Soil restoration proving Biodiverisity and Biorefinery opportunities – Las Gaviotas

This case is part of a case series written by Alexander Prinsen. It is the outcome of a research project where dozens of cases where analysed for their potential to merge (eco)Logical Thinking with (eco)Nomic Doing. The cases series are a first summery of main examples which are transformative for their industry. Each of these cases provide breakthrough thinking and scientific evidence how Physics, Biology and Green Chemistry can solve environmental degradation, provide better products, generate profitable business cases and contribute to the whole system we call home, Spaceship Earth.

Author: Alexander Prinsen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Systemic Design Image: Eliana Lopez G, Berlin, Germany
Version:  05 november 2019.
Review status:  Permament Beta Version

Tags:
Soil restoration; Reforestation; Symbioses (fungi, and Plants); Enzymes, Pine Resin; Biodiversity; Health Care; Farming; Biofuel; Aquifer; Innovation; Rain; Abundance; carbon sequestering; hydrogen cycle; rain; Agroforestry; Permaculture;

The relevance of this case

Nations globally are now being forced to face the consequence of their economic activities of their past. In the age of finding solutions to reverse climate change nations are slowly starting to realise the importance of restoring the forests of the past for increasing the quality of their soils, retaining more fresh water, transform toward an economy based on non-fossil fuel products and more importantly taking action to reduce their economic carbon footprint.

The current economic system has burned, cut down and extracted ancient forests in the pursuit of making sailing ships, houses, wood for energy and farmland for agriculture and cattle grazing. The result has been a downward spiral of reducing carbon stocks on the land including the carbon sequestering of soil. This process has generated, which accelerated since the 17th century, an unprecedented carbon extraction and reductionism process, leaving many nations with barren soils and changing climates. In its wake it has eliminated the carbon sequestering capacity of the land, an important systemic process where the vegetation sequesters the atmospheric CO2 gas into carbon for their own growth; we call this sequestering capacity vegetation and forests.

It is in this context that learning and understanding the case of Las Gaviotas is important. Las Gaviotas is a leading example how to reverse climate change within a 10 year timeframe through an extensive and large scale reforestation effort based on agroforestry principles. Their approach has challenged the scientific community in and outside Colombia as most of their achievements was thought impossible. This community has been able to restore biodiversity in an inhospitable and horrendous place and turning the land into a restorative business model. Their business model shows the way forward to start implementing business models, which supports local communities (education, skills and jobs), supports the biobased economy and supports nature in its driver for growth of biodiversity.

Reversing climate change

The case shows to what extend the impact tree reforestation has on a positive cascading system where feedback loops constantly influence further growth of the local system. The scientific proof Las Gaviotas has generated provides insights on how the web of life is able to have systemic impact on:

  1. soil quality (restoring the pH level, increase the microbiological web and increasing carbon sequestering);
  2. the local climate (restoring among others the rain fall through changes in the humidity and evaporation and bacterial presence in the atmosphere thanks to activities of the trees;
  3. fresh water aquifers (providing increased influx of fresh water in the deep soil water basins);
  4. increase of biodiversity (more kingdoms of life are able to find their place in the growing system and as such increasing the carbon sequestering process. With more life growing more products the forest will provide of the whole system); and
  5. new biobased economic activities which are able to sustain an increasing larger community with food, water, products and education from the reforestation.

Circular forests management

The systemic approach of Las Gaviotas also sets the standard on how circular forests management for wood production can generate more cash flows from its biodiversity, improving their revue streams and return on investments. Allowing biodiversity to restore itself will tend to stimulate vegetation which is more indigenes to its local climate.

The traditional pursuit for wood production using fast growing trees and thus substituting indigenes trees with a mono culture of genetically modified trees species (Eucalyptus and Pine trees) to increase the yield per hectare generates in its wake a degraded soil and depleted water aquifer. The cases shows there are more ways for revenues generation. Furthermore it opens the dialog about the long term sustainability of the production paper for packaging, writing- and toilet use in relation to its climate impact and land use.

Biorefinery Concept

Las Gaviotas is also a showcase of how the bioeconomy is regenerative with a biorefinery lies at the core of its business model. Their reforestation approach has provided the community with various opportunities to co-creation with nature. Through smart combinations of physics, biology and green chemistry they created value added technology steps to refine the natural products. This ingenuity turned out to be a blueprint how co-creating with nature provides at the same time an economic activity which is able to support the community.

Introduction to Las Gaviotas

Image a savannah where the soil is too acid to plant new trees and yet it has been restored into an amazon oasis thriving with biodiversity life and returning the Amazon forest. Against all odds the soil has been restored, it brought back the rain and regenerated the savannah. The initiators, an innovative community, were driven to prove nature can be restored and that humans can live in collaboration with nature. It has been their remarkable innovative thinking which solved their energy, food, water and housing challenges.

To learn how we can restore our forests, we need to travel to Colombia to find the community Las Gaviotas a 10 hours’ drive south of Bogota. This community has been leading the way how co-create with nature can provide for working business models while at the same time restore soils and bring back forests. Las Gaviotas is located in the los llanosthe (It is believed Los Ilanosthe in the past was connected to the amazon rainforest before a large climate shift around 30.000 years area, a barren endless wetland prairie, mainly grass vegetation only suited for cattle grazing. During the rainy season the large parts of the area is flooded up to 1 meters of water and during the dry season the soil becomes very dry.  The result is that the nutrient poor grass vegetation of the savannah provides little resources for other plants to grow.

In the last 40 years the community of Las Gaviotas has done the impossible with this savannah. They brought back the amazon jungle by the largest (4000 ha), for that time, tree planting program. It has been the first time ever where a soil with a pH level of 4, viewed by experts as impossible to restore, has been brought back to life. The reforestation is now the birth place of a new amazon jungle which is 800km away from the real amazon. Las Gaviotas has attracted the attention of the UN and many academics who, until this date, are still stunned and amazed of this achievement.

In their pursuit to find solutions to overcome their challenges they have created engineering marvels to find self-supporting innovative solutions for their remote village. The Goviatos have engineered innovations which have been implemented throughout Colombia and beyond. Their creativity is based on co-creating with nature to provide for their food, energy and water production solutions.

Now there is a thriving local community of around 200 inhabitants that can use the editable productive forest as it is able to provide for food, water, energy and healthcare.  It’s the remarkable dreaming of the people involved which have been able to make it happen, using durable low tech solutions.

The social vision of Paulo Lugari

The story of Las Gaviotas starts in the 1960’s when a young man, Paulo Lugari than in his 20ties, started dreaming and envisioning an ambitious project. Lugari was dreaming to create a sustainable village in a remote place to push the imagination to use what locally is available. Lugari wanted to show it is possible to restore the wet desert of los llanosthe into a sustainable and thriving community. Lugari understood with the continuous population growth within Colombia the future would need more space of his fellow Colombians. In 1971 Las Gaviotas was founded. Over the years Lugari found a dedicated team of dreamers and doers who were given the opportunity to experiment and figure out how to make it work. His dream faced many challenges over the years and the result has turned Las Gaviotas into the global eco village example cited by many!

To make the conditions more challenging Las Gaviotas was located in the middle of the FARC controlled area, where kidnapping and conflicts were the daily reality. Paulo decided Las Gaviotas would become a neutral place, where nobody was allowed to carry weapons including the rebels when they visited the village and healthcare would be offered to any who needed. This allowed Gaviotas to thrive in the middle of the conflict and push the minds of the community to find solutions for their daily challenges. This unique situation was one of the drivers why Gaviotas was able to generate so many innovations. Additional Lugari was able to pay his workers double the average salary due to the many cash flows the community realised, increasing the dedication of all involved to make Gaviotas work.

The Systemic Design of Las Gaviotas

Las Gaviotas has two stories to tell. One is about how the community has been able to sustain themselves of the grid developing appropriate technology. The other is about how Las Gaviotas did the impossible, restoring over 4.000 Ha of savannah into a thriving forest. I’ll start with the latter, the reforestation project and come back in the end to the technology solutions they realised.

As I mentioned before, the savannah consists of grass land with a soil pH value of around 4. By scientific standards this soil is to acid for anything else to grow than grass.  What the team achieved was to increase the pH value to over 6.5 and bringing back life to the soil with the increased biodiversity as the desired outcome. Let me share with you how they did it.

 Reforestation (step 1)

The magic they created could not have been possible thanks to the symbiotic relationship of a specific Caribbean pine trees (Pinus caribbaea) and a mycorrhiza fungi. The pine tree species turned out to be one of the few species able to grow in a low soil pH. The tree had the challenge to survive successfully during the short 3 months planting season. After this period the climate was either too hot or too wet putting a lot of stress on the young tree to survive. The team discovered certain trees over the years where growing faster than others. It was thanks to this difference they discovered some of the seedlings were infected with a mycorrhiza fungi species. They got by accident infected in the nursery during their sprouting period. They learned the fungus protected the seedlings root system in its first years and supported the seed to adapt to the soil faster and as such become stronger. So, they learned the importance of using the symbiotic system between the trees and fungus to help seedlings more resilient and increase their survival rate. [** Other  research has also shown fungi also acts as an early warning communication system for the plants using the mycelium and plants roots in triggering defence mechanises of the plants during attacks by other kingdoms. In addition tree species distribute their genes and share nutrients with their surrounding species through their root system. ]

In addition the growth of the pine trees provided the first shading and thus protection against the sun for the soil. This shading triggered a positive chain of reactions. The moist in the soil started to increase and together with the shading it allowed the soil temperature to slowly drop. This allowed the growth of more microbial life (bacteria, fungi and micro-algae). The microbial life started to increase the carbon sequestering capacity of the soil and reactive the other nutrient cycles, for instance the nitrogen and phosphate cycles. In addition the shading and lower soil temperature, provide conditions for other seed species to start sprouting. This accelerated the lowering of the soil temperature, increased the humidity between the leaves and soil and water started to penetrate into the soil and started to fill up the aquifer. (What they did with the increased water, I will get back to that later).

After 20 years since the pines were planted the trees are slowly being crowded out by the regeneration of indigenous species. Estimations show 200 new species of plants including medical ones have settled themselves in the forest. The medicinal plants provided an additional use for the local health care treatment of the local population. It is assumed these seeds are dormant seeds of ancient rainforest that once covered the region or birds brought them from the amazon.

Las Gaviotas was able to pay for the nursery and planting work through carbon credits. Thanks to the companies spending their carbon credits on Las Gaviotas, they have been able to cover their planting costs.

So, Las Gaviotas witnessed a system of positive feedback loops which started to cascade upward. It started with planting the Pine trees which together with the mycorrhiza fungi provided the starting conditions for to sustain more lifeforms. Through the shady understory the soil temperature was drastically reduced the humidity increased generating conditions for other plants and animals to thrive. And this was all financed through carbon credits.

Generating cash flow from trees (Step 2)

Over the years Lugari and his team had created an increasing growing forest and they were asking themselves what to do with it. It turned out their pine trees had a highly valuable resin in their bark. Through experimenting they learned the pine trees would start to produce the resin after 8 years and stay productive for another 8 years after which they need another 8 years to recover. This pine tree resin turned out to be high‐grade quality and could be converted with simple heating process techniques into purified Turpentine and Colophon. The Colophon is a high value ingredient for the national and international market (paints, enamels, and varnish, soap, ink, newsprint, cosmetics, perfume esters, drying agents, medicines, and to rosin the bows of musical instruments). They could use after purification some of the Turpentine as biofuel for their agricultural equipment and as transport biofuel for their trips to and from Bogota.

They also stumbled upon an enzyme which had a beneficial relationship with the pine tree when they would cut the bark to tap the resin. Normal industrial standard of tree tappers is to use sulphuric acid when making the incisions in the bark. Again an unexpected outcome was revealed. The discovered enzyme increased the resin production, with no side effect for the tree. It turned out trees have also symbiotic relationships with enzymes, in this case helped to increase the resin production and keep out infections of the bark.

After 10 years they started to plant indigenous amazon palm trees to increase the biofuel production and supply sustainable palm oil to the Colombia market. These native palm trees are planted inside the growing forest as part of the forest biodiversity. This was the start for Las Gaviotas in applying the Agroforestry  concept to diversify their forest into a multispecies environment with multiple revenues from different plant species. With more wood from starting to emerge from the forest of also other tree species, they started to make music instruments to be sold in the cities. This was thanks to the high quality wood the forest started to provide.

So suddenly they had their own biofuel production, high quality intermediate biochemicals for the (inter)national market and high quality wood to craft equipment (music instruments) and furniture from. And this was all being provided without disrupting the biodiversity in the forest.

Suddenly the rain comes back (Step 3)

Over the years Las Gaviotas started to notice the local climate system started adding more rainfall over the years (it is estimated their reforestation generated over 10 percent more rainfall). The rain came back due to a) the increase evaporation of the trees (more transpiration so to say) and b) more biodiversity let to more microbes floating in the air above (water needs to attach itself to something if it want to create a water drop) . This all together creates floating rivers above the trees. * Antonio Donato Nobre from Brazil who proved this concept

The rainfall started to restore the local aquifer generating a fresh water source for the local community. The fresh water created a much needed access to clean water, reducing illness in the region. Las Gaviotas decided to bottle the excess water and sell it in Bogota as an additional cash flow. In addition the Gaviotas designed an ingenious pumping system for the region in order to access the local aquifers. They designed a water pump which was part of a children playground to incorporate the energy of the community to pump up the water from the aquifer.

 So more trees, generates more water capture capacity, which restores the hydrogen cycle of the soil. At the same time it brings back the rain and restores the local aquifer. With access to the high quality mineral water from the aquifer the health of the local community improved drastically, closing the water cycles.

Feeding Gaviotas (Step 4)

Being so remote, the nearest villages were one day ride away, Las Gaviotas had to become independent in its food production to feed their own community. Because the savannah soil was suited for vegetable production due to its low pH value, their solution was to build a greenhouse including a hydroponic system. They created their own soil using their own left over kitchen waste and irrigated the plants with the water from their aquifer and later also improved water quality from the nearby river.

(Eco)Technological Innovations

Now let us investigate their second story, the innovative hardware. Gaviotas had to solve many technological challenges and could only harness what was available to them.

Firstly in order to plant thousands of trees in the short 3 months tree planning time frame, their existing agricultural equipment needed to increase its productivity if the outputs had to be realised. Over the years Gaviotas the custom build and modified their original equipment so it could cope with the local circumstances. In addition thanks to their own biorefinery they could also solved their diesel fuel scarcity by using their own turpentine from the pine trees and later also palm oil.

 Secondly the Gaviotas created a zero waste biorefinery factory. This included a zero waste philosophy for their resign packaging. They created specific cardboard boxes in which they could pour directly the resin into. This made it easier to transport the resin and enabled it to cool inside the factory before transported to Bogota and beyond. For their electricity supply they designed their own special solar panels. And solar water boilers (made from burned-out neon tubes) to purify their water.

Thirdly their list of other Gaviotas innovations is long. They designed “cork-screwing manual well-digger; parabolic solar grain dryers; rotating-drum peanut shellers; ox-drawn land graders; a manual baler that compressed hay into bricks; a pedal-powered cassava grinder that reduced 10 hours of work to one; and a one-handed sugar cane press” They also created a micro-hydro plant using the nearby river (only a one meter drop is sufficient) to supply the electrons for the village.

Fourthly in order to provide high quality healthcare for their community they had to design and build their own hospital, because there was none close by. The building turned out to be marvel of architectural ingenuity. For the natural cooling they created natural airflows using physics to ventilate the building. The cellar cools the hot air and it is then ventilated through the walls increasing the cooling effect. In addition their installed solar panels on the roof for an additional cooling effect on the rooftop. Their patient’s room had transparent windows to stimulate UV light penetrating into the wardroom so UV light could kill unwanted microbes in the room. The operation room required distilled water, so they created a water distillation unit, using the solar kettle from used neon light bulbs to sterilize the fresh water. For the local tribes a separate wing was created so they could hang their hammocks under a rooftop.  The sterilisation facilities of the hospital are now used to sterilise and bottle the water from the aquifer. Even they thought about the design of the water bottles. They have designed so they can be used when they are empty as toys for children in the city.  

 Fifthly in order supply their energy needs for their equipment, they modified their existing combustion engines so they would also work on their alternative sources Turpentine, Palm oil and cooking oil (which they transported back from Bogotá and refined in their biorefinery).

 So with simple physics, locally available material and smart architecture it is possible to manufacture high quality products with a Zero Waste Ambition. And create high quality accommodations and even to hospital standards. Because everything was designed with multi functionality in mind they were also able to adjust the use of equipment when needed.

Realism

The first time I read this story it read like a childhood dream, where alchemists where creating things from what was not there, into a safe haven full of engineering marvels. And yet I can assure you Las Gaviotas does exist. Their story has been documented by many including the United Nations as how land restoration can go hand in hand with economic development. The legacy of Lugari’s achievements is that Las Gaviotas became the example how communities can restore nature, invent innovative solutions and find innovative business models to finance their aspirations without a business plan!

Las Gaviotas was only made possible because Lugari and his team had a clear Social, Ecology, EcoTechnology and Economic vision of what it had to become. And it was supported by a team of dedicated innovative creative minds who enjoyed being challenged to make the impossible possible. It was the determination and perseverance of Lugari and his team being able to overcome many of the obstacles they faced each time to realise their vision. Even Lugari would never have imaged when he started, how much innovative ideas and scientific breakthroughs the team realised by just doing it.

Until this day, Las Gaviotas has been the leading example even 30 years since they started. Its achievement has until this date not been replicated at such a grand scale as the Gaviotas have done. The knowledge from Gaviotas has taken decades spread to spread globally and slowly similar projects are underway to replicate the achievement of the Colombians.

In 2019 a research team from ETH Zurich has provided additional scientific evidence that a global reforestation is economic feasible, due the many positive feedback loops it generates.

Globally there are other reforestation initiatives which have been important and contributed to understanding of the regenerative capacity of our soils. The Loess Plateau in China which thanks to journalist John D. Liu showed the world the large scale possibilities of reforestation.  The African Green belt movement founded by Professor Wangari Maathai Commonland from the Netherlands which in collaboration with John D. Liu is working on reforestation project globally using an integrated approach.

Sources for further reading

Agroforestry

Biorefinery

Regenerative Agriculture

Permaculture

References

http://www.centrolasgaviotas.org/Articulos.html

http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/rx-for-the-earth/842

http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/peace-makers/823

http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-new-economy/update-gaviotas-still-dreaming-and-growing

Weisman, Alan (1999). Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company. ISBN 1-890132-28-4.

https://www.rmi.org/news/blog_2013_11_12_a_high_renewables_tomorrow_today_gaviotas/

http://www.scizerinm.org/lasgaviotasupdate.html

http://www.theblueeconomy.org/uploads/7/1/4/9/71490689/case_105_clustering_biofuels_forests_and_heavy_industry__final__1_.pdf

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