Friday, December 15, 2006

Activist recounts successful sustainable communities

by Stephanie Laird, Athens NEWS Campus Reporter International sustainability expert and Quaker activist Hollister Knowlton spoke Tuesday night in Athens on the development and prosperity of eco-villages and sustainable practices. In her presentation, "Four Communities and a 'Village to Reinvent the World,'" Knowlton shared her spiritual journey and knowledge on sustainable practices with a full audience in the conference room at the Athens Public Library. Knowlton, who said she has always been concerned about the earth, found Quakerism and a new way to heal the disconnect she felt between humans and the earth. During her presentation, Knowlton shared success stories on sustainable communities in Colombia and Costa Rica, celebrating these communities' commitment to harnessing the earth's resources to foster sustainable development. When Knowlton's position was eliminated, she said she decided it was time for her to pursue her true calling and became a full-time Quaker. Knowlton served as a Quaker delegate to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), a spiritually centered movement of Quakers and like-minded people seeking ways to integrate concern for the environment with Friends' long-standing testimonies for peace and equality, sent Knowlton to the conference as an observer. What she saw there, she said, changed her perspective for the rest of her life. During the conference, Knowlton learned about the United States' position on energy, and saw the disparity of wealth and severe racial injustice that were occurring in the neighboring community of Alexandra, South Africa. This broken community, and her experience at the sustainability conference, fueled Knowlton's desire to visit and learn more about sustainable communities and developments, she told the Athens audience. The first sustainable community Knowlton visited and discussed Tuesday was Finca La Bella, "the beautiful farm," in the San Luis Valley in Costa Rica. Here lies a 122-acre Quaker experiment in sustainable farming for landless farmers in the area. From Dec. 26, 2004 to Jan. 3, 2005, Knowlton participated in a QEW work-camp on the farm, living in the homes of the parceleros and working on projects to further their sustainable development. The land is divided into 24 sections for families to live on and cultivate the land. The farmers live together cooperatively and cannot sell the land, said Knowlton, since it was purchased to preserve and protect this valuable natural region. The farm has established several sources of revenue, ranging from a structure for guests to stay in, to coffee farming, to development of the "Pacific Path Trail." In the summer of 2005, Knowlton was given the opportunity to travel with the Friends of Gaviotas in Colombia, to visit the Gaviotas sustainable community and the site of Gaviotas II with Paolo Lugari. In 1970, Lugari began creating his vision for a sustainable community on Los Llanos of Colombia. This savannah is plagued with acidic soil, and was generally inhabitable except for along the riverbanks, but Knowlton said that Lugari saw potential here for something beautiful, especially since so many people were crowded in nearby Bogota, Colombia. After 14 years of research with the help of Zero Emission Research & Initiatives, a symbiotic relationship was found between a fungi and a tree, the Caribbean pine, which was able to grow in the area, she said. The trees prospered and now cover 20,000 acres of forest. The debris and compost created by these trees have formed a layer of topsoil 4-6 inches deep on the heretofore barren ground, giving life to some 250 species that now live in the expanding forest, according to Knowlton. The Gaviotas village emerged through the use of small-scale technology and a commitment to the integrity of the region, its people and the community, Knowlton said. Sustainable revenue sources are key in this and in other sustainable communities, she explained, emphasizing the importance of diversifying revenue and energy resources. In Gaviotas, she said, Lugari has established a resin-processing plant, a biodiesel facility, a water-bottling plant and a small hydro-power plant, just to prove he could. Solar and wind power are harnessed here, and furnaces run on either wood or biodiesel; there is even a revolutionary air- conditioning system in place that relies on convection. Lugari has also hooked up the see-saws at the local school with a water pump, so children playing generates the power to pump water from below ground. This totally independent community is prospering and providing a model for other sustainable villages, she said. After a whirlwind tour of Lugari's sustainable oasis, Knowlton traveled to Marandua with Lugari and other luminaries to visit the site of Gaviotas II. The Colombian Air Force offered to donate 100,000 acres of land to this project, which will be modeled on the principles established in Gaviotas. The sustainable communities of Finca La Bella and Gaviotas illustrate the fantastic possibilities of sustainable development, according to Knowlton. They have created jobs, provided homes and land for those without, and are operating in a sustainable loop that should ensure their stability and success for years to come while preserving the integrity of the region and its inhabitants.

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