A voice for bioregional sustainability, education and culture

Home | Recent Posts | Library | Xchange Store | Winter Olympics | Contact Us | Volunteer | Site Map | Donate!

Ecuador Dispatches, 2003

Click on map for larger version.

We started out the new year with one volunteer, Simon Winch, working on the Eco Ecuador Project. In early January Peter arrived, and about a week later Brian Teinert, who has been hired as chief of  operations for Planet Drum's projects, arrived to carry on the work. Peter has been busy organizing the projects in Bahia and introducing Brian to everyone. On the side, he composed the following dispatches. 

In early November Peter returned to Bahia.  Several Planet Drum staffers also decided to go to Bahia and volunteer there.  Peter's dispatches from this trip are listed below. 

Index of 2003 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Autumn 2003

Dispatch #6, Wild & “Wild” Encounters (26 November, 2003 )

Dispatch #5, Pique y Pasa (Choose What You Like) (22 November, 2003)

Dispatch #4, For Indoor Use Only - A Meditation (20 November, 2003)

Dispatch #3, Reiterating the Ecological City (15 November, 2003)

Dispatch #2, Re-emerging Indigenas (13 November, 2003)

Dispatch #1, Natives are Harder (12 November, 2003)

Winter 2002-03

Dispatch #2, Revelations in a Cattle Slough (19 January, 2003)

Dispatch #1, Ecuador and Planet Drum Undergo Major Transitions (17 January, 2003)


Ecuador and Planet Drum Undergo Major Transitions

Dispatch # I, January 17, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

This is the last of five straight years worth of work pledged beginning in February 1999 when Planet Drum Foundation was invited to assist in realizing Bahia de Caraquez’s Ecological City Declaration.

An earthquake and El Nino mudslide ruined municipality in 1998 with fallen buildings, impassable streets and highways, and 5,000 outright homeless families living on the sidewalks, the city is now mainly restored. Most split-open buildings have been repaired or torn down, and some new ones have risen in their places. Dispossessed families have been relocated in new neighborhoods, some in specially constructed housing. Bright as the new paint, people seem generally more easy-going and playful as the memory of past catastrophes inevitably fades.

Unfortunately, the local economy reflects Ecuador’s general impoverishment. Prices have risen since the US dollar became the standard currency here. As an example that touches everyone, bread rolls that were once the equivalent of two cents now cost five, which may seem cheap but represents an increase of two hundred and fifty percent. Wages have usually failed to keep up or sometimes gotten lower. The local shrimp farming boom of several decades collapsed through disease and over-supply at around the same time as Bahia’s natural disasters.

Newly elected president Lucio Gutierrez took office this week vowing "economic war for a year" to help stop the country’s persistent slide. He has higher than usual credibility for accomplishing change since he was the former leader of a military-indigenous peoples-labor union triumvirate whose criticism of International Monetary Fund demands on the country toppled the president in 1999. Cashiered from his colonelcy in the army and prevented from taking leadership as "a dictator" at that time by US support for the vice president’s assumption of the top office, he has at last come to power through democratic means. Lucio’s recent appointment of indigenous and socially responsive representatives to several key government posts indicates that the original rebellion is finally succeeding to some degree and long-overdue economic improvements could follow.

This is an auspicious time to make an assessment of the effectiveness of Planet Drum’s various eco-city projects here. The Forest in the Middle of the Ruins erosion control cum recreational "wild park" in Maria Auxiliadora barrio is much more visible through the addition of two roadside directional signs and eight numbered markers to identify native plants described in a self-guided tour map. Community members have been strong participants by helping to set the signs in concrete and pioneering a new entrance path with rubble concrete steps. They are an exemplary group judging from the sweep of ideas that ten of them brought to a meeting in our field office/apartment last week. Spokesperson Leonardo Maya described guided tours (wearing the new t-shirts emblazoned with park logos in full color), an information kiosk, classes for children, public puppet plays, photos and postcards for sale, and a full-fledged museum with educational documentation of the factors that produced El Nino and the earthquake. Next Sunday we will start with a prominent painted steel sign five by ten feet with the park’s name and a directional arrow that will be erected to protrude above the school wall where there is already a bioregional mural. It will be positioned to be visible from City Hall three blocks away. A dozen barrio members are expected to help Planet Drum staff and volunteers transport the sign, set support poles in cement, and celebrate with a fresh ensalada de frutas tropicales (tropical fruit salad). Publicity has begun with a radio show about the park featuring barrio residents, and a newspaper account with photos of the new sign is scheduled. Park maintenance will be minimal now that winter rains have begun: a few strategic new plantings, clearing paths and dead brush, and finishing the new stairway. Our future efforts in the park will be mutually developed through weekly meetings with the community steering council.

A long-neglected aspect of the Fanca Produce composting project for recycling organic household waste from the barrio of Fanca (along with city market refuse) has just been resolved. We located a commercial distributor for red worms and ordered 50,000 of them for delivery hopefully within a week. It will be the first use of brick worm beds originally built nearly two years ago to create highly enriched compost. Breeding worms will also begin in earnest. These may eventually prove to be the whole operation’s most viable activities. Citrus plant seedlings are presently growing and many other fruit trees for Fanca residents will follow. Building community involvement with waste separation and compost production similar to Maria Auxiliadora residents with the park is a critical step. During a Planet Drum staff meeting with Mayor Leo and the Department of Public Health director earlier this week, we decided that three months of concentrated effort is needed to create a Fanca community association this winter. Fanca residents have the right to twenty-five percent of compost production and can use it for everything from a community garden to grow seedlings for sale. This can be a genuine economic asset for Fanca’s disadvantaged population if it can be successfully managed by a self-regulating group of local stewards.

The fledgling project to revegetate roughly six kilometers of eroded hillsides leading into Bahia de Caraquez with a "wild corridor" of native dry tropical forest plants is re-energized since the rainy season fully began last week. Planet Drum has built a shaded greenhouse on the property of the Universidad Catholica near the community of Kilometro Ocho at the far end of the intended revegetation strip. Two weeks ago we filled one side of the structure with a compost-rich soil mixture (aiming for equal parts compost, dried horse manure, rice hulls, black soil, and clay) and seeds of several native species. Abundant cascol tree seedlings are already coming out. Seedlings previously grown at Fanca Produce for use in established planting sites were moved here a few days ago to mature to planting size as well, along with several hundred prepared growing bags in which seeds failed to germinate. These will now be used to transfer seedlings developed in the beds when they are large enough in about two weeks. More seeds will follow and continuous seedling production will occur throughout the rainy season. A new cycle to grow thousands of plants will take place during the dry season beginning in May, and subsequent seedlings will grow large enough to be placed into the ground at new sites next winter. Completion of the whole project will undoubtedly take several years even with increasing numbers of plantable trees.

The first location for planting will be a hillside with a prominent 100 meter (300 feet) land fault about a foot wide that lies above the greenhouse. Fifty of the seedlings moved from Fanca to the greenhouse (pelo caballo, "horse hair" named for its stringy cambium layer) are viable for placing there now, and hundreds of stakes cut from nearby moyuyo trees will fill in approximately 2 hectares (five acres) of accompanying eroded hillside. On a survey walk through the site we saw the skeleton of a small, cross-toothed mammal Ecuadorians call Zorro (fox) that is actually a different species, tiny intensely blue flowers, a metallic ruby humming bird, and an unexpected long row of hundreds of moyuyo trees following the watercourse of a creek the way willows might in the Northern Temperate Zone. It was the single most satisfying event in the two weeks of my current visit.

The immediate community that can participate with the revegetation project is university staff and students, so there will be work-learning classes with them helping to produce and plant seedlings starting in June when the next semester begins. All of the land in the intended revegetation strip is privately owned. Property holders who participate in allowing use of their land have the right to harvest seeds and fruits as long as they leave standing trees uncut. We still need to contact about thirty more owners to complete the strip.

Fundamental to our involvement in Bahia has been the vision of bioregionally inspired city living practices. We have aimed at establishing a working model of this unique perspective using the vast natural opportunities found here. The Rio Chone watershed, winterwet-summerdry climate, the offshore blend of Humboldt and Nino ocean currents, predominantly clay soil, dry neotropical forest plants and animals, and a 5,000 years running indigenous domestic culture based on farming, fishing, and trading are all strongly visible and sometimes remarkably intact. City dwelling is powered by fossil fuels and electricity, informed by newspapers, radio and television, reliant on retailing and tourist industries in addition to commercial-scaled agriculture, utilizes the option of plumbing and piped water, and employs a predominantly indoors style. But Nature is still clearly dominant in the city. A distant electrical power plant fails on a monthly basis restoring country-style darkness to streets and houses. Water supplies evaporate in the dry season rendering faucets in household and businesses useless and their owners as dependent as farmers on cisterns and transported water barrels. Common fruits such as bananas, papaya, and limes have been nativized and can be seen growing in yards and on hillsides everywhere. Yucca is a native starchy vegetable used daily for everything from bread flour to a soup ingredient. Locally caught river and ocean fish, shrimp and shellfish are consumed amazingly fresh on a daily basis. A significant number of houses are still elevated on poles, sided with bamboo pounded flat into boards, and roofed with palm thatch. Direct dependency on native natural systems for sustenance is a continuous reality.

Planet Drum’s erosion control effort in a barrio which evolved into a valuable public "wild park", the large organic waste recycling project in another barrio that keeps polluting waste out of a landfill while providing soil to grow food and native plant seedlings, and the new massive revegetation effort to resist watershed erosion while creating a "wild corridor" of harvestable plant products are directly based on restoring and maintaining natural systems while delivering human benefits. This is not just urban ecology, environmentalism or natural resources improvement as they are typically considered and followed. Certainly benefits occur during our process which are similar to those pursuits, but they aren’t the main accomplishments. The real goal is to establish a deeply bioregional pattern of practical public activities for achieving true long-term sustainability. Hopefully, they also serve as examples for duplication throughout Ecuador, the less developed world, and even the overdeveloped industrial North which is so badly in need of ecological restoration.

After five years it is clear that Planet Drum’s vision is increasingly linked to active public involvement. We are making a transition toward turning our existing projects over to be run by various communities as the final stage of our involvement. Plans for new projects include a barrio-wide renewable energy system to generate electricity and retrofit houses for hot water production, and creation of a publicly accessible bioregional map incorporating natural, archeological, historical, and contemporary human land use features. Although only in the funding proposal stage, they already feature inputs from public meetings and will incorporate participation by residents at every stage of development. Ultimately, they will be run by residents of Bahia.

A final promising transition is knowledgeable and energetic Brian Teinert who trained in our San Francisco office and is now in Bahia to serve as chief of project operations for at least a year. Brian looked good on paper, better in person, and is a marvel of self-motivation on the ground here. He will introduce all future volunteers to tasks and direct them on a level of continuity that we haven’t possessed before. The first new addition will be college student Megan Shea who arrives next week to join veteran British volunteer Simon Winch. We’ve cleared some obstacles to promising presentable housing to volunteers by signing a new one-year lease agreement with the same generous terms as before. Rent is split between repairs and cash, but we have already accumulated repair costs that will last through next September. The roomy office/dormitory is fully painted in public areas now, the front door lock has been replaced to regain privacy after the loss of several keys, plumbing will be completely operational by the end of this morning, and plants in containers are being dotted around to naturalize our space.

Ecuador and Planet Drum are both undergoing dramatic transitions this year, astonishing changes should become the norm.



Revelations in a Cattle Slough

Dispatch #2, January 19, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
by Peter Berg

When contacts are hard to make quickly they often get even harder. That’s the way Brian found getting in touch with Pedro Otero, an ecologically-minded biologist who teaches, does water testing as "Peter’s Lab", and is an owner with four brothers of a significant parcel of badly eroded land. Located in the El Toro Creek watershed behind Leonidas Plaza, it is one of the larger holdings at 257 hectares (nearly 700 acres) within the stretch of our intended revegetation corridor. Pedro is a founding member of El Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia and once expressed great interest in accompanying us on a survey of his place, but over a period of two weeks he seemed to be unreachable even though his telephone was answered and messages were taken.

People are often unreachable in Bahia. It’s not clear which way an attempt at communication will go until three or four tries are made. After that a certain wariness of the inevitable begins to take hold. Five, six, seven attempts and the slog is on. You have to weigh new factors that come into play here like cultural differences, language ability, realistic consequences of failure, personal stubbornness, and even heat-derived fixation. Brian felt compelled to succeed because of the strategic position of the site halfway along the whole corridor and the great potential future impact of mud flows originating there. It was becoming an uncomfortably familiar situation and I became anxious about leaving in a few days without helping him to meet and assess the prospects with Pedro. Trying unsuccessfully to vault over obstacles in contacting people can produce the most isolating moments I experience working here. Locals encounter the same problem, but for foreigners it can create a degree of incapacitation that is a worse malaise than loneliness.

After close to a dozen attempts, Brian resembled a rescued sailor from a shipwreck as he blurted with elation about finally reaching Pedro himself and arranging a time and place to meet. "Where?" I asked. "I think it must be his house. He said you had been there." "I never was." During the following moment he might have felt that he was going to be tossed back into the sea. We agreed that painful as it was he would have to find out where we would meet, and the directions if it was Pedro’s house. I forget how many tries it took to finally establish that it would be the house and how to find it. Brian is going to survive in Bahia.

When we found the place at 9AM Pedro was expecting us and also waiting for one of his brothers named Jose. We were invited aboard Pedro’s well-used jeep and joined by his highly capable machete-carrying thirteen-year old son. "He is my partner on an ecological radio program," Pedro explained. Within a few minutes we were jolting along the rutted road beside El Toro Creek. Appallingly eroded twenty-five feet high straight-sided banks of the main creek soon became visible on the side of the road.   After a few barbed wire gate stops, we drove through an even worse prospect when the road itself descended into the deeply eroded canyon of a dry tributary creek. How will anyone get through this steep terrain with a vehicle when intensifying winter rains turn all of the ground to mud? When the fences ended Pedro stopped and we began what became a two hour hike.

It was a completely novel experience from the start where we encountered a side canyon at least thirty feet deep that terminated abruptly in a semi-circle. Backtracking from it about twenty feet, I showed Brian how we could experiment there by planting deep-rooting trees that far away. They would trace at a distance the eroding edge halfway before it reached what might be a presumed endpoint. We couldn’t totally stop the steep-sided bank from eroding, but we might be able to halt it before the maximum distance dictated by the angle of repose about fifty or more feet further than its present position. Long-lived, deep-rooted ceibo trees in a curved row three or four trees deep could make an effective defensive barrier against losing more land.

We dropped down to the creek and found skinny cows staring at us. They stood along the erosion-widened bed of an extremely sparse and slow trickle. Cow and burro manure in all stages from fresh to dry lay in the water and along the wider muddy sides. I got over my initial revulsion when I recognized that this would be a good ingredient in a compost soil mixture for filling holes of new plantings. Special protective measures would have to be taken fencing them, of course. Soon Pedro began an informal walking lecture by explaining that the soil was highly saline. It flowed along salty soil that was elevated originally from the ocean floor by tectonic uplift resulting from the South American continental mass colliding with the Pacific Plate. He pointed at sodium chloride pellets in the stream bed and carbonate layers in the mud banks derived from ancient colonies of miniscule shellfish. Then he began identifying plants whose names I had only heard before (or never heard): Saman, jaille, and balsamo trees along with estrella grass.  Then the horribly eroded canyon walls of tributary creeks appeared like a desertified Middle Eastern landscape. Denuded mud mounds rose where the water courses came together. I was having the heightened sensibility that might come with seeing a beautifully rendered painting of a monstrous scene, beauty and terror mixed as in Francisco Goya’s "Saturn Devouring His Children".

Brian separated from us to follow the rapidly walking, rubber-booted, shotgun carrying younger brother who Pedro described as "verdad hombre de campo" (true man of the countryside). At a kind of fall line above which cows were unable to scramble and an increased uphill grade caused stream water to run clearer and faster, Pedro and I sat down to sketch the whole property and discuss an appropriate revegetation process, specific plant species, and the outlook for future protection. He began by putting his hands palm outwards to show it wasn’t possible for him to control the future of land use on this property inherited from his father. Some brothers wanted to sell and no one could dictate what new owners might do. The five tributaries that entered  the main creek course through their holdings roughly defined a sub-parcel for each brother, but they weren’t actually assigned yet. Having said this, he brightened adding that he wouldn’t sell and stated he wanted to hold onto his fifth. The brother that accompanied us wanted to farm fruit trees but was conservation-minded about the remaining part of his piece. Most of the area in sub-parcels two and three could be guaranteed safe.

There is a precedent for family land preservation. The ridgeline zone around the entire water basin had never been cut and remained an intact indigenous forest. His father had planted dry tropical hardwoods in a fairly wide semi-circle below there about twenty-five years ago. Much of this was cut seven years later but it was replanted and those trees were still there. At the core of the property near the main creek there had been widespread deforestation, burning, and different types of row farming. It was the most badly eroded zone.

With distractingly beautiful tropical birds and butterflies flying past, I began to become inspired about what lay before us. This place was one of the greatest contributors of water and mud flows through the area where we drove in with its farms, buildings, and the main highway into Bahia de Caraquez. Those locations had experienced one to two meters (three to six feet) of mud flows during 1998’s El Nino rains. Two types of erosion controlling plantings were needed: extension of existing forests downward toward the creek, and plantings along water courses to shore them up. It would take thousands of trees and months of labor, untold amounts of individual and space-enclosing fences, and hundreds of gallons of  hard-to-carry water during the dry season (probably using burros). The harder the work seemed, the more I felt certain about doing it. A rising wave of elation caused an imbecilic grin to come over my face. Everything done here would have the biggest payoff in the entire strip. We were ecological lottery winners!

Walking back with the brother, I was shown an oven bird’s nest sculpted from mud, told about a bird whose loud predictable song at 5:30 AM was a farmers’ alarm clock, and another that didn’t sing but barked like a dog. "No one has mentioned snakes to me, " I commented pointing at his shotgun. "The worst is mata caballo (horse killer). It doesn’t go after people but can drop a horse." "How big is it?" "I saw one five meters (fifteen feet) long that was this wide," he depicted the circumference of a small pie. When Brian and I were walking to the apartment, I said "Can you believe what we just did? I’m too high, I’ve got to come down. I can’t think straight if I stay like this the rest of the day."

Cuisine notes. The proportion of starch in a range of forms that is consumed in the diet of undeveloped world populations runs higher than in more protein-rich developed countries, but the extent of this in Ecuador must be at the top throughout the world. Almuerzo lunches at midday featuring a soup course followed by a main dish often contain as many as seven different kinds including rice, potatoes, bread, yucca, wheat noodles, corn, and fried platanos patacones. These aren’t just served to field laborers but appear as inexpensive restaurant fare (at around $1.25 including a juice drink) for office workers and professionals. Portions of meat and fish are small in almuerzos (although often larger in the evening meal). Since gradually registering the predominance of starches I’ve begun leaving three or four uneaten.

On the incomparably positive side, fruits can be equally numerous at breakfast. I have counted pineapple, banana, papaya, orange, watermelon, maracuya (passion fruit) juice, and pechiche jam in a morning meal. The degree of ripeness and flavor is outstanding and in the case of papaya (or locally found naranjilla) unsurpassed. Experiencing how good the fruit here can be has caused me to healthily eat more of it in general, but I will no longer look for papaya outside this country. Its dense core flavor and high sweetness defy substitution elsewhere.



Natives are Harder

Dispatch #1, November 12, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
by Peter Berg

The main stage of the ambitious project to revegetate six kilometers of eroded hillsides directly facing Rio Chone on the road into Bahia de Caraquez with native plants of the tropical dry forest has begun. The list of bioregional criteria met by doing this is impressive. These hills are continuous with the metropolitan area and thus part of the ecological city vision for Bahia. The particular stretch of land involved is geologically unstable due to high earthquake and mudslide vulnerability which makes it unsuitable for houses. Consequently it is destined for some form of open status which can include restoring native plant and animal habitat in a "wild corridor". While readying the return of indigenous ecosystems, revegetation will also greatly reduce the amount of erosion and mud slides in rainy seasons, especially when the next El Nino inevitably arrives. The effected land lies above the fairly dense parroquia (suburb) of Leonidas Plaza threatening homes and businesses of about 20,000 people, the principal highway into Bahia, and an already dangerously silted-up river. Most of the territory involved is privately owned and will require active engagement with landholding community members who can become participants in the revegetation vision and hopefully carry on more of the work themselves in the future. Mayor Leonardo Viteri signed an aval (statement of support) foreseeing improved public safety, lower public repair costs, economic opportunities from fruits and seeds that can be obtained without cutting down the planted trees, and ecological benefits involving soil, native species, ground water, and aquatic habitat in the river.

For all of its promise this is a much more arduous project than anyone foresaw at the beginning nearly two years ago.

A greenhouse needed to be built at the most distant point from the city on property donated by Universidad Catolica (Catholic University). It is a bamboo frame structure covered with close mesh green netting that supplied seedlings (along with some obtained from outside sources) which were carefully positioned on our first revegetation site of this project, the eroded hillside immediately above the greenhouse. Since then the beds have been reseeded. There are presently a hundred well developed, ready to plant, mixed species of natives left from the first round, and another thousand sprouts are grown sufficiently that volunteers Chris Yeager, Patrick Landewe and Ulrike Drevniok are now gently transferring them from the shallow beds into sleeve-like sacks for further maturation. The greenhouse has been doubled in size so that during the wet months usually starting sometime in December more seeds can be placed in the beds’ cultivated compost, topsoil and clay mixture as seedlings are taken out.

It has been far from an ordinary gardening operation. Field Projects Manager Brian Teinert has to concentrate intensely to sequence the whole process. Native seeds are notably more difficult to obtain and harder to germinate than domestic agricultural hybrids. They aren’t found in stores and aren’t just stuck into the ground. Most require special conditions which can vary from heat and dryness to soaking. Even then they may simply fail to grow and leave us wondering whether our cultivated soil is too rich compared to native clay, too moist, too dry, or a dozen other possibilities.

Within each species seeds germinate over a period of a month or more, probably for greater adaptivity, whereas hybridized domestic seeds usually show within a few days. After some of ours sprouted, were transferred to maturing sacks, and the beds reseeded with another species, a number of the previous seeds seemed to wait for the new ones to come up before finally rising among them. The germination season and duration period also varies for each species. Because it is necessary to time sowing seeds and growing plants during the dry months so that individuals will be ready to put onto revegetation sites in the rainy season, the individualistic and erratic quality of wild species makes success much more chancy than domestic farming which is notoriously fickle in itself.

Little information is available for the range of species and locations encompassed in the dry tropical forest. Some of this work hasn’t been done before, certainly not on the sites we’ve chosen. As in North America and other places, cutting down trees and overgrazing coupled with soil depletion through monocultural farming was carried out as though everything would magically grow back to its original state on its own. With few successful examples and so many unknowns, revegetation with natives is in a constant state of experimentation and starting over. As a particularly disappointing example, even before beginning the greenhouse process some seeds sent to us sat in a bus station for a few days and rotted in equatorial, organism-filled humidity.

After the rainy season comes seven months of drought with temperatures that generally fall between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties Fahrenheit. Vigorous plants that were first put into wet winter earth will soon wither in brick-dry, cracking summer clay if they are not watered regularly. Most are on inclines of up to sixty degrees so water must be carried uphill. Respite from repeating the sweating, grunting work of watering quite as often comes through reusing empty two liter plastic soft drink bottles which are filled and pushed into the ground beside young plants to release a trickle over several days. November is the final drying rack in the biological conditioning process of this unique forest type. The first hillside plants above the greenhouse have to endure another month before the rains come to even begin to prove that this approach to revegetation can succeed.

Walking in stands of trees and brush at this time of year brings solemn admiration of how life can persist. An absence of leaves gives away the forest interior’s intimate secrets. Ominous raw earth slides become starkly visible. Ruined houses and broken animal pens protrude from a universal brown background. All of the litter of the previous year is exposed in brash commercial colors. Birds are almost the sole inspiration for prosperity in the waterless ordeal. Outlined on bare branches like framed paintings, some of them just arrived from the north: green with white and black striped wings, light orange, solid black with electric cobalt blue flashing when they turn toward the sun.

Cuisine note. Eggs being cheap and perpetually available I set out to make a salad but tried to steer it in an Ecuadorian direction. Boiled some small potatoes to accompany the eggs, and sautéed particularly tasty local green peppers with garlic. Combined these with the usual mayonnaise, salt and pepper. After tasting there seemed a fairly wide area left for a foundational flavor of Bahian food. Cumin! Served it up to the whole crew who enthused enough to repeat in the future.



Re-emerging Indigenas

Dispatch #2, November 13, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
by Peter Berg

From a video music blaring shore side restaurant on the Rio Chone, the ancient vision of a dugout canoe with two men standing and throwing circular nets in the distance. It's an accomplished skill for only one person to sit still in these narrow, shallow draft boats without upsetting their knife-edge balance. A large diesel engine ferry powers across the river nearby loosing a bow wave that ominously rolls toward them, and without seeming to notice they continue standing while the canoe rises and sinks back.

Sometimes people pass by on the street in Bahia de Caraquez whose faces seem identical to those on millennias old figurines that can regularly be found lying on the beach. The fishermen would most likely be recognizable as originating from those old cultures which archeologists named Valdivian, Bahian, Caras (possibly the root word for Caraquez), and several others.

Marcelo and Cheo have set up a laptop on the bar at the mysteriously named Gordon Blues club and are translating from a bird book in English to prepare a lesson for high school students. We last saw each other ten months ago so after first asking what "preen" means they abandon the pictures of avian species in stiff poses for a conversational free-for-all. One of the subjects is their cultural identity.

There are numerous tribal groups in the Ecuadorian Andes and Oriente (Amazonia) but it is widely held that only a few isolated native cultures continue to exist on the Pacific shore. An Ecuadorian anthropologist told me that many more are still here but submerged because of the loss of language, ceremonies and other characteristics. He felt that the coast peoples' renowned ability for adaptiveness and trading may have played a part in absorbing Spanish language, religion, dress, and economic system so completely. (Their linguistic skill was allegedly employed by the Spanish conquistadors in dealings with mountain tribes.) On the other hand many common practices such as small-scale fishing, gathering native fruits, building elevated bamboo and thatch houses, and handicrafts production are probably not markedly different than five thousand years ago. These under the surface tribal identities are not officially recognized today as are groups like Otavalos in the mountains. Regardless, the people are still visible enough that the term mestizo when used locally is reserved for those who have definite European as well as native origins, and not them. Is it possible that these coastal people (and those termed mestizo if they choose the native side of their origins) can reclaim their indigenous heritage and status sometime in the future?

"Claro," Marcelo declares with arms wide in agreement. Cheo affirms with rapid nods of his  head and testifies. "You should see my abuella (grandmother) from Jama. She's a total indigena (native)." Jama is also one of the archeological names given to an early Ecuador coast culture. We exchange stories about how various native peoples in North America reclaimed their connection with tribal histories. There are New England groups who were down to only a few survivors that retained none of their tribal culture. There is even the peculiarly reversed case of vanished 17th Century Jamestown, Virginia settlers who seem to have actually intermarried with and become local tribes-people but still bear the same colonist names today.

"Our ancestors were actually older than most of the mountain groups who have indigenous status," declares Marcelo. "What ancient group do you identify with?" Without hesitation he responds, "Right here. Caras." To make it clear that these aren't isolated popular attitudes, a day later a woman I met for the first time answered a question about her family by saying, "We're all from here." "For how long?" "Always." "A thousand years?" "Yes." "Two thousand years?" "Maybe not. No, I can't definitely say that." "You're related to the ancient Bahian people?" "That's what we are, nothing else."

The massively colonized continents of North and South America, Australia, and Africa share the phenomenon of large immigrant populations who often outnumber the original inhabitants. But not everywhere. In most areas of South America it is the reverse if those with at least partial native ancestry are included.

The European national cultures that colonized parts of other continents are based in places that were also inhabited dating back thousands of years ago, but for the majority of their homeland citizens today there isn't a separation between national identity and cultural identity. The exceptions are ethnic cultures such as the Basques who reside in both Spain and France, and people who consider themselves unassimilated members of other national groups. Mixtures of cultures occurred with these ostensibly homogenous nationalities as they do everywhere. For example, Romans made dramatic fusions with other people in all of the areas of Europe where "Romance" languages are spoken today. Those mixed Roman and Gallic origins aren't bothered about in France or elsewhere. Aside from ethnic groups there isn't an equivalent of indigenous tribal status, or those termed mestizo.

Some contemporary South Americans reject mestizo categorization and accept a native identity instead. When asked whether he thought the future direction of Mexican society would be left or right, the celebrated poet Octavio Paz answered, "Indigenous." Leading Mexican spokesperson for bioregionalism Alberto Ruz lived near Mayan ruins in Yucatan as a child while they were excavated by his archeologist father, connecting with that heritage in ways that he continues to celebrate and promote.

As a gringo working in Bahia de Caraquez to help create an ecological city, there is constant awareness that the ultimate outcome of these efforts obviously lies with people who live here. Is being indigenous rather than mestizo part of that?

Jacob Santos is owner of the Bed and Breakfast Inn, a civic leader, and Director of the Museo Banco Central (Central Bank Museum) in Bahia de Caraquez. He is knowledgeable about the remarkable range of artifacts and archeological information housed in the museum and has guided people to the rich Chirje site nearby. Because of his exceptional access to the early history of the region, I wondered what he thought about contemporary connections to it.

"Mestizaja (mixing) of free blacks, natives and Spanish took place on the coast, but when you talk about mestizo, who wins? It's really the Spaniards for the last five hundred years. Their language, religion, way of life. That's why people talk about slavery not being eradicated in Ecuador. Bondage still exists.

Perhaps the local indigenous identity can't be completely revived at this time but people can find roots and a cause. For example, the names of ancient groups are just archeological designations usually taken from the places where artifacts for different cultures were found. We don't know enough about the earlier people to understand them yet. They had good knowledge about pottery, navigation, astronomy, metal handling, water management, and obviously they were good ecologists because they lived in harmony with nature.

That would be a beginning. People should start to identify with local ancestry and culture rather than imported cultures such as Spanish, European or American. There is proof that we have had occupation of the Chone River area for thousands of years. Living in a given area for a long time gives ethnic groups the sense of belonging. On the coast of Ecuador, Guayas [to the south] is very flat but here in [the State of] Manabi we have hillsides all over the place and that gives a different horizon and attitude. Finding true identity is a long-term commitment and has to do with divorcing yourself from external influences such as consumer attitudes and feelings of superiority.

I descend from them. I don't know exactly to what degree but I have features that are found on some figurines.

When things are going well people don't care what they're called because they are content. We are now going through a process of upheaval because people don't have enough personal resources, there aren't enough jobs. We need to find answers so people are asking who we are and who do we want to be."

It's not too far a reach for at least part of the answer to be indigenas.

Footnote. In the time that I've been writing this there have been numerous news stories about emergent indigenous political movements in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Recent toppling of governments and uprisings related to oil production as well as other economic issues led by native groups are seen as indications of the future political direction in the region.



Reiterating the Ecological City

Dispatch # 3, November 15, 2003
Bahia de Carquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

It has been nearly five years since the Ecological City Declaration in Bahia de Caraquez and there have been many developments and changes. These have overwhelmingly been for the better and are too great in number to describe fully in a short space. One major difference is that the mutual exuberant feeling of hopeful optimism that prevailed on February 23, 1999 has been transformed over time into personal absorption with individual projects. Large or small, all the activities aimed toward the ecological city goal have their own unique and detailed features. They continue to grow in separate directions and become more different from each other as they progress. Each one requires financial support which is close to non-existent locally and difficult to obtain from other Ecuadorian or international sources, especially in the case of relief related aid so long after the El Nino mudslides and earthquake of 1998. Most groups are in the same position as Planet Drum with our revegetation project that could be readily expanded several times if funds were available.

Without easy communication and assistance between active groups, the vacancy of support could become a Petri dish for fostering discouragement, complaint or disillusionment. While traveling from San Francisco to Bahia to work and plan for the upcoming year, I made some notes about my own doubts and feelings of estrangement from other eco-ciudad groups in Bahia. What is the real state of the eco-ciudad? What needs to still be done and how? What can be gained? For the latter there is an inspiring list of possibilities: ecological, social, economic, individual, physical conditions, educational, consciousness, culture, and public information. Having originally pledged five years of Planet Drum involvement that is coming to an end, I decided to try to get answers during this visit before expending more energy and funds in pursuing further directions than we have already begun.

Jacob Santos helped by offering his restaurant for a meeting and putting the following announcement into well-written Spanish. Some participating groups were consulted beforehand about the contents and I delivered it to a dozen more.



Thursday, November 13, 8 PM
Bed and Breakfast Inn Restaurant


We have a grand occasion to celebrate next year, the fifth anniversary of the Eco-Ciudad Declaration for Bahia de Caraquez in February 1999. All of the groups and individuals who participate in helping to build an ecological city can be proud of what they have done. We need to discuss and plan how to show our satisfaction and pride, and what we hope to do in the future. 

This discussion will be informal and offers the opportunity to state what you are doing, hear news about other projects, and express yourself about eco-ciudad conditions.

There will be free refreshments and time to have person-to-person conversations. Bahia de Caraquez has benefited economically, culturally, educationally, and socially from five years of eco-ciudad work. It can see even better times with our enthusiastic support.

This invitation is going to many organizations, and you can help by informing those you know to come as well.

Please come to show your continued desire to see Bahia become a fully ecological city!

Friends of the Eco-city


Fourteen people showed up representing at least eight organizations including many of the original supporters, a good showing for less than a week’s notice. We sat informally in a circle with Jacob as an unobtrusive facilitator. It was reassuring to hear some people speak out immediately about the need to work together regardless of specific outcomes. On the question of what day the fifth anniversary should be celebrated, the Declaration date on February 23rd or as part of Environment Day in June, there were nearly as many reasons for picking one or the other as speakers. Eventually we settled on the actual commemorative day. As might be expected after frustrating experiences in seeking assistance from a financially strapped city government, there was considerable venting of disappointment from several people. We agreed to bring specific proposals for municipal aid to the next meeting which will be held at the same time and place in a week. Ideas for the celebration will also be discussed then.

The mutualism that initiated the ecological city was partially resurrected in just two hours. It’s obvious that we need to act as a lobbying interest group rather than count on full municipal support, but that isn’t far from the original situation five years ago. The then-mayor infuriatingly put off signing the Declaration until about twenty-four hours before the Ecological City Celebration was to begin.

We now represent an interest group that can include everyone from parents of school children to drivers of three-wheel pedaled taxis who wear T-shirts emblazoned with "Ecologico Triciclo". Civic budget meetings and an election are coming up. Hopefully, pulling city officials and agencies along will also help unify us in where we want to go.



For Indoor Use Only - A Meditation

Dispatch #4, November 20, 2003
Bahia de caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

Of all the differences between living here and in San Francisco there is one that creates a paramount necessity. It is the millimeter close proximity of organisms that use the human body for their own purposes and other natural effects. This slim space eventually becomes a factor in most activities if not a near obsession.

There is a hospital quality about life in highly industrialized countries that isn’t so apparent as when it disappears. Entire populations live almost as they were Bubble People within transparent plastic domes, sealed off from injurious contact with potentially detrimental species or natural elements. Society in these countries takes on the responsibility of exterminating or otherwise warding off influences that might harm or annoy its citizens. If for some reason public measures fail there is a huge inventory of poisons, sprays, traps, electric zappers, high pitched noise producers, filters, humidifiers, air conditioners, and other ways to privately adjust natural environments. Bubble People are usually unaware of the wealth of organisms and spectrum of environmental variations looming beyond the distant guarded perimeter.

Ecuador manifests a strong presence of natural forces even in the cities. The most urban of them, Quito, was heavily dusted by volcanic ash for days two years ago. Other municipalities have more continuous interplay with multiple wild elements. Rural places are awash in them. The contrast between industrial civilization insulation and equatorial exposure is so striking that it lifts several important issues to consciousness. Which way of life is more desirable? Which is more expensive? Which is more costly to the biosphere? Which is more realistic?

The following examples of daily occurrences here aren’t meant as cautionary or negative appraisals. Hopefully they’ll frame some of the most pressing questions that are raised.

Amid the abundance of life on the equator, mosquitoes of several types are so common and unavoidable that they are treated as expected company. Swarms are problematic because thirty or forty bites on the face and neck or even an arm is a distractingly irritating experience. Otherwise everyone seems to tolerate a few itching bumps at all times. One variety’s bite stings fiercely for fifteen minutes and then subsides. Yesterday the downstairs ice cream vendor called them "tigres" (tigers) and claimed they have stripes. Another leaves an irritation that lasts several days and causes uncontrollable scratching. All can become infected.

The act of drawing blood by female mosquitoes to feed its eggs may incidentally impart other life forms that take up residence within the blood stream or tissues. Malaria and dengue fever are the most common, carrying out a full cycle of reproduction over several weeks in feverish prostrate victims. Many people who live here have had one or the other, malaria being easier to contract and the high fever of dengue more serious to endure. Brian’s stay is less than a year so far and he has had both.

Walking barefoot or even in sandals around animal wastes invites niguas to bore undetected into feet, a favorite spot being between toenail and skin.  Niguas lay an egg sack preferably in a hidden place that can grow large and difficult to remove. Brian informed us about them a week ago, explaining that they should be credited with some of the missing toes and fingers of people around town. He became expert at removing niguas from several other people after ridding himself by making a small incision and squeezing. No more than a day later Chris began hopping on one leg examining the bottom of the opposite foot. He pressed both sides of a bump and forced out a round pink egg sack.

The impact of ordinary natural elements such as the sun is also magnified. When I visited San Vicente by river taxi for a celebration commemorating three years of independence as a separate canton (county) from Bahia de Caraquez’s Canton Sucre, it was mildly breezy with a typically overcast November sky. On the main street in San Vicente a grandstand held at least twenty dignitaries including the mayor, his French wife, and the Captain of the Port. They rose when the Ecuadorian flag appeared at the head of every marching group in a long parade that while only head high featured salsa dancing knee-high booted school cheerleaders performing extraordinary routines, stilt walking costumed boys, and solemn processional groups of teachers and artisans. The sun came out at some point and I admired marchers who kept pacing in place when they halted in the growing heat. Keeping a place on the unshaded sidewalk with spectators pushing from all directions held most of my physical attention, until I began to feel a mild floating sensation. Sunstroke comes fast here, so I was compelled to walk back to a boat while I still could. On the way ice-cold perspiration dripped into my eyes and my head began to throb. Lightness was now lifting and tipping me toward the ground. The pier gangway was a tiresome puzzle requiring totally focused thought. After I stumbled on board and sat in the first available place, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we docked fifteen minutes later. At a riverside restaurant I asked for water on the way to a chair, and when seated put a spoon into a mustard jar on the table to test the need for salt. It was as sweet as a banana. The whole round trip was without exertion and lasted only two hours, but heat exhaustion had come as close as the floor. Such an extreme reaction might have just been my own disposition except when Cheo caught up the next day he told of head-throbbing dizziness following the parade that forced him to sit down in the shade.

There are countless similar and more severe incidents. People who live here don’t dwell on them in the same way as foreigners who out-horrify themselves relating painful personal experiences and stories of misadventures. Taking an appropriate level of responsibility for one’s well being is hard-won for most Bubble People and talking about consequences is obviously part of the preparation. Then come decisions about whether to put on sunscreen, use mosquito repellent, brush teeth with bottled water, omit salads, take malaria pills, wear long sleeve shirts, forego sandals for shoes, check yourself for ticks, put on a hat, carry a water bottle ...the list can become very long. Some considerations about taking various precautions are personal susceptibility, whether or not there’s time to get sick (if untreated the typical local gastro-intestinal condition usually consumes three days), and attitudes about living here authentically. Everybody draws a line somewhere.

Here’s a final image to highlight the contrast. Someone who recently arrived decided to go along with Chris and Patrick when Marcelo led a trek to see howler monkeys. It was at least four hours in and back through brush and wooded country that included an unusually humid coastal forest. Good hiking shoes were called for but she only had sandals and some new white tennis-type shoes carried as a last resort. Inevitably the time came when they were needed because of scratches from thorny branches and she noted ironically that there was a warning label: For Indoor Use Only.



Pique y Pasa (Choose What You Like)

Dispatch # 5, November 22, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

When I first heard "pique y pasa" (pronounced pee-kee pah-sah) it was used in a traditional way to describe how to go about buying something when there were different items of all kinds offered. Not a single-minded hunting trip for just one thing or at best a few things where the range of possibilities is finite and it’s a matter of how much you have to spend. This is a more experiential, hypothetical, exploratory, and unpredictable style that might have parallel origins with the wondrously wide-open type of weekend markets that exist in Latin countries. Practically anything can be found there, plumbing supplies to live animals to jewelry to personal services such as haircuts. None of those things may be there next week so pique y pasa while you can.

The phrase is used for many more activities now. When buying things it can also carry the meaning of "spend what you can afford" or "just look around". Extended beyond the market to dating it can connote playing the field. In a restaurant it can refer to reading over and selecting from the menu. (In Guayaquil there is a popular chain of home delivery restaurants named Pique y Pasa.) In fact, at this point the expression has its own life and can be activated to cover nearly any situation.

Here are some short takes on Bahia de Caraquez and developments to retain its ecological balance with the Rio Chone Bioregion. You are invited to pique y pasa.

A little girl of about five years with a totally satisfied grin rides in the middle of the passenger seat in the back of an otherwise empty triciclo pedaled by her father. It is late afternoon so they are probably headed home. She is likely so delighted because she wears the driver’s several sizes too big cap that is kept out of her eyes by two fingers holding the brim. It could be a charming scene as old as the first triciclos here except that the cap reads "Associacion de Tricicleros Bahia Ecologico Fundada el 10 de Agosto del 2002 (Ecological Bahia Association of Three-Wheel Drivers Founded on August 10, 2002).

At a formal ceremony in the Municipal Theater attended by many city agency staff members, barrio leaders, and independent eco-city groups, the city/canton government unveiled its new recycling oriented solid waste collection system. It has been a long passage that began with the Eco-City Declaration nearly five years before and has involved notable evolutionary steps such as separating waste at the main market and then building Fanca Produce to collect market and household organic wastes from a single barrio to manufacture compost. The new program will carry this activity to the entire canton.

The El Alcalde (Mayor) Dr. Leonardo Viteri made a compelling speech linking the sustainable practices existed in his boyhood to Bahia’s present condition of poisoning soil and water with garbage. He explained the limited role of his office and city government and summoned the famous pride of Bahians to carry out what needs to be done on a family and school wide basis so that they can join other recycling cities around the world and become a model for Ecuador. Since the meeting was called for six in the afternoon and he has medical office hours from four onward most days, he was still wearing green top/white bottom scrubs.

The mayor was followed by a comedy routine set around a group of young people who threw trash on the stage and stood silently afterwards in a row to be teased, rebuked and instructed by two street-flashy dressed clowns. When the teenagers left the comics developed jokes involving the audience, panel of presenters, various city barrios, and cultural attitudes in general. One had mannerisms that combined brash little boy with swishiness. They staged a "battle of verses" exchanging funny lines. The high school-looking Queen of Bahia wearing a tiara and wide sash of office was brought on stage to dance and be wooed with poems. Two audience women were brought up so that the comics could show off truly ornate salsa dance steps. It was a model event for how to make recycling interesting in South America.

Planet Drum Foundation was thanked from the stage and asked to continue helping the city. Along with most others there we received a "diploma" in gratitude for our assistance. I sought out Nicola Mears and Dario Proano who originated the market organic waste separation system, and the mayor’s wife Michelle Monceau who helped write the Fanca Produce grant proposal with our recycling expert Amy Jewel, congratulating them for their role in establishing those important steps on the long road to this goal. (The original full-scale proposals can be found in the Recycling and Eco-City Plans from a few years ago featured elsewhere on this site.)

Chris and Patrick have been remarkably versatile and productive volunteers in the few weeks that they’ve labored at jobs as tough as hacking trails and as gentle as transplanting seedlings. Together they hauled compost to the Universidad, watered hillside plantings, built the greenhouse extension, developed paths to water future plants, made screens and plumbing repairs to the apartment, and even tore down an outhouse that was an obstacle on a new trail in the Bosque park. Considering the self-motivated style of these two, I probably left out as many or more tasks as have been mentioned.

For a going away event I suggested renting a river taxi to see Isla Frigatas (Frigate Bird Island), Isla Chorazon (Heart Island), and upstream stretches of Rio Chone. There were thousands of pelicans, frigate birds, sea gulls, cormorants, and other species nesting on a bright green island that is whitened in spots with sheets of droppings. The main island and those nearby represent a sanctuary that epitomizes the abundant natural provision in this bioregion. Wary  birds made a cloud of wings when we got close that seemed as dense as a bee swarm. Upriver we encountered a father and son team silently fishing from a dugout canoe, closely diving pelicans and cormorants, and a new silt island bare of vegetation but entirely covered with hundreds of aquatic birds. Everyone except myself and another person who had to get back next embarked in dugouts for a tour of Isla Corazon’s truly exceptional mangrove restoration site and educational center to see first-hand aspects and exhibits about the invaluable role of mangroves as nurseries for a vast range of river and ocean life.

Last night there was a despedida (farewell party) for them at Gordon Blues where new friends celebrated over beer and cana drinks, shrimp and several types of fish grilled with garlic sauce. They left at sixish this morning for Guayaquil to visit a native seed source at Cerro Blanco Reserva and pay for our next order on their way home. If we had more like Chris and Patrick the time to complete revegetating hillsides would be cut in half.

When Brian and I left the first meeting about how to  celebrate the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Eco-City Declaration, we resolved to develop a wish list of things desired from the municipal government.  Some of them could be useful to all other groups such as participation of the Department of Environment and Tourism in our planning sessions, and some like assistance with revegetating hillsides were specific to our projects. Our thinking was that if all the non-government groups did this and their desires were assembled together as a single document it would be a statement of ecological goals and a kind of platform.

The second meeting (they will hopefully be held every Thursday night from now on) was extremely productive in terms of ideas raised and discussed for the celebration. Some suggestions were a paseo (ride around town) in buses and triciclos to see open houses of active groups, connecting with the mangrove restoration organizations whose International Mangrove Day falls a week later to make a continuous week-long celebration, involvement of school children at every level, talks and panels on subjects such as native birds and alternative energy, and others. Brian read our wish list and encouraged everyone else to write one.

Working class and artisan groups such as Arte Papel women's recycled paper making collective, the president of Eco Bahia Triciclero Association, and residents of Maria Auxilidora have been invited to all the meetings but none have attended. I’m not sure what this means. They may feel intimidated by heads of companies and city agencies who attend, or not feel they have anything to add any ideas. They may not care what develops as long as they have an opportunity to participate in the final event. I went around announcing the next meeting and inviting them again. If they don’t show up the next time Brian will inherit this nagging task. It may be that he eventually has to accompany them to show that we’re in earnest.

Patricio Tamariz is in town for a short time from teaching sustainability in Guayaquil. He and I will go to the Department of Environment and Tourism next Monday morning to seek their involvement in the anniversary celebration meetings and suggest that they show leadership for getting local, national and international media interest and publicity. They’re more apt to listen to Patricio because he has had experience working for the national agency that has the same name.

The term "globalization" referring negatively to economic, political and cultural domination of parts of the planet and its people by other people and technological forces has obvious value and should be retained for many reasons. Where it breaks down is in accepting the rapidly reconstituted quality of personal worlds. I went to Canoa beach on an overcast day that promised few surfers, swimmers or towel loungers. Soon there is a conversation in English with a local girl whose ancestry is Chinese-German. This is remarkable enough, but someone is visiting just now who is Turkish-German, would she like an introduction?  "No, I’m too self-conscious in German."  We talk of other things and say goodbye. (Without knowing it I have acquired the worst sunburn on the back of my legs since childhood even though the sun never came out.) At the Bambu bar run by exceptional Dutchman Joost whose wife is African-Ecuadorian from Esmeraldes I meet the Turkish-German and pass along the fact that there’s an Ecuadorian who is part German. To cover the Chinese part, I recite ¨The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter " by 9th Century Chinese poet Li Bo, translated by American Ezra Pound from an Italian translation by Fenellosa. Although none of this would have been possible a century ago it is becoming common now. Gobalization needs another word to describe how our individual worlds are eclipsing each other.



Wild & “Wild” Encounters

Dispatch #6, November 26, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

There are now six revegetation sites strung like beads on the river-facing eroded hillsides leading into Bahia de Caraquez. One within sight above the vivero (greenhouse) at Universidad Catolica is fully planted and has thus far survived the summer drought. It can serve as a walk-through demonstration of the general process and a specific model of controlling land subsidence on the face of a downhill swale.

Nearby is a gnawed-to-the-ground dairy farm where cows and goats previously devoured some of our experimental plantings. This was a primary source for nearly two-meter high mudflows at Kilometro Ocho that sealed off the road into Bahia for more than six months after the 1998 El Nino rains. Its near-total dusty devastation holds an unusual opportunity to show three different types of land rehabilitation within a single vista: creek head waters protection, streambank stabilization, and ridgetop forest expansion. Most of the land is in pasture that must be retained, so careful choices of species and locations along with strong fencing is absolutely necessary.

Next is the deeply carved interior of El Toro (The Bull) Creek Basin. A description of erosion and mudflows emanating from here, which was the worst along the entire stretch of hillsides, is in an earlier report titled “Revelations in a Cattle Slough”. At question now is the choice of native species between the demands of effective revegetation and the owners’ desires involving a section that is at least two-fifths of the total area.

Two adjoined properties follow heading toward the city near the two hundred and seventy meters high Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) hill with sixty degrees pitched sides. The sixth site is closest to Bahia and dense with houses, the quiet although slide-imperiled Jorge Lomas barrio of Leonidas Plaza.

Pan Azucar’s worst erosion was revealed to Brian and myself during a walking investigation this morning. We had heard that winter rains turned the entrance road at the base of that steep hill into a deep creek, leaving a heavy layer of mud for many meters on both sides. Following a path toward Pan de Azucar, a rivulet emerged with V-shaped gullies entering from both sides. Its banks quickly steepened and became more sharply angled as we passed piles of freshly cut poles and noted water bottles left in crotches of branches for use by loggers during return visits to collect poles after they dried and cut more. A large butterfly with completely orange knifepoint-tipped wings landed on the path and halted us in fascination. A bank more steeply angled than before ended the path and offered a wide creek bed to follow. Now inclines on the sides became more severe and no plant growth older than last year’s flood could be seen for several meters above where we walked. The trees higher than that line dated only from after El Nino five years before. But far above them was what appeared to be relatively untouched dry tropical forest with widely diverse trees on parts of Pan de Azucar that were probably too steep for loggers to climb. We appraised the recent trees for future plantings as mainly Fruitillo and a few scattered Algorrobos. Fruit bats can be counted on to sow Frutillo in their droppings, but we’ll grow more Algorrobos in the greenhouse since they can obviously tolerate steep grades here.

The gouge’s character changed within a short distance to arroyo size with numerous cuts like the one we had just been walking along slicing ten meters into the weak clay soil on both sides. An unknown emerald colored bird teased through branches ahead and disappeared. The arroyo became a broader canyon where there was enough of a clearing through the tree canopy to see raw slides on the hillsides that were unquestionably the true source of such a large quantity of fast water. Most were more than sixty degrees and unplantable. We would have to settle for putting trees at their toes along the bottom of severe drops to slow water flows down. Probably most of the raw soil showing all around us now would erode away eventually, but could be made to do so gradually over years instead of in bursting surges of mud.

The canyon narrowed and stopped where uprooted logs from above had become jammed into a dam. On the other side we saw another watercourse had formed and that our channel was merely diverted around the jam. It could be spread out and slowed in the future however, by piling in more snags from deadfall trees. Turning around in the same spot we saw exposed roots of young Ceibos effectively holding back the banks. It was confirmation of what had only been a theory to grow and plant ceibos some distance back from the cliff-steep bank edges  

The stream bed soon became as shallow as a broad road and finally ended. Broken pieces of logs and branches that were abandoned at the end of their tumultuous fall after a ride downhill in sheets of cascading water lay everywhere. Ready-made material to build mud-stopping dams. As a sign to stop at this point, the furtive bird from mid-journey reappeared. Nothing obstructed our sightline to its bare branch perch and there was a luxurious amount of time to slowly get out binoculars. Raven-sized, still except for a foot-long black tail folded up into a straight line like a fan twitching from side to side. Insect catcher, I thought. The top of its head was bright turquoise and the beak bright yellow. Sharply drawn black lines surrounded the eyes and slashed down the cheeks similar to a Peregrine Falcon. Emerald green body, dull ivory colored stomach.  We were wonder-struck that it wasn’t a parrot. Jumping to a branch below it waited for another exhibitionist minute before leaving us in pursuit of an unquestionably singular and dramatic life. On the walk back we talked with two women and a machete-carrying boy collecting humus from under Algorrobo trees in puffy full bags to use as mulch for flowers around their house on the entrance road that was inundated every year.                                                       


It was already an unusual day but there would be another notable episode in the afternoon, this one having direct repercussions for communities as well as hillsides and ecosystems where we work. The Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas park in Maria Auxiliadora barrio has for most of this year had a tree-poacher responsible for felling and leaving the stripped bark from more than twenty Frutillos. He was seen stealing tools and was easily identified because of blue facial tattoos as someone living with a family at the end of the ridge above the park. Several sets of pried out steps and some painted signs that were previously missing were also assumed to be his work. Most recently, Ulrike was working on the ridge when this suspected one-man crime wave ran toward her shouting “I need a woman!” and pulled at her clothes. She pushed away, ran to where Brian was working, and asked to be accompanied back to our apartment.

Brian’s subsequent formal complaint to the police hadn’t been acted on for a month. Barrio people have had problems with the same person and asked us to intervene on their behalf as well, so today was slated for finally solving the problem of what to do next. With direct confrontation ruled out because of our foreign status, Brian decided to go to the City Attorney to make a copy of the complaint for another try elsewhere and I remembered that the Captain of the Port has an office in the Ecuador National Armada (Navy) building. Similar to Air Force control of airports and air traffic in Ecuador, the Armada maintains jurisdiction over sea and river ships, shipping and ports such as Bahia. This can be extended to certain public works. In fact, the sign at the entrance to the Bosque warning that tree cutting, theft and damage is punishable through fines or jail is signed “Captain of the Port”.  

When we described the dilemma and presented a copy of our complaint, Captain Jimmy Pozo Fierro decided on immediate action. A uniformed sailor went to the house and gave tomorrow morning as a deadline for Crime Wave’s appearance. Regardless of any personal or social considerations, our volunteers can’t be threatened. This appears to be the only effective option that Planet Drum Foundation and the community have to protect the park for both trees and ourselves.