Finding the energy to transform our way of life

As the media builds up to the Policy fest on Global warming in Copenhagen; T L has been trawling through the inspirational story of a place that is doing something about it – Las Gaviotas, Columbia.

A house at Las Gaviotas, Colombia

Since the 1940s Columbia has been ravaged by the struggle between Government forces and FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). Yet, despite the violence, Columbia has a highly educated and literate population; fertile farmland producing more than a hundred exportable crops and, a wide range of manufacturing industries such as textiles, electrical goods, chemicals and transport equipment. Perhaps more significantly, Columbia is the home of an inspirational working model of how communities can build sustainable low carbon futures. 

Forty years ago an aristocratic development specialist Paolo Lugari ventured into uninhabited eastern Columbia, a region so remote and poor in soil quality that even the drug barons ignored it. Dismissed by agronomists as a tropical desert, Lugari decided that it was the perfect place to experiment with a way of life. Today, over 25,000 acres generates 70% of the food and energy for a community of over 1,000 families earning wages more than the Columbian minimum.

“The only deserts that exist in this world are deserts of the imagination” says Lugari. Designed to be self-sufficient, Las Gaviotas has produced many innovative, cost-effective projects and made them available as viable alternatives for social and economic development in both rural and urban areas.

Windmills have been installed that generate sufficient energy for the community to run its own farms. Cattle troughs have been placed on sloping floors so that the slurry can be channeled into making compost and methane. The methane is piped to a community hospital – which has won a prestigious Japanese Architectural Award as one of the 40 most important buildings in the world – to power the facilities and equipment.

Las Gaviotas is self sustainable but does not keep itself to itself. Solar water heating systems developed there now heats water in the Presidential Palace in Bogota; supports a community of 7,500 houses in Bogota and Medellin and in La Clinica San Pedro Claver, one of Columbias biggest hospitals, Las Gaviotas is implementing boilers not just water heaters.

Las Gaviotas has broken fresh ground with a 8,000 hectares reforestation project – planting Californian pines that produce resin that is processed into bio fuels and a canopy under which native plant species are flourishing. In turn, this generates 10% more rainfall and, the net cooling effect has dramatically reduced surface temperatures and contributes to the proliferation of 253 species at last count and rising.

Designed to be self-sufficient, Las Gaviotas has produced many innovative, cost-effective projects and made them freely available as viable alternatives for social and economic development in both rural and urban areas. The community has implemented advanced examples of zero emissions principles and practice and continues to illustrate that these principles are the only way to secure the long-term success of both economic and environmental initiatives.

There are those that believe carbon-offsets generate excuses and offset vital behaviour change in the developed world. However, as a result of all their initiatives, economic viability at Las Gaviotas benefits from 144,000 tons of carbon offsets to sell on an annual basis. This tonnage of annual carbon stock is calculated using formulas developed in response to the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming known as the Kyoto Protocol. The 8,000 hectares of existing maturing tropical rain forest is the source for this annual tonnage of carbon offsets.

Las Gaviotas is not without its critics but, with its insistence on never patenting anything that it develops, it offers a socially responsible model that makes a significant contribution to global know how on global warming. Above all, it offers insights into behaviour change.

Some dismiss Las Gaviotas as Utopia. This place is not Utopia – which means fantasy land. Some dismiss Las Gaviotas as third world ideas applicable to the third world only. As Copenhagen beckons, we should look to Las Gaviotas, and places like it, as a catalyst for ways to transform community living.  As population climbs from 6 to 9 billion people in the not too distant future we may have no choice. However, we need to go beyond sustainable places. T L champions ways in which connectivity has to be transformed into inclusive and sustainable value chains. After all, a green supply chain is no optional extra. A green supply chain is going to have to be the only supply chain. Better said – an inclusive and sustainable value chain.

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