A voice for bioregional sustainability, education and culture

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

Ecuador Dispatches, 2007

Click on map for larger version.

Peter returned to Ecuador in early 2007, and sent the following dispatches. Dispatch #3 includes excepts from Judy Goldhaft's letters.

Index of 2007 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Dispatch #3, September 2007
Dispatch #2, New Accomplishments, Partial and Complete, March 22, 2007
Dispatch #1, On the Way to a Road, March 12, 2007


On the Way to a Road

2007 Dispatch #1 (March 12)
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

Whenever I return to Ecuador the first real taste of the country is the Guayaquil bus terminal (terminal terrestre). Serving the biggest city in the country, it feels like the commercial district of a uniquely busy small town of its own because there are thousands of people and hundreds of seemingly permanent features such as import and export delivery businesses, vendors, peddlers, and tour hawkers along with numerous food stands.

Into this frantic hub come hourly waves of all the varieties of Ecuador’s people to board or exit constantly arriving and departing brightly painted buses. Short, long-braided and hatted indigenous people from the Andes, stilty tall Afro-Ecuadorians from coastal Esmeraldes, tight slacks and short-sleeved shirt wearing urbanites whose faces and bodies carry widely varying reminders of their mixed native and Spanish ancestry. North American, Japanese, Australian, German, and other nationalities of tourists are easily identifiable with backpacks, water bottles, sun burns, and often bewildered expressions. Everyone is alert if not anxious about catching the right bus at the right parking stall. They are all caught up with readjusting clothes and baggage, searching for a rare empty bench and racing to fill one if found, and sweltering in the heat together.

Some immediate stand-outs of remembrance from the previous times I’ve been here are bright reds and yellows in signs and clothing, the huge number of children, many people peeling and eating bananas, oranges, and mangoes, massive loads of baggage including food sacks and boxes of goods that some passengers carry, and the conflicting sounds of different sources of mainly dance music added to the undulating roar of conversations and growling announcements bouncing dissonantly off the walls.

Because it’s the beginning of the weekend, more of the crowd is returning home from jobs in the city, going to visit relatives in the country, or making a recreational getaway. For me it’s a semi-annual visit of a month’s duration to initiate and look over Planet Drum Foundation’s ecological projects in the Pacific coastal city of Bahia de Caraquez.

The bus trip to Bahia takes about six hours careening over and around obstacles in the road, enough of an interval to prepare for the city’s ocean breeze and easy-going, quiet atmosphere (muy tranquilo say all of the residents).. Nine years after the catastrophic mud slides of El Nino combined with a 7.2 Richter earthquake that left as many as five thousand families homeless, the city has largely recuperated. There are recently constructed buildings, new paint, more people, and an immediately palpable upbeat feeling. The market is now packed every morning and especially on Saturday with vendors spilling out onto surrounding sidewalks where three-wheeled pedicabs (triciclos) wait to carry home customers with their goods.

After the usual few days of acclimation to a radiator hot sun and sometimes sticky humidity, it was time to set out on the first new undertaking for this trip. We need to build an access road into the land that has been secured for creating a bioregional institute. Located sixteen kilometers from Bahia near a small village named Pajonal, it is surrounded by farmers and ranchers on all sides. Only three of their places border the main highway and two of those have reasonable possibilities. On this visit I need to see both to decide which is most suitable for a route, and then negotiate terms or land price with the owner of the one chosen. If there’s enough time left after that we have to make arrangements with a brush-clearing, road-building contractor to do the work when I return in late fall during the dry season. It’s worth telling the story of the first of these land visits step-by-step to reveal how things usually proceed in this part of Ecuador.

Prepared for the trip to see potential sites at six in the morning in total blackness without electricity or water because a storm the night before knocked out the power generating station. Put shoes on the wrong feet and only realized it after walking out the door.

Met Clay, our new Field Projects Manager, and caught a bus that was gratefully on time. Arrived at Pajonal to discover that side roads were too muddy after last night’s deluge for even trucks to drive, and the horses we expected weren’t there. We waited the the traditional half-hour that is extended for keeping appointments. They still didn’t come.

Since we didn’t know the specific directions to the ranch we wanted to see as a site for the prospective access road, we walked down the highway asking various neighbors until one pointed it out. The land owner who had agreed to meet us there never showed up after a half-hour’s wait (maybe due to the muddy conditions).

So we slipped through the barbed wire gate and reconnoitered the place looking for a trail that might lead to our land. Found what seemed to be the right direction and made some headway across a creek bank that must be flood-prone judging from its nearly vertical banks, and started up the other side until it became too slippery to hike further. Saw enough to know that this spot needs a bridge and is probably a harder route for road construction than what I remembered about the second choice which I had taken to get the first glimpse of our land two years before.

I decided to try to find the farmer who owned that place. He had originally asked too much money to buy enough land for the road. Until now I had wanted to avoid further discussion until we knew the other options. But seeing him now would be a way to salvage the day and it was only a kilometer away. When we arrived at the house his wife said he wasn’t there but may return from working in the woods in a half-hour.

Clay and I decided to wait in the breezeway under their typical bamboo-sided house raised one floor above the ground on hand-hewn pillars, a sensible design for catching some cool air and avoiding mosquitoes. We were surrounded by three young boys, chickens, dogs, a cat, and a duck. Turned my back for a moment and a puppy grabbed the pieces of bread I had out to make lunch. Luckily there was one piece in reserve allowing Clay and me to share a gourmet-tasting tuna/avocado sandwich.

The farmer Quijije arrived with some family members riding a burro loaded with burlap sacks of just-made charcoal. He had originally guided us when the institute land was under consideration before we bought it. We recognized each other and quickly opened the subject of a prospective road through his place. His price is now only one-third of what he asked before and he wants the brush-clearing task as a separate paid job. I guessed that the passage of a year without response from us had the effect of making him reconsider the price and told him I would think about it after we made a trip together the following week to view the course a roadway might take. Our conversation concluded with the amiability that is appropriate for relations with future neighbors.

Clay and I then walked out to the side of the main paved road to wait for another half-hour (how many of those were there?) before waving down a bus back to town. “That was the real Ecuador,” Clay said about the people and land we had seen and he was right.

Small farms and ranches are much more numerous than big ones in this basically agricultural country and they are usually surrounded by conditions of wildness. It was also the frequently delayed, and face-to-face way business is usually done here. We had failed with most of the planned main objectives but may have ultimately solved the problem anyway. The way local people put it is, “Everything is possible but nothing is secure.”



New Accomplishments, Partial and Complete

2007 Dispatch #2 (March 22)
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

After many delays due to rain and unavailability of people or horses, Clay and I finally made a second trip to the village of Pajonal for the purpose of riding over the most promising road site to the Planet Drum land.

We began to encounter the usual obstacles immediately. At the outset there was only one horse and one burro for the three of us including our helper Lucho. Clay rode the horse and Lucho the burro while I walked behind to Quijije's farmhouse nearby. Luckily we found another available burro there. Maybe as in the previous visit we would be saved by dumb luck.

Almost immediately we were stymied again. Lucho assumed that we were going the long way through Duenas' ranch at the southern end of our 120 hectares instead of straight ahead on the potential road road site at Quijije's. Before riding very far, pre-occupied until then struggling to keep balance on the burro's slender back, I sensed that we were going the wrong way. We back-tracked to find Quijije already gone. His minimally forthcoming wife said we couldn't follow the potential road route because there were half-wild cattle behind new fences there. After pondering our dilemma Lucho ran after Quijije to lead us through the cattle. He was found and the situation seemed saved. But lost again when he said our animals couldn't go through the fenced field even accompanied by him without causing havoc with the bull and cows there.

Confounding as the situation had now become we decided to ride down the main highway to manuever around the problem by way of the Duenas'route after all. This way we could visit the new land, and hopefully ride across it to the hill we shared with Quijije. The potential road site could thus be visited by walking down from the top.

The Duenas route is ordinarily long but crossing over it was made even slower by hungry burros and the horse eating rich new grass brought by the rainy season, and somewhat perilous by recent land slides that left unseen gaps in the overgrown trail. We eventually arrived at his borderline with our property only to find that he had strung new wire with long U-shaped nails. This fence was even more impassable for the transport animals then Quijije's had been!

We left our grass-gorging animals whose main intended use was to ease our way through the land tied to the fence they couldn't pass. We got through only by crouching as low as possible through the tight, newly-strung barbed wire. There was no other course but to walk several kilometers through wet overgrown jungle to a huge field of paja seboya that had grown sufficiently high over our heads so that we could see nothing but the other grass plants directly in front of our feet and the overcast sky above. Lucho then went back alone to the fence where we had entered so that he could take the burros and horse back to our orignal starting point. Clay and I proceeded with Quijije to practically swim breast stroke style through the grass.

Guided only by a faultless memory, Quijije found a trail we could use to the ridge that separated our land from his. The climb up was amazingly long and steep even though it was at a forty-five degree angle across the face of the hillside (straight up would have been extremely strenuous on a normal day but it had rained just before so the slippery footing now was nearly impossible). Along the slow, puffing way there were low-hanging pouches of birds nests that could be held to examine closely, a vestigal lime tree in full fruit, dingy orange shelf mushrooms growing on a log with an underside containing pure orange spores that could make a bright face paint, and wide views of our still-freshly perceived land with the hills beyond. These were beautiful respites from the extreme combined workout and sauna we were experiencing lifting each leg up the seemingly endless trail. With me panting and sweating so much that my shirt, pants and even shoes were soaked, we stood awhile to make tuna sandwiches and guzzle water, then resumed the climb. But soon stopped to catch our wind. Then climbed some more and stopped again. And stopped several times more before breathlessly reaching the ridgetop.

The descent on the other side revealed a remarkably gentle incline that had obviously held a full-size road in the past. "Starting when everything big on your land was logged 40 years ago," said Quijije. There will be some problems agreeing with him about the width for the new road and some spots that would still present erosion problems regardess of the width, but it is by far the most suitable approach. We'll return tomorrow to  negotiate the next phase of obtaining this piece for much-needed access rights before anything can be done on the Planet Drum land that is completely surrounded by ranches and farms.

There have been two public preoccupations for me to resolve. One was to hold a dinner party for Amigos de la Eco-ciudad to revive ties of a mutually shared vision and share a memorable good time. It took place last night with the desired results and more since 25 people met some fellow activists they didn't already know with great benefit to all of their future efforts.

With Jairo of Bahia Bed & Breakfast Inn as chef with a complement of assistants to cook and serve, endless Margaritas insuring that guests would be uninhibited and talkative, and Nicolas' perfect guitar accompanied by bongos covering Buena Vista Social Club's songs and contemporary classics like Guantanamera.  The main dish was that-day fresh corvina, a choice local fish, with a truly inspired shrimp sauce no one had tasted before, and there were two salads for the vegetarians inevitably found among eco-amigos. we ate like gourmands and regaled each other with news and stories from eight until midnight. Margaritas were obviously a good choice since the thirsty diners consumed 150 limes. A personal standout was meeting and talking politics with newly-elected Bolivarian-styled President Correa's district organizer who is the husband of a local Green candidate for City Council. He is Italian-Ecuadorian and a somewhat ecological shrimp farmer ("no mangroves were destroyed making my pond") whose immigrant grandfather opened the first ice plant in Bahia's sweltering Manabi Province.

The other event is a presentation Clay and I will make next Wednesday that is explained in the following letter to obtain permission for a meeting space.

March 22, 2007

Lcda. Maria Soledad Vela Ch.
Gestión Cultural

Dear Maria Soledad,

As Director of Planet Drum Foundation, I request the use of the library discussion space of the Museo de Banco Nacional in Bahía de Caráquez for a public presentation from 8 to 11 PM on the evening of March 28, 2007.

The informal civic organization Amigos de la Eco-ciudad is beginning a series of monthly presentations on issues of urban ecology and sustainability. The first of these will be about Planet Drum’s activities to assist Bahía de Caráquez to become an ecological city. The presentation will be by Clay Plager-Unger and myself and will include a photographic slide show.

I request that there be no fee for using the space because these presentations will all be free and open to the general public, and provide information that is for the benefit of the whole community. In addition, Planet Drum is a non-profit educational organization.

Future presentations will be by other groups involved with building the eco-ciudad in areas that include renewable energy, recycling, restoration of habitats for native plants and animals, and so forth.

Thank you for your consideration.

Peter Berg, Director
Planet Drum Foundation
915 Montufar
Bahia de Caraquez

Assured of the space since this morning, Clay wrote an announcement and together we visited two radio stations and a local newspaper to make announcements. This afternoon the weekly newspaper will interview us. It's amazing how cooperative the media is in this small city. Like everything else here the offices involved were only blocks from each oher, and in making the short walk between them we met and invited half a dozen people. Bahia is about the size recommended by city planners in North American and other industrialized countries, and it reflects all of the dreamed-of convivial aspects that good planners seek. But rather than suffering through a torturous and often badly calculated planning process that would be needed in those foreign misdeveloped places, this city's human scale features and charm came about in an irreproducable organic way!



Dispatch #3
September SF PDF Staff Visit - 2007


The following is a report excerpted from letters by Judy Goldhaft that may be the closest we get to the usual Dispatch before leaving early Wednesday morning.

 P & J

Subject: News from Ecuador 9/12/07

Yesterday Ecuador's President Correa  came down to do a presentation of some federal funding and a ribbon -cutting ceremony for a new bridge that will cross the bay here. We had received several suggestions about when the ceremony would be ranging from 3:30 in the afternoon (officially) to 6PM. The invitation that was sent to Peter said to come at 3:30. We decided to leave our apartment at 3:15, silly us. It took about 15 minutes to get to the staging area. When we arrived they were still setting up the lighting for the event. But we met with friends and chatted and got seats in the large field in front of the stage. The school bands arrived and set up and the military band arrived and played a little too.

There were lots of kids from various local schools. We chatted and waited and more and more people arrived. Drum and bugle corps arrived and played in the field with baton twirling girls. We waited and waited. It got to be 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock. We decided that the people who said it would begin at 6PM were right. Then some of the school kids left. We were lucky to have chairs, I can tell you!  We nodded a little and waited some more. Occasionally people would look in some direction saying, "Isn't that a helicopter arriving?"  The seats up front for the "dignitaries" were full, all the seats were full, many people were behind the seats milling around. The crowd was getting tired. The sun went down. Finally they showed a film about the army corps of engineers (who will be building the bridge) and how wonderful they were and what great projects they had done. Still we waited. At about 7:30 the military band began to play, fireworks went off, and the president arrived.

There were speeches from the local mayors, thank-you's to many people, documents were signed, and the president made a speech. Periodically fireworks went off overhead that were lovely. They cut the ribbon and then we left. It was hard to leave because the entry point was being guarded by the military. They seemed to help out, but funneling a large group of people through the entry included a lot of pushing and squishing. Some of our group stayed for the fiesta that continued after the ceremonies. They said that the mayor of Bahia sang several songs and that the president also sang one with him that was about Che Guevara.

This afternoon we will meet with the mayor of Bahia. We have met with many people who have ideas about works we can do here. 

P.S. Just in. Today's gossip is that the Mayor got in a fist fight after the ceremony last night with someone who wants a city job presently held by his brother. We think that this is somehow fall-out from the bridge project.


9/22 /07

Yesterday morning Peter gave a talk to school kids in the Municipal Theater with a slide show that had photos of Bahia. After the talk we gave out graduation certificates to the kids who had finished a three-month twice-a-week after-school bioregional education program that Planet Drum arranged. It was with a local teacher and the certificates were signed by Peter, Ramon (the teacher), Clay (the manager of the Bahia Planet Drum Project) and the mayor. We were afraid the mayor was never going to sign them because he has been out of town most of the week. But yesterday morning he returned just in time.

It takes a long time to accomplish anything in Bahia. This is both good and bad. It's bad because you have to keep worrying that it won't ever get done and stays on one's "to-do list" for what seems to be forever. On the other hand since you have a lot of waiting around time, you can just relax and enjoy the warm weather, go to the beach, etc.

For example, Peter has been trying to obtain access for a road onto the land that he bought two years ago to be for a Planet Drum Institute. When we arrived he began meeting with the adjacent landowner again (a continuation of unsucessful meetings from the last time Peter was here in February). Finally earlier this week a lawyer began writing up a Right of Way agreement, and now all that has to happen is for the landowner and Peter to meet with the lawyer and a notary and sign the papers. It was supposed to happen this morning, but has been postponed until Monday morning at 9AM!  Will it happen before we leave at 7AM Wednesday morning????? I'll let you know. { Ed. Note: The landowner failed to agree to terms...again!}

In the meantime Peter and I are going to spend the weekend visiting a colleague's farm about an hour north of Bahia on Saturday and then another friend's land where there is a natural area with many native plants and also wild howler monkeys on Sunday. So we will forget about land business until Monday morning. This is an unusual opportunity to visit parts of Ecuador that are outside of Bahia which is fairly rare for us.