Eco-Living Magazine

Book Review: Alan Weisman’s Gaviotas

Posted on the 19 March 2013 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev
Gaviotas Cover

Upon finishing the Overture, the preface essentially, to Alan Weisman’s Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, I was a bit depressed. Here was a book about a town in the desolate reaches of eastern Colombia. A town that strived to be an example of sustainable living amongst the harsh conditions of the llanos, savannas that stretch from the Andes to the Amazon.

Growing up in the 1980s I was vaguely familiar with the crime and drug trafficking that ran rampant and largely unchecked through the Colombian countryside and in cities like Medellin, home to Pablo Escobar, and Cali, seat of the infamous Cali Cartel. This is what saddened me, these stories were all I ever knew of Colombia growing up, not the work undertaken by those at Gaviotas.

At various times throughout the book, that feeling of despair returned as the town struggled to make ends meet, despite the development of various sustainable technologies that were locally produced, often life saving (in terms of providing access to clean water), and ultimately geared toward helping the developing world not replicate the errors of many industrialized economies, namely explosive consumption. Weisman, a journalist and former reporter with NPR, details the story of the town and its founder, Paolo Lugari. Despite numerous setbacks, Lugari succeeded in creating a community that thrived by putting people in position to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. However, the success took decades to develop and has not been replicated. As Lugari often indicated over the course of three decades, Gaviotas isn’t a blueprint per se. Creating a how to manual with all of their experiences will not lead to “franchises” in other countries. What they accomplished was a result of the community they built.

Lugari also takes painstaking measures to ensure that Gaviotas is not affiliated with an ideology. Repeatedly he distances Gaviotas from talk of socialism or communism. His aim involves setting the foundation for a just, sustainable, and prosperous society. While accomplishing the first two, the latter proves difficult. As mentioned in a recent post (actually upcoming), the market for sustainable technology collapsed in the post embargo era of the mid-1970s. Gaviotas, the venture, not just the town, struggled against market forces that created an inhospitable environment for the type of work they were doing.

Despite all of the challenges, perhaps the greatest resource was the people themselves and the amazing resilience they demonstrated. This, more than any technology, is integral to sustainability and its success, or lack thereof. Community buy-in also played a central role in Gaviotas’s longevity. Judging its success by traditional measures (gross domestic product) would surely deem it a failure though. As of the writing of the book, published 15 years ago and some 30 years into this experiment, the town still struggled financially, but they were creating products from a sustainably managed forest that they grew from seedling. Energy production was renewable and local. Gaviotas may look like a town that is barely surviving, but as Lugari pointed out, if they can make a go of it in the hardscrabble savannas of eastern Colombia, then this sustainable exercise can happen anywhere.

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