50 years of green entrepreneurship with Paolo Lugari, founder of Las Gaviotas in Colombia, whom Gabriel Garcia Márquez called “inventor of the world

Paolo explains what makes his 50 years of green innovation unique in his office in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo credit: Professor Mónica Ramos Mejía.

On the eve of Colombia’s presidential election, we share lessons from Colombian green entrepreneur Paolo Lugari’s 50 years of innovation. His self-sufficient reforestation community, Las Gaviotas, is a model of a restorative enterprise. Both in Colombia and the rest of the world, his approach to thought and action are worthy of emulation. Thanks to Paolo and Professor Mónica Ramos Mejía of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana for the conversations in Bogotá and help in memorializing these take-aways.

We should start with briefly acknowledging context. In addition to decades of armed conflict, severe weather abnormalities have also catastrophically impacted Colombia. The flooding caused by the La Niña Phenomenon of 2010–2011 affected more than 94% of Colombian territory. In response to the ensuing destruction of lives, homes, and businesses, the Colombian government established the Climate Adaptation Fund to rebuild infrastructure and construct resiliency projects such as flood defenses. As elsewhere in the world, it is surprising that governmental and private actions on climate have not been a more prominent topic in recent public discourse.

However, most remarkably overlooked in recent coverage of Colombia is the 50th anniversary of the founding of an independent prototype community and the 40th anniversary of its development of an economically viable means of reforestation. This community — Las Gaviotas — and its driving ethos are noteworthy: given the right conditions, its operations and approach to problem-solving could be replicated and scaled-up. Its innovations have long impressed observers, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to career development specialists, with its potential to impact the future course of life on earth.

Las Gaviotas is a village founded in the late 1960s in the parched grasslands of Eastern Colombia. There, its founder, Paolo Lugari, and other experimenters began planting tropical Caribbean pines to create conditions that allow the latent seeds of rainforest plants and other rainforest seeds dropped in the scat of birds to germinate and grow. For decades, an average population of 200 people has harvested the pine resin on 8000 hectares, processing and selling it as turpentine, colophony, and (on a limited scale due to regulations) “energized pine oil” that fuels standard combustion engine cars and trucks (produced through what they call “a physical processes, rather than chemical, changing the technological paradigm, and resulting in a less polluting variety of biodiesel”). The community’s primary side effects are carbon capture and rainforest rebirth.

As documented in the articles and book linked below, community members also invented low- or entirely non-carbon emitting means of providing water, food, energy, and even health care services.

Earlier this year, we asked Paolo several questions about the current state of Las Gaviotas and its potential, given the right conditions, to inspire a wave of prosperous reforestation in Colombia and beyond.

“Stronger than ever!” is how Paolo would characterize both Las Gaviotas and his drive to keep working, but “Gaviotas is sustaining at its optimum size. It's now a model to inspire other initiatives, and imitation has not happened before because of the armed conflict.”

Other key take-aways are as follows: “A tropical way of thinking” is needed, according to Paolo. Echoing other visionaries, he continues to eschew overplanning, leaving traditional molds and preferring to focus on action: “the best way of saying it is doing it — taking a trial and error approach.” If they had worked according conventional guidelines of project management, Paolo says, “no one would have forecasted that Gaviotas was feasible” — in other words, a venture with restorative effects (sequestering, by their calculations, 89 tons of CO2 for every 1 ton of CO2 emitted) could not have been imagined or deliberately planned, much less realized.

A self-sustaining community that restores the environment may seem far-fetched. But as green business entrepreneur and guru Gunter Pauli has said, speaking about Las Gaviotas: “if it exists, then it must be possible.” And Las Gaviotas and its people have deliberately never patented their know-how — all of it can be freely copied.

So are we to be optimistic about the future? Paulo’s response is that “it is criminal to be pessimistic.”

Just like the rainforest seeds, Colombia's leadership in deploying solutions to the world's climate crisis depends on the right conditions for germination and growth. Environmentally restorative reforestation solutions such as those proven at Las Gaviotas could be replicated, if peace and stability and public and private sector support follow as a consequence of the election.

Regardless of who wins the Colombian presidential race, Gaviotas-style thinking deserves our awareness and encouragement, both within and outside of Colombia.

For further reading on Las Gaviotas:

2009 New York Times article by Simon Romero.

2008 Book by Alan Weisman.

2007 World Watch article by Richard E. White.

For further reading on the Colombian Climate Adaptation Fund:

Website of the Colombian Climate Adaptation Fund.