a double-action tailless windmill, which can capture energy from fleeting breezes yet has the mechanical strength to withstand gusts in the violent thunderstorms of the rainy season. Another effort led to a novel manual pump that can extract water from far greater depths than conventional pumps, enabling users to reach the savannah water table even in the dry season. In a typically creative application, Lugari's team attached one of the pumps to a seesaw, so that kids can do useful work and learn about their water source, while having fun at the same time. Experiments with local soil allowed the team to create adobe pipe systems and mechanically pressed bricks. Still other research led to the development of a solar water distiller to obtain pure water for medical emergencies and vehicle batteries, as well as solar-powered hot oil cookers.

Sustaining the Village

The early accomplishments of Las Gaviotas earned support from the United Nations Development Programme, among other international agencies. In the 1980s, the Las Gaviotas team was hired to install their innovative "appropriate technologies" in other parts of the country. This work included installation in many villages of water systems based on the Gaviotas windmills and pumps. The largest single effort was a solar hot water system for Ciudad Tunal, a 6,000-apartment public housing project in Bogota. The units still work perfectly, owing greatly to the fact that they require no moving parts.

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One notable project undertaken at Las Gaviotas in the 1980s was the design and construction of a remarkable self-sufficient rural hospital facility. Despite external temperatures that can exceed 38 degrees Celsius, with very high humidity, the one-of-a-kind facility provided appropriate climate control for an operating room, using bioclimatic technologies such as subsurface tunnels and double ventilation systems on the walls and roof. The kitchen featured solar cooking, although repeated...

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