Wednesday, September 29, 2004


I recently became acquainted with a very interesting community in Colombia named Gaviotas. Gaviotas is an experimental community on the llanos of eastern Colombia, which is a huge prairie region that few Colombians have ever seen. In the 70s, a bunch of engineers, scientists, and social visionaries went out there to begin a community that would serve as a model to the rest of the world. They focused primarily on environmental sustainability, working to be independent of outside supplies, and especially energy sources. They came up with technologies in solar energy, groundwater pumping, and other innovations to not only make themselves sustainable but also to provide technology for the poor around the world.

This is a very interesting community that has done some wonderful things in the last 30 years. I encourage you to read the book about them by Alan Weisman as well as to look at the website for the Friends of Gaviotas. However, I bring them up not to simply praise them but because they also bring up an interesting philosophical environmental question. They have eventually become economically self-sufficient because they have planted millions (or at least hundreds of thousands) of pine trees which produce a high quality resin that they can sell to industry. The question, what effect do these trees have on the llanos ecosystem and what is a native species.

The llanos were once part of the rain forest, but some thousands of years ago the winds changed and dried the area out some which caused fires. Though it still rains there a great deal, few trees can survive the extended periods of drought so grass became the dominant plant there. So are the pines native? They may have been at one time but certainly not now. But it gets more interesting because the pines do not reproduce there. But underneath the pines the rain forest has begun reestablishing itself. Plants not seen there for thousands of years have reemerged, as well as animals such as anteaters. Are these native species? They were not introduced exactly, but they haven't lived there in thousands of years.

What are people's responsibilities when it comes to native species? Should a static view of what a native species is be a paramount concern? Though I tend to sympathize with the efforts to eliminate invasive species and reestablish native species, in this case it seems fine that the rain forest is reestablishing itself. Given the tremendous damage that humans have done to the rainforest and the entire world for that matter over the 2 centuries, to reestablish the rain forest in an area where it previously did not exist does not seem to be a bad thing. Let's face it, we all transform the world we live in. We could not live in it if we did not. Should we try to affect the land as little as possible? Yes. But at the same time, if begin to use the land and the unintended consequences are actually positive instead of the usual negative, should we encourage those efforts? Given the desperate need of the world for more rain forest with global climate change, I would argue that yes we should. Of course, the llanos have great ecological value as well but so long as large swathes of this area are not turned into an artificial forest, I think this is a good thing.

In any case, read the book and check out the website. There are many interesting issues that a discussion of Gaviotas will bring up.