Models for Human Adaptation to Life on Earth

Paolo Lugari founded Gaviotas, a small community in Colombia's eastern savanna, with hope. Lugari was worried about a time when the armies of a crowded world would fight over the best land, when millions would be packed into cities, and others would cut down forests for a place to live. In 1971, he decided to build Gaviotas in the savanna to lure people away from more coveted lands.

Lugari hoped he could derail this forbidding future by building a peaceful, sustainable community in the middle of Colombia's "wasteland," a place withered by eons of fire, trade winds, and climate change, where even coca refused to grow.

The savanna, full of the hope and humble work of Gaviotas' 200 residents, responded. A forest grew where there hadn't been shade in millennia. Anteaters, deer, and birds thrived where before they had struggled.

"They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places, but we wanted the hardest place," Lugari told Alan Weisman in his book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. "We figured that if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of the imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of imagination."

Though our time resembles Lugari's worst-case future more than it should, there are many stories of intelligent adaptation like that of the Gaviotan forest. From Cuba to Brazil, Maine to California, innovative people are making conscious choices that benefit their communities and ecosystems. There are grandparents in India choosing a healthy community over the riches associated with caste. There are farmers in Cuba growing cash crops organically. There are foresters in Minnesota learning tree-cutting techniques from Native American ancestors. Each of these is a model for sane living in a finite world.

In Gaviotas, Alan Weisman describes the ten years during which the Gaviotans built their community out of scant resources. They devised new technologies suited for their environment: windmills for equatorial breezes, solar panels calibrated for the rainy season, pumps to bring water from deep wells.

Then, in 1982, they planted a patch of Caribbean pines - the only plant other than scrub grass that grew in the savannah's leached-out soil. Resident ecologists had debated whether to introduce a new species to the Colombian rainforest, but since the pines grew in Panama, originally part of Colombia, they were planted.

By 1991, "like children who seem to grow when their parents aren't watching," Weisman wrote, "[the] Pinus caribaea seedlings had shot up past eight feet, then ten, then twenty."

But in their strange new environment, the pines weren't producing seeds. Instead, an unexpected understory was thriving. Wild fig vines, legumes, flowering shrubs, and other riparian plants sprouted in the hospitable shade of the pine trees. Biologists from a Bogota university counted over 250 species. They guessed that birds were sowing the new forest with seeds from nearby riverbanks, or that the pines' shade had allowed the germination of dormant seeds dropped by trees ages before.

"Over the coming decades," Weisman wrote, "Gaviotas will let these new native trees choke out the pines and return the savanna to what many believe was its primeval state, an extension of the Amazon."

That the Caribbean pines took so well to the savanna was luck, or as some said, a blessing. In the early 90s, resin from the pine trees' sap provided a new source of revenue for the Gaviotans. But in 1982, when Lugari brought the seedlings back from Venezuela, the Gaviotan community wasn't thinking about forestry. They were in the era of innovation, designing technology to optimize their scarce resources.

The most significant achievement of this era, the Gaviotans told Weisman, was a sleeve pump that could tap water from a well six times deeper than normal models. Rather than raising and lowering a heavy piston inside a pipe, the Gaviotan pump leaves the piston stationary, and lifts a light plastic pipe instead.

But the invention's most ingenious quirk came from an unexpected source.

"I was showing students from the school how a pump handle is a kind of lever, and one of them said, 'You mean like half a seesaw,'" Gaviotan Luis Robles told Weisman. "I built one that afternoon." Now when the kids play on a seesaw outside the schoolhouse, they are also filling the school's water tanks.

Finding sustainable solutions to everyday problems seems easy in Gaviotas, where residents, engineers, and scientists are dedicated to imagining alternatives for everything from energy sources to waste disposal. But creativity can thrive outside of intentional communities, as one can see in Curitiba, a bustling city of 1.5 million located in the mountains of southern Brazil.

Curitiba's story begins with a street confrontation. In the 1970s, author Bill McKibben writes in his book Hope, Human and Wild, newly elected Mayor Jaime Lerner sought to transform Rua Quinze, the city's downtown thoroughfare, into a pedestrian mall. Though he had little support for the project, he thought it was crucial to keep the city people-oriented, rather than car-oriented.

"I had no way to convince the storeowners a pedestrian mall would be good for them, because there was no other pedestrian mall in Brazil," Lerner told McKibben. "But I knew if they had the chance to actually see it, everyone would love it." Lerner convinced his employees and contractors that they could pull up the pavement and put in the benches, streetlights, and flowers in two days. They did.

The following weekend, angry motorists planned a convoy to reclaim the street. As they swung their cars around and prepared to plow through the pedestrian mall, they faced, not cops, but children painting. The city had unrolled long strips of paper across the new cobblestone mall, and children were playing gleefully with watercolors. The motorcade dispersed.

This moment marked the start of a twenty-year reign of innovation, which brought Curitiba international recognition for first-rate services.

By 1993, Curitiba's bus system reportedly carried 1.5 million passengers each day, more than the daily load of the entire New York City bus system. An efficient network of orange and green buses looped through outer neighborhoods, taking passengers to silver "speedybuses" headed downtown.

But Lerner and his engineers weren't satisfied. "Sitting at a bus stop one day," McKibben wrote, "Lerner noticed that the biggest time drag on his fleet was how long it took passengers to climb the stairs and pay the fare."

Engineers designed a glass "tube station," a streetside elevated platform that allows passengers to board the bus as if it were a subway. An attendant in the center of the station collects the fares, and when the bus arrives, five doors open. People file on without delay. As the city built more and more tube stations, bus ridership increased 28 percent.

The whole city benefited from the new technology. When the public housing authority began a housing project for 50,000 families on a section of farmland not far from downtown, they first built a glass tube station to link the village to the rest of the city.

"Integration is a word one hears constantly from officials in Curitiba," McKibben wrote. "It means knitting together the entire city - rich, poor, and in-between - culturally, economically, and physically."

Curitiba's ingenious Garbage Purchase Program exemplifies this integration.

Although Curitiba's public housing authority builds more units per capita than any other Brazilian city, some people still live in slum areas on the outskirts of town. The streets in these crowded favelas are generally unpaved and so narrow that the city's garbage trucks cannot pass.

Today, McKibben wrote, people living in the favelas collect their own trash and carry it to designated points just outside their neighborhood. There, they exchange these bags of garbage for bags of food, a system that keeps the neighborhoods clean and the residents well-fed.

Furthermore, the city purchases the bags of rice, fruits, and vegetables from local farmers who cannot otherwise find a market. Thus the Garbage Purchase Program gives a boost to the farmers, enabling them to stay on the land.

The most successful communities, like Curitiba, care for people of diverse backgrounds, fostering a sense of interdependence and fellowship among them. For Kerala, a state in southwest India, integration began with the dismantling of caste barriers. Greater equality led to a similarly strong community, one that achieved 90 percent literacy, long life expectancy, and widespread access to medical care regardless of economic hardship - all without Western consumerism.

"Demographically, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash," McKibben told Terrain. "Kerala offers a model that stretches our thinking - reminds us that the alternative to our (American) way of life is not shivering in the dark in a cave."

In the 1950s, following a tumultuous decade of change, the state's parliament introduced land reform laws that gave lower-caste tenants control of the property they were farming for high-caste landlords.

Half a century after this redistribution of resources, Kerala works for all its citizens.

In the 1980s, leaders decided to boost the country's literacy rate from 70 to 100 percent, even though it was already twice that of the rest of India. Fifty thousand volunteers poured into villages and held classes in cowsheds and hospitals, on rocks and in courtyards. In 15 months, literacy rates climbed to 96 percent in some districts. Today the state's overall literacy rate stands at 90 percent.

From there, leaders created a new program to move from "word literacy to land literacy." In the People's Resource Mapping Program, organizers taught villagers to construct maps detailing the topography of their community. With the maps the communities make ecological decisions, such as where to plant trees to prevent erosion.

"The mapmakers think about human problems, too," McKibben writes. "In one village, residents were spending scarce cash during the dry season to buy vegetables imported from elsewhere in India. Paddy owners were asked to lease their land free of charge between rice crops for big market gardens." Vegetables from these gardens sold for less than the imports at local markets, another success for a healthier Keralan population.

Just as interdependent food systems are part of living sustainably, so is low-impact food production. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba's sugarcane and tobacco farmers could no longer purchase the Soviet pesticides and fertilizers they had relied on. Imported food disappeared from market shelves, leaving Havana residents scrambling to feed their families.

Cuba's government called for a shift from single-crop industrial farming to small-scale organic farming to avoid widespread malnutrition. Centers promoting organic techniques witnessed a surge in their budgets. Scientists developing new composting technology suddenly saw their work tested on a commercial scale.

"When the economic crisis came," said Martin Borque of Food First, an Oakland-based organization working with Cuba's organic farmers, "The government basically said, 'You guys have got to help us out here.'"

Farmers, who once grew only sugarcane, now plant rice and vegetables, fertilize them with worm compost, and protect them with biological pest controls.

"Most of the policymakers accepted the fact that there were no pesticides for vegetables," Borque told Terrain. "But none of them believed farmers could grow rice without pesticides." So the government authorized pesticide use at large-scale cooperatives producing the country's staple crop. But farmers growing small quantities of rice for their family and neighbors (known in Cuba as "popular production") were forbidden to use pesticides. In 1998, Borque said, this small-scale farming produced half the rice in the country, to the astonishment of the authorities.

Successful sustainable projects often defy expectations. Take Arcata, California, where local engineers turned wastewater into wetlands.

Just down the hill from the town plaza, 154 acres of marshes, lagoons, and ponds stretch along Humboldt Bay. Bicyclists roll along wood-chip paths; birders spot egrets, falcons, and osprey. It's an idyllic country setting with a twist: the Arcata Marsh cleans sewer water flushed by the town's 15,000 residents.

"Wetlands need to be restored as part of the ecosystem," said Professor Bob Gearheart, one of the three Humboldt State University professors who designed the wastewater treatment system. "Anybody can run a constructed wetland. It's very easy to maintain."

Arcata's artificial wetland mimics its natural counterparts, relying on plants, soils, and microorganisms to remove wastewater contaminants.

Water flows through three ponds for oxidation, two marshes for filtering, and a treatment area where it is chlorinated and dechlorinated before being released, cleaner than the seawater, into Humboldt Bay. And building the ponds and marshes costs less than buying mechanical treatment equipment.

But the Arcata Marsh has one more surprise: Not all of the wastewater flows back to the bay. Some is diverted to the western edge of the oxidation ponds, combined with seawater, and transformed into a nursery habitat for chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout. Humboldt State Professor George Allen built a hatchery at the marsh in 1971 to rebuild the fish populations that were depleted when excessive logging silted up local creeks.

With stewardship, wild species should avoid the salmon's fate. In the waters off Great Britain and Ireland, unmanaged fishing over the past 20 years has contributed to a collapse of lobster stocks. But in Maine, where fishers have maintained a "commons" under a self-enforced conservation code since the late 1800s, the catch grew by 25 million pounds in the past ten years.

The lobster fishers' good fortune stems partly from ecological conditions, possibly the depletion of groundfish that prey on lobsters, said Penn Estabrook, Deputy Commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine resources. But Maine's unique conservationist fishing practices "have allowed reproduction to occur at high rates," he said, "and the young lobster populations are more viable."

When lobsters became a delicacy in the late 1800s, the new fishing community decided to protect its stock by tossing back egg-bearing lobsters. Before they dropped the lobsters into the sea, they carved a "V"-shaped notch on the lobster's rear flipper, which would remain, despite molting, for a couple of years.

Though it is now illegal to possess a notched lobster, Estabrook said the fishers comply voluntarily. "Although they have gradually codified at the state level," he said, "these practices are still closely held as a culture."

Maine's fishers have also adopted specifications on the size of the lobsters they will take: no carapace under three-and-a-quarter inches, and none over five. Throwing back the largest lobsters - they produce the most eggs - was for many years a practice known only in Maine, though it has since caught on elsewhere, Estabrook said.

They've also established trap limits, set specific times of day when fishing is legal, and banned the dragging of nets. "We introduce a certain level of inefficiency," Estabrook said, "and fewer lobsters get caught."

The Amish community exemplifies the value of conscious inefficiency. This religious group of over 134,000 members sacrifices the convenience of modern technology to preserve the cohesiveness of its farming communities. But its well-known refusal to use electricity, cars, tractors, and telephones is not a result of a decision made once and never altered.

"The Amish selectively screen technology," said Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania's Messiah College and the author of six books on the Amish. "In some communities, bishops representing congregations of 25 to 40 families will meet twice a year to review new technologies."

Many Amish communities in Pennsylvania remain open to rollerblading for exercise and transportation, but eschew internet use, which they believe will fragment their families. They also forbid telephones in homes, Kraybill said, but accept business phones in barns.

This conscious decisionmaking has benefited the ecosystem, and the Amish are known for their ability to keep fields fertile for hundreds of years and even to regenerate barren lands. "Their farming methods are labor intensive," said Kraybill, noting that horse-drawn plows and harrows replace the heavy equipment that compacts soil and stifles crop growth. "And they can successfully farm (less-desirable) land because they have the time and patience to do it."

As the Amish lead their careful lives, they are instructed by their bishops to remember a Bible verse: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (and) prove what is good and acceptable and perfect in the will of God."

With a similar reverence, the Menominee Indians look to a lesson taught by a nineteenth-century chief as they cut timber from their 220,000 acre forest in Central Wisconsin. Ted Bernard and Jora Young write about it in The Ecology of Hope, excerpted in the Autumn '99 Orion Afield:

"Start with the rising sun, and work toward the setting sun," the chief instructed, "but take only the mature trees, the sick trees, and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will last forever."

With this mindful care for the forest, the Menominee cull 28 to 30 million board feet of timber a year from their land.

"'The mill cuts what the forest has to give us,'" mill manager Matt Ottravec told Bernard and Young. "'And we never modify our cut for the market.'"

The Menominee also crafted a procedure to help them replace felled trees: they observe small groundcover plants to predict the trees most likely to flourish on the site.

As one state forester put it to Bernard and Young, the Menominee's tradition-based techniques are at least 50 years ahead of the norm.

One person who agrees is Mitch Bouchon, Traditional Properties Coordinator for the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. Bouchon is emulating Menominee forestry as he creates a partnership between the Ojibwa, who live in the National Forest, and the government foresters who manage it.

"We have an opportunity to be leaders in implementing new forestry methods," he said. "But we had to fight for this project. We were being told that it's not affordable. We said, 'We can't afford not to do this.'"

In an age of rampant waste and ecological imbalance, we may have no choice but to follow Bouchon's example: choose a good model, and fight to replicate it. Find stories about people who have, through sheer ingenuity, preserved species or restored wetlands. Look for places dedicated to equality, shared resources, and thoughtfully integrated environments. Prove that the impossible can happen, especially on a large scale. Learn how to bring barren land back to life, how to raise a forest from the savanna.

Stacy Schwandt is a student at University of California Berkeley's journalism school.

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