A voice for bioregional sustainability, education and culture

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

Ecuador Dispatches Jan/Feb 2000


Click on map for larger version.

On his third visit to Bahia, in January/February 2000, Peter Berg opened Planet Drum's local office and inaugurated the Revegetation Project, to restore the hillsides devastated by the 1998 El Nino mudslides. Peter sent the following dispatches to report on this work.

Index of Jan/Feb 2000 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Rebellion Comes to Bahia a Month Late, But Nonetheless Verdad (14 Feb 2000)

A Natural Hothouse (5 Feb 2000)

Ojala! (30 Jan 2000)

Why Did I Come To Ecuador To Live With A Lumber Mill On Each Side Of My House? (29 Jan 2000)

Growing Into the Dry Tropical Forest (27 Jan 2000)

The Peaceful Roar (21 Jan 2000)

<<<<====>>>>

The Peaceful Roar

By Peter Berg
January 21, 2000

Ecuador is exiting the past in Quito, and it is coming into important aspects of the future in Bahia de Caraquez.

Last night, national television showed the capitol with lights glaring into packed throngs in the street, smiling men and women wearing ponchos and indigenous hats, soldiers with rifles slung from their shoulders walking casually beside student protesters waving Ecuadorean flags. CONAIE, the confederation of indigenous nationalities, spearheaded a drive that took over the national congress and several provincial governments, and aimed to oust the president and his cabinet.

In the streets of Bahia the next morning, people seem absorbed in a typical Saturday as Nicola Mears and I drive in her green van emblazoned with the black, red and yellow face of a guacamayo parrot to the side of a heavily eroded hill that borders the barrio of Astillero. There is no break in the slender strip of houses beside the bay that constitutes most of this city of about 20,000 people, but the base of the hill had to be scraped away up to a height of about ten feet to accommodate them here. As we approach on a road that was as deep as that in flowing mud during El Nino rains two years ago, the hillside becomes more perpendicular until it rises seventy five feet high at an angle of forty five degrees. The face of the slope is gullied to various depths along its length with the severest cut carved five feet deep.

The soil is light orange clay and more prominently visible than the sparse shrubs and small trees on top of it. What is remarkable is that much plant life exists here at all.

Nicola's partner Dario Proana instigated a revegetation effort with barrio residents a few months after the hill face had nearly completely slid away. When that happened, surging mud quickly flattened a low wall of field stones, over-ran the narrow storm drains, and swept away houses on its way to fill in the shore of the bay. Hoping to prevent this from happening so severely again, they both painstakingly assembled some cuttings of muyullo and seedlings of algarrobo, both native dry tropical forest trees. Roots of these species grow fairly deep and can help hold the clay when it absorbs rainwater, becomes super-saturated, and breaks away with the pressure of increased weight. Residents, mostly children, joined them in chopping muyuyo branches and pounding them into the ground, digging holes for foot-high algarrobo seedlings, adding some grass and other plants found nearby, and spreading wet sawdust at the bases for mulch.

The replantings aren't difficult to spot among the few trees that remained after the slide. They are uniformly about three feet high and bright green. Spaces between each of them are uneven and it isn't possible at this time to determine whether this is a pattern that developed haphazardly at inception or if it reflects the success of particular plants. No records were kept. Enough of them thrived to give the impression that after one or two more normal rainy seasons, this small section of the hillside will have a fairly dense cover of plants and a better chance to withstand the next El Nino. And it can provide a foundational habitat for restoring whole indigenous ecosystems.

Bahia de Caraquez is far from the urban centers where dramatic political changes are taking place right now. It doesn't have a significant population of indigenous tribal people, but the symptoms of discord are as evident here as anywhere else. The currency has been devalued by fifty per cent twice in six months, and most wages are frozen at pre-devaluation levels. People have become economically desperate. "Dolarization" that was proposed by the now-hated president would probably have the misery compounding effect of raising prices. The government has also virtually ignored all of the social complaints that exist here: impoverishment, homelessness, disease, lack of adequate educational opportunities, and unreliable or non-existent infrastructure elements such as pure drinking water, sewage facilities, electricity, and roads. In addition, governmental corruption is rampant and unrepentantly visible.

The people of Ecuador rose up because of all of these burdens, and they also recognized the necessity to oppose globalization in the form of the previous government's assent to becoming a guinea pig for mercenary International Monetary Fund loan repayment demands. It will take time to see how well their best interests are served by whatever changes take place.

It will also take several years to prove out the fledgling reforestation effort at Astillero, and a new planting project of indigenous species to match the previous wild mix that Planet Drum Foundation in partnership with Eco-Bahia Learning Center for the Environment is beginning next month in the mudslide devastated barrio of Maria Auxiliadora where over a dozen people were killed. Like farmers have done for millennia, we are waiting hopefully at present for the rainy season to begin.

A bloodless rebellion led by native people and the restoration of wild habitat with native trees. The present and future is coming out of Ecuador as a peaceful roar.

<<<<====>>>>

Growing Into the Dry Tropical Forest

By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador — January 27, 2000)

The rainy season seems to have begun in earnest. A light sprinkle two days ago may have been the actual starting point, and last night's downpour that continues into the morning appears to remove any question about an end to the annual coastal drought. The revegetation of Maria Auxiliadora barrio can get underway soon now that the soil is damp and there's a promise of continuous rain to water seedlings.

Marcelo Luque, a devoted native botany specialist in his late twenties who is from a long-time local family, joined me in a walk to view the ridgetop of Alta Bahia where the central slide began above the barrio. The clay soil that knuckled up from the sea floor to form the coast hills here is different from what derived from a similar meeting of Pacific and North American, rather than South American, tectonic plates in northern California.

It covered our shoes with an orange-white dust, and was mostly visible as small pebbles on the ground. Instead of having a lumpy, slick and damp consistency, a sample from six inches into the bank of a slide was the same as on the surface: completely dry and rough-textured. When rain saturates this material, it swells to a greater size and becomes much heavier with water than Shasta Bioregion clay. Consequently, mudslides often begin along the ridgelines, shearing loose and leaving bare subsurfaces for a distance ranging from a few feet to practically an entire hillside. That's what Marcelo and I found just below a stand of tamarindo trees that was holding the Alta Bahia hilltop in check. It is a typical steeply angled patch of naked ground that extends down for several yards before ending in a jumble of stripped away soil mounds with light plant cover that continue for a third of a mile through the canyon where many of Maria Auxiliadora's houses were rolled, crushed and buried.

Learning about dry tropical forest species from Marcelo is a high-energy event that fixes attention like a circling bee. His excitement and narrative power (even at my infantile level of Spanish) is completely consuming. Perspiration ran down his cheeks while he sank into a squat before grasses ("Paja brava, Pea-tear!, Paja BRAVA! ...Mira, paja MACHO, PAJA MACHO!!"), jumping up to pull down leaves from tree branches and holding them with fixed eyes an inch from my nose ("Pea-tear, mira. NEEM! No nativa. No INDIGENA, NO NATIVA!!"), or elegantly gesturing to a guayacan tree like a doorman ... a bull fighter ... a samba dancer. We marveled together at a seiba tree that had the appearance of an African baobab with bare branches whose elbows are permanently bent and a tall, bulging trunk that thickens into a pot-belly at the bottom. As though consciously representing this totem species of the dry tropical forest, it stood prominent and alone above the edge of the slide, all of the brightly lit bark glowing with a light green color.

Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia has entered the revegetation project in partnership with Planet Drum Foundation. I made a presentation at a special meeting of its dozen or so member board of directors stating that the $1,000 grant from Cottonwood Foundation was available and that a decision was needed about how to establish a bank account, who would represent the Centro in the project, and how funds would be dispersed.

Eduardo Rodriguez, who teaches at San Vicente Vocational institute and has already assigned students to begin growing seedlings, will actively coordinate the project with Luis Duenas. The funds have been put in a special account in the name of the Centro, and will be dispersed by the president and treasurer. These arrangements are part of a general process to involve community members as widely as possible. In the same vein, Marcelo Luque will serve as a native plant species and ecosystem adviser to the project, and Nicola Mears will consult on planting methods and techniques.

Eduardo took me to see seedlings and visit with some of the staff and students in San Vicente, a jitney boat ride away with twenty other passengers across the Rio Chone from Bahia. Six hundred guayacan and five hundred Fernano Sanchez plants are thriving at various stages of growth in slender tubes of soil wrapped with thin black plastic. A total of six thousand of various species can be provided. A half-dozen enthusiastic mid-teenage male student "chicos" who tend the plants circled around, some push-riding their bicycles, while we visited fields of watermelon, banana, yucca, and other crops that they raise to sell or eat in the institute cafeteria.

Planet Drum's field office that will also serve as a staff apartment has been located in the town of Leonidas Plaza directly bordering Bahia de Caraquez and is part of the same municipal/county government. This is a working class area that also contains the inadequate "temporary housing" at Fanca and the new Mangles 2000 project of permanent houses for over two hundred families. The reason for choosing an admittedly less comfortable and in some ways more inconvenient site than Bahia, which has upscale and vacation visitor features, is that it represents the majority of the population and can be used for their participation in ecological sustainability activities of various kinds. A Centro project for ten or so unemployed women from here to learn how to make and eventually derive income from stationery and other products manufactured from recycled paper was invited to use Planet Drum's main room for a cottage industry space, and has already begun operation there. Later on, there can be meetings of other local organizations including the Club Ecologico from Fanca or another outside group such as Actmang, the Japanese mangrove reforesters. It is conceived as a general staging area to help realize the eco-city vision.

I have been staying at Flor-Maria Duenas' fine Casa Grande guest house in Bahia, buoyed by her caring hospitality and generous assistance with everything including the computer on which this is written. With so many needs provided for, I've been able to pursue the revegetation project and arrange to move into the new space with an ease that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. It has been an invaluable gift considering my usual lack of comprehensible Spanish and "lack of adaptiveness" (a term Patricio Tamariz and I have agreed upon for the sake of politeness) to the pace of getting things done, a condition that is more than compensated by the amazing sympathy and helpfulness that is offered by nearly everyone. Jacob Santos lent a bed and refrigerator from his Bahia Bed and Breakfast Inn and I plan to move into one of the five rooms remaining from the paper-making today, and will begin finding furnishings for another room to be used by Carey Knecht when she arrives in the second week of February to be Planet Drum's project overseer for two months.

A note on the political situation. The national Department of Tourism has subsumed the previous Department of the Environment as the new ... Department of Tourism and the Environment! Its head was the former chief of tourism and accepted the new office acknowledging a leading role for "eco-tourism." Since that term can mean so many different things at this point, I smell heavy commercialization and feel that the drift of emphasis should have been reversed, environment subsuming tourism. Patricio says the main opinion expressed here so far is that the two departments differ too much in their major functions and should have been kept completely separate.

New cuisine item. Stewed wild pechiche "native cherry" fruit for dessert. It has a flavor that contains something of flan, prunes and Asian bark spices.

Fascinating popular song theme. "Yo quiero que a mi/ me entierren como a mis antepasados ..." Roughly, I want to be buried the way my ancestors were, which later is revealed to be in an ancient Andean ceramic jar. It has a simple, solemn melody associated with Bolivian or Peruvian flute music, and what impresses me most is so many people know it. When I showed the words written in my notebook by a local rock musician to a middle-aged woman on the jitney boat, she immediately hummed the melody and then sang with other passengers joining in.

<<<<====>>>>

Why Did I Come To Ecuador To Live With A Lumber Mill On Each Side Of My House?

By Peter Berg
(Leonidas Plaza, January 29, 2000)

This may be completely to the side of everything else that is going on with the eco-city process in Bahia de Caraquez, or it may be part of the core. I'm too personally involved to know. It has to do with the close-to-the-bone experience of occupying Planet Drum's new office/apartment in Leonidas Plaza. 

Although a first and last month's rent was paid along with a security deposit, the landlord balked for the entire month of January about doing any needed maintenance on the place. There hasn't been any water during three weeks while the paper-makers were there. Painting a new apartment before renting it is required by law, but that hadn't been done. Six "broken" window spaces, or I suspect them to actually be unfinished windows because they are all at the rear of the place, weren't covered by screens when I moved in despite a succession of promises. Without suspecting the adventure that lay in store, I left the considerable comfort of Casa Grande and spent the first night. 

When the rainy season begins in Ecuador, a powerful biological message resounds throughout the insect world. It may be a burst of sexual energy, it may relate to their homes being flooded in ground burrows, but crickets (called "grillos") become visible in numbers that are beyond calculation. It was the night after the rains began, and as I went to bed at 10 o'clock, a patter of light thudding spread from the windows that were intact to the walls and floors of my room. Judy and I had brought tent-shaped insect netting with us on the previous trip. The sole time it was used then was on the chance that mosquitoes might come out while we were visiting a backcountry hot spring, but we left it in storage for some future emergency. Feeling like a gringo hypocrite and hypochondriac, I brought it to the new place thinking that mosquitoes might be a special problem because of the open windows. I have seldom been as grateful for such a relatively small item. 

They seemed to be giant flying cockroaches, and the first few gave me the familiar high-tension apprehension that those insects can cause. I grabbed the netting and draped it over the bed. Now hundreds began hitting the windows with flat-sounding bangs that I thought would break the existing glass. Whirring crickets flew into the room and hit the walls and netting. They crawled just above my eyes and mouth. My knees went up automatically to create a kind of ceiling of netting above my body while I waited for the invasion to subside, but it didn't. So many crickets accumulated that they began to weigh down the net above me. I shrugged and punched to dislodge them, which succeeded to a degree but may also have been the reason that a few got underneath and began jumping with rapidly oscillating wings across my face. It was difficult to make the decision to lift the netting and slap away those intruders when the room outside is filling with more crickets. Obviously, a greater number might actually get in. I took the chance in a quick, confused, whirling dance with covering sheet and netting, ignoring as much as I could the crunch of squashed crickets underfoot. I brushed away those that crawled up my legs with frantic downward karate-style chops. Back in bed, I tucked the netting around my body and hoped that the level of cricket numbers wouldn't increase and that no other insects would appear. I was wrong on both accounts. Cricket bodies hitting the walls and floor now put up a constant sound like radio static, and mosquitoes began biting through the netting stretched against my knees that acted as short tent poles. 

Then a condemned person's balmlike feat of memory occurred . I remembered the first time I spent the night alone in the woods. It was in the Florida Everglades with a twenty-two rifle I bought as a twelfth birthday present for myself. A transplanted "Yankee" from New York at the age of six, I had never really learned or appreciated what I was doing or how to do it. My immediate family didn't understand why I was doing this. The rifle was all that I brought along. When I was dropped off in a car at a random spot near a levee where I requested, the world turned quieter than I had ever imagined. It was early afternoon and the passage of time between then and sunset seemed eternal. I shot a small bird simply because it landed close enough to make a good target. It has always been one of those regretful moments remembered in adulthood for its sheer stupidity, but immediate payback followed as well. When night finally fell, mosquitoes began what was surely the easiest and most popular feast they would ever attend. Mosquitoes crawled and bit everywhere on my body. They bit on top of bites. I experienced pain, frustration, loneliness, feelings of stupidity, and a pure aching for the quick passage of time fully for the first time in my life. I don't remember anything of the next morning after a completely sleepless night except that my arms and face were so swollen that it was difficult to move until I was gratefully picked up at an arranged spot. This memory might have become buried before now because ironically I was admired for what I had done and chose to forget how much of an ordeal it had been. 

All of that previous experience was recirculated in my consciousness by the relentless crickets. I went through a fatigued narrative repeating it several times and considered various alternative outcomes and possible morals. If I slept at all this time, it was flat on my back with knees in the air being gnawed by Ecuador's mosquito cousins. I got up at dawn to the neurotic barking of dogs and crowing of roosters and noticed that the crickets weren't flying anymore. Morning light had an increasingly stuporific effect on them. I brushed some off of my clothes and dressed inside the netting. They sleepily prefer dark places in daytime. A dozen fell out of my boots. 

The landlord was just outside the building to my angry good fortune. I ran out with a piece of screen he had left unused on the floor and waved it in his face. Suddenly, I was confident in Spanish. He flinched and arched backward while I bellowed about the windows and "mille (a thousand) cucarachas." (I wouldn't know they were crickets until later.) The insect invasion was obviously well known by everyone in the neighborhood because he apologetically turned to an assistant and described the problem. It would be fixed immediately. But I had heard this before! I left still unable to breathe without puffing, fantasizing about my options for revenge if the windows were still open later. 

A tired day passed, and there were screens after all. In addition, the crickets had been swept up. It wouldn't be the last time, as I hoped during the epiphany of experiencing sealed windows. There was a significant pile after sweeping this morning and again in the afternoon. But it's a condition one can live with now. The boatman Chino, who saved several people swept into the bay during El Nino mudslides by pulling them out hair first, gave me a ride and helped hang the netting properly by string and nails above my bed. There's still no desk, chairs, or dresser, but the hopefully repentant landlord promised to paint in two days. I'm undeservedly euphoric. It's the tropics, and pluses quickly take away minuses. 

Tomorrow we start the revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. Eduardo, Nicola, Marcelo, and I had an enthusiastic meeting about what species and numbers to acquire or grow. Today I went to the main market to buy large used feed bags at about four cents each for hauling sawdust mulch. 

This is what I mean about pluses. The landlord maintains a sawmill on one side of the building where the cricket episode took place, and there's a second mill on the other side. The whine of sawblades is banshee-like for five seconds every few minutes all day long (a working class district is a working class district), but we'll have all of the free acidic mulch we'll need to hold in water and neutralize the alkaline clay somewhat for young seedlings. 

South American surrealistic image of the month from Maria Elena Cedeno, who has first-hand experience operating a shockingly modern quick-stop store at the new gasoline station that is surrounded by pavement:

"If they could cement the sky, they would!"

<<<<====>>>>

Ojala!

("I hope so!" A common Spanish expression obviously derived at the time of the Moorish occupation from Arabic, "As Allah will have it.") 

By Peter Berg
(Leonidas Plaza—Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, January 30, 2000)

The morning of Revegetation Day I began with a round of sweeping up crickets, the mound only slightly smaller than the day before. There's a barrel of rain water on the roof-patio (a typical Ecuadorean amenity even in low-income houses that seems luxurious and is probably only possible because of the tropical climate) that I scooped into a basin and used to wash, shave and brush teeth. The view on one side was of the Bird Islands in the bay, and on the other a perfectly conical mountain which is intact without any sign of slides and is covered with seemingly untouched native vegetation. It deserves a visit to learn what is contained in this particular formation of plants and why the mountain didn't collapse during El Nino like its neighbors. 

Bahia can be reached by bus from here, but shared taxis are the same price or a little more expensive in the morning, so I took one. Patricio was escorting a Guayaquil TV crew and requested that I get filmed at La Cruz, at the foot of the now-slanted cross that stands at the peak of the highest hill adjacent to Bahia. Slides of rain-soaked soil left a precipitous drop right at the base of the cross because the hill top was also fissured by the earthquake. We previously rejected this site for revegetation because its fate is too tenuous. The next earthquake or El Nino will surely carry away half of what remains. 

The narrator asked me what sparked the eco-city idea and I related the need to reconstruct the city and how making it more ecologically sustainable became the theme. "It's the first bioregional eco-city," I added and pointed at sites that featured continuing restoration of ecosystems such as mangroves in the river and our project using only indigenous plants on land. "How long will it take for the eco-city to be realized," he asked. "It isn't like flipping on a light switch," I replied. The Ecology Club(s) of at least one hundred eight to twelve year-olds came to mind as an image. "In five years they will be teenagers with the background and potential for completing the transition. That's when you'll see the true eco-city bloom." 

For what should be the glorious day of initiating the portentous re-wilding of Maria Auxiliadora barrio, things began moving with a haphazard slowness that strummed my nerves. Marcelo wasn't where he said he would be at 2 o'clock to help me load 150 algarrobo plants that Flor-Maria Duenas donated from her accumulation of about one thousand seedlings. Patricio was also supposed to be there with a truck at that time, and wasn't. I telephoned Marcelo's house at 2:30 and found out he was just starting lunch. We were losing daylight for planting and the situation concerning volunteers from the barrio was uncertain. Marcelo had originally guessed there would be fifty but now he wasn't sure. I had previously bought sodas and cookies for that number and brought them by triciclo to load into the non-existent truck. Adjusting the amount to bring to the barrio was a concern. 

Then the impasse began to split and blow open like a dam that can't hold back an overfilled reservoir. Flor-Maria decided to take her truck. Marcelo arrived and we loaded it. Flor had other problems such as handling the feeding of the TV crew, so she was somewhat impatient. We drove to Maria Auxilidora not knowing what reception was waiting. There were a few friends of Marcelo's and Luis Duenas, a partner of Eduardo Rodriguez in Eco-bahia Centro's reforestation committee. But it turned out that Marcelo had spent the morning chopping close to five hundred hobo and muyullo lengths to stick into the ground as plantings. Flor continued to be preoccupied so we unloaded quickly. 

I walked first with Macelo's friend David and then with Luis to look at the area. Some barrio residents had chopped out a small patch of low growth, probably to plant corn. Luis and I revisited the site where Marcelo and I had seen a steeply pitched break from a ridgetop on our first visit and decided that this would be the starting point. A triceclo appeared to haul seedlings and cuttings up to that point and then some men from the barrio appeared to help. Flor had spread word that wages would be paid and we eventually had twenty or so helpers. She also joined us, in a better mood, leading about ten small children. 

The work that David and his girlfriend had begun now became a serious project with Marcelo and Luis working in different areas, planting trees at a distance of 3-4 meters as I suggested from observing how guayacan grew in a grove at the Vocational Institute. Marcelo directed a mixed pattern of planting for hobo, muyullo and algarobbo, while Luis ingeniously guided their placement along "contoursos" which I took to be topographic-like lines on the hillside to create the effect of terracing when the trees were larger, but without mechanically disturbing the soil which we all agree goes against our best bioregional interests.

Workers jimmied posthole diggers into the ground of hillsides that were angled at forty-five degrees. In the three hours we had remaining before sunset, they set two hundred hobo sticks in the soil, some in front of twisted and broken house walls. One hundred and fifty muyullos were planted in alternating spots, and one hundred and fifty algarrobos were placed between those two. The finished day's job covered five to six acres. I asked the group whether the barrio would respect our work and leave the revegetation area intact, and they stated that they would do so and continue to work on more with us. 

While we were hard at planting, Flo-Maria had begun organizing a new Ecology Club that grew to about thirty children. We served them sodas and cookies as well as the workers. She continued teaching, perched on a sack of sawdust facing them in a row, when we came back from the replanted area. I realized at that time that her tiredness and impatience had been completely reversed. At some point she had decided to stay for their benefit and it totally revived her. 

The project has begun more successfully than I could have imagined. We pick it up again two days later. Will we actually create a complete covering of indigenous plants that can hold the soil and provide habitat for native ecosystems in a wild corridor around the barrio? Ojala!

<<<<====>>>>

A Natural Hothouse

By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador — February 5, 2000)

There isn't a way for me to know from experience how it would feel to have been born somewhere near the equator and later move to the northern temperate zone. But it is powerfully clear how the equator feels to someone who comes from nearly half-way to the north pole. Especially after working outdoors at comparatively heavy labor to plant paja macho grass and muyullo tree stakes for Planet Drum Foundation's revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. 

The sun is directly overhead much of the time here in a way that is only typical of summer in the northern temperate area. On a cloudless day, it emits penetrating heat that is reminiscent of being too close to a steam radiator in a New York apartment building. In the shade, whatever air movement that happens to exist contrarily blows occasional puffs of heat across the face and arms. In open places, the sun imprints a burning spot on any part of the body it touches. The top of the head when hatless is perhaps the most susceptible because heat rolls off of it downward like a hot shower. Your knees can buckle when standing up fast. I'm sitting indoors writing this while looking out at glaring white light on the sidewalk. Some men walking by have their shirts rolled upward to mid-chest. It's only 9:30 AM and sweat is running freely from my neck. 

Plants grow with a lushness, speed, profusion, and diversity that is unfamiliar in most other places. These are greenhouse conditions. The high-wattage light bulb of the sun rises in practically the same spot every day. It also sets regularly in the same place. Every day is the same length, and so is every night. It's hot enough during both periods to perspire without moving.

This is the four-five months rainy season when downpours, cool only in contrast, are followed by heat that bakes water out of the soil and into the air as though wet dough in an oven was becoming bread. The effective humidity during this process is palpable like a sponge damp with hot water pressed against the body. Walking feels almost like rowing against the hot, soggy air.

The effects of this climate on humans and plants came together as an illuminating tandem during a replanting session three days ago. We worked on the face of a seventy-five degree slope, nearly lying on the ground. Paja macho clumps had been carefully chopped out of a large native stand nearby. They were then divided into single stalks with some roots attached by twisting the clump, not an easy task with this grass whose name implies rugged toughness. We took a handful of paja macho and a muyullo stake and walked to where the trail came close to the slope, and then edged with spider-like carefulness onto the bare, soft clay slope. A plunge of the stake made a perfect-size hole for placing grass at half-foot distances in a line across the face of the slope. 

"When you're done, you plant the stake! Can you imagine any better way," said Nicola, working just above me planting two rows at a time, the distance between her fully stretched-out thigh and the ground forming fifteen degrees of clear space when she reached above her head to place grass in the upper row. 

"Using native plants. That came from the same locale where we're replanting. With the sun out after the first rains. In damp soil that would erode otherwise. With a crew from the barrio. This is it! Marcelo, oro puro (pure gold)!" I yelled down the line to where Marcelo and some others were placing muyullo stakes (that had already begun sprouting small green leaves) in yard-long spaces along the lines of grass. When we finished, there were hundreds of stalks and stakes dotting the naked slope. Below this spot on more level ground there were stakes of hobo and seedlings of algarrobo trees to encompass about a hectare (two and a half acres). 

We had spent three hours in the late afternoon sun, and as I walked back to our starting point my whole body sagged. It was an act of will to walk erect or in a straight line. I smiled stupidly, euphoric and exhausted in the same moment. Heat was draining energy away through the soles of my feet, and it was replaced with a revelation of the links between plants and soil, climate and sweat, barrio and wildness, and the separate but united identity of the workers. Even though I slumped to sit on the ground in the shade, shirt completely soaked with sweat and feeling waves of dizzying internal tightness, all of the problems to get to this point were negligible compared to the time-scale and meaning of what we had just done. Human faults and errors, personality conflicts, cultural gulfs, even overwhelming social problems, were on a different level compared to the vastly embracing reality of plants. 

Grass grows fastest. For two or three years it will cover the slope so that more rain rolls off and less of it saturates the soil. Trees will grow taller, much faster than in less tropical places, and eventually shade out most of the grass, but by then the native tree roots will start to tightly grip the soil. When heavy rains come again, and this may be sooner and even greater than previously because of global weather changes, drops of water will diffuse more evenly when they strike millions of tree leaves. The remaining grass and several species of shrubs that we'll plant later when the seedlings are tall enough will cause much of the rain to run off. Even if an excess of water enters and the soil saturates more than normally, a deep continuous web of tree roots will help hold it back from sliding much more than a retaining wall could. 

The most magical aspect of the process of natural succession from grasses to a thick grove of trees and bushes is the shifting habitat that will be made for a chain of indigenous species. From rodents to possibly mascota, the large spotted cat of the dry tropical forest. Accompanied by various birds and butterflies at different phases along the way. 

Yesterday we started another section that we're calling Station II. It adjoins the first part and has even more wreckage of houses that slid. There's a cement staircase running from top to bottom of the slide area that has been shifted, lifted and broken in at least five places. We'll leave it, Marcelo says, "As a sacred memorial to those who were killed." I have the spooky feeling of being at the birth of a ruin that will puzzle future archeologists. 

Station II is at the edge of an even steeper slope that is the boundary of an "invasion" (squatter) green banana garden plot. While Marcelo and I twisted apart blades of paja macho, a shy girl of the squatter shack came out and pretended to play with a hammer while she watched us. Marcelo left to meet up with a group of thirty uniformed students from Eloy Alfaro high school who we could see walking up the road on the opposite side of the barrio canyon to meet us. I asked the girl's name and learned that she was Monica and thirteen years old, the average age of the students. Poverty thin and shoeless, a life-shaping chasm existed between her and them. I brought a bag of grass clumps to where she was sitting on a half-burned log and showed her how to twist off one blade with some roots attached. She was immediately proficient at it. I asked if she had been one of the children in Flor-Maria's new Ecology Club and she nodded with a quiet, "Si." While we worked she asked if the students were coming to this place by her shack. They were her only spontaneously spoken words. I told her that they were and asked if she would join us. She stared ahead silently. We finished the bag of clumps and waited without talking. 

Eduardo led his class carrying stakes and more grass clumps. They quickly over-ran the small station, standing perilously in a line along the edge of the steep slope. "Cuidado (careful)," I told them, imagining a dozen boys in khaki pants and white shirts with ties tumbling down together with girls in sailor shirts and dark blue skirts. Marcelo stood below the slide area and looked upward instructing them with playful gestures and jokes about planting grass and muyullo. Then they formed an amazing bucket brigade to pass plants along an angled line of fifty feet from the top to the bottom of the slide face, leaving piles at various points. When they began putting plants into the soil, another eighteen students of the same age but in different uniforms from Miguel Malverde school at the bottom of the barrio filed through the wreckage from across the canyon to join us. At least two hundred and fifty paja macho blades and probably an equal number of muyullo stakes were planted in less than an hour. We have a total of five to six acres of our wild corridor planted at this time. 

I looked for Monica but couldn't find her during the instruction period. Then I called into her shack when the students began planting. She eventually came to the door and listened to my entreaties to work with us impassively. She answered by shutting the door. But later she reappeared at the edge of the group. I don't want to project my own suppositions, but if it had been me at that hugely self-conscious age, I would have felt like an outcast in spite of any adult's urging, much less a gringo who spoke Spanish as though it was coming out of a shredder. She vanished again after a short period. Maybe we'll see her when we come back to finish there and move on to establish Station III tomorrow. Getting Monica involved more deeply would be a bonus from our work whose value to her can only be guessed.

<<<<====>>>>

Rebellion Comes to Bahia a Month Late, But Nonetheless Verdad

By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, February 14, 2000)

The political demonstrations a month ago as part of a peaceful roar which caused the president's resignation in what eventually only amounted to a palace revolution in Quito finally erupted in Bahia de Caraquez. Whether ironically or with perfect poetic timing, it was on St Valentine's Day. 

With Flor-Maria at the wheel and Patricio as company, we drove out of town in the early morning of my last day of this visit to catch a plane in Manta for Guayaquil. Carey Knecht had arrived about a week before to take over at least until the end of March in order to complete the last two-thirds of Planet Drum Foundation's revegetation project. A meeting with Marcelo and "Cheo" (school teacher Eduardo's tag) a few days before had produced a realistic schedule that made everything "transparent." Even though we've only known each other for little more than a month, I felt relaxed about Carey's ability to deal with the considerable problems our work entails, which extend from constant mundane precautions to ward off gastro-intestinal disorders to hiring and overseeing workers, organizing logistics for obtaining and transporting seedlings, and the daily round-trip through mud soup when it rains from our apartment/office to the planting site. She is meticulous about improving Spanish fluency and that had already smoothed out our work together during the previous week. 

We didn't know why soldiers of the National Police stopped the car at a temporary bridge that remained from the mud slides more than a year ago. An overturned tank with burn marks lay in the road just beyond the bridge, and thick smoke was rising ahead beyond a curve. Flor convinced the officer in charge to allow us to continue over his warnings and we cautiously progressed to where burning tires and tree branches created a blockade across both sides of the road. "Careful, Mom," Patricio said in English so that I could also be warned. "We don't know the mood yet." We watched seventy-five or so people at the junction of the dirt road from Fanca holding back traffic in both directions and cheering "Paro, paro, paro (Strike, strike, strike)!" When we got out to begin moving slowly toward the crowd, the smell of burning rubber and an ominous high-pitched, gravelly-metallic sound greeted us. Patricio whispered, "Do you hear that? It's machetes scraped along the road as a warning." Faces in the crowd quickly became familiar as people Flor knew from numerous trips to aid the destitute Fanca barrio. There were a few intense leaders, a high proportion of young men with machetes, some women and children onlookers and a few drunks. The fires had an out-sized heating effect as the day progressed because of the normally high temperature, causing everyone to perspire heavily. We had arrived just after the blockade had been built and other cars began lining up in both directions on either side of the burning line. 

With a bare grasp of Spanish, I was thrown into a negligible role for what followed. Patricio handed me a camera, "Take a picture of Mom with those barrio leaders." Flor listened intently in the center of a ring of onlookers four or five deep while some men explained the situation. She called to Patricio who pulled out a cell phone and began what seemed to be a negotiative dialogue with city officials back in their downtown offices. 

At first there was some tension about my taking photos but it seemed to vaporize along with the columns of smoke rising from the barricade. Drifting away from the circle, I could see how the blockade dynamics were being played out. An informal group of less than ten men with machetes and some older women had stationed themselves by a sidewalk backed with a wall on the side of the road for incoming traffic. They called out and whistled at anyone who tried to drive through. When some passengers in stalled cars tried to walk through carrying sacks of rice and other goods, the guard group approached shaking machetes and shouting, "Paro, paro!" The blockade had been deliberately made at the closest point in the main road for Fanca residents to come out and join, and as time passed a steady line of them kept arriving. Soldiers were kept at least a hundred feet back from the blockade on the outgoing side. Their officers and local police slowly joined the discussion circle without incident.

At this point, the whole event could be seen as more playful and less potentially violent. Most of the participants had never done something like it before. 

It was a piece of history but it was also a melodrama in which the actors were without a scripted conclusion. The air of anticipation had shifted from preparing for an attack to holding out until some favorable terms were reached. The difference in tone became clear when different people asked to have their photo taken and afterward said, "Gracias." I emptied Patricio's camera and began using what would eventually number three of the recyclable cameras in my pack. I was approached by Angel, one of the workers that had been hired for our project who told me in a perfectly routine way that he was only going to stay for another hour and then go to work at the site in Maria Auxiliadora. He brought over some other Fanca demonstrators and asked if they could work too. I explained that we didn't have enough money to hire more of what Patricio called "revegetadores" until I could raise additional grant funds or donations and that I was headed to the airport for that purpose. It was the most unexpected discussion with protestors who continued throwing more tires on the fire that I could have imagined. One of them had a broken tree limb held under one arm by two stubs like a machine gun that he pointed at the soldiers with comic opera delight. 

Patricio explained that there were several pressing complaints. One was the mired condition of Fanca's roads since the rains began. Another was overflow from a large municipal sewage pond adjacent to the barrio that was held to be responsible for many of around six hundred cases of malaria in Bahia during the month of January. As we talked, a man approached Flor and began describing the horrendous situation of a sick woman related to someone for whom he was the godfather who dwelled in a shack that was flooded with rain water runoff from a garbage heap. Under normal conditions, Fanca is hellish. More than a year of continuous neglect and the additional problems of the rainy season had just become too much to bear. 

The vice-mayor eventually arrived at the head of a line of debris trucks. After a few minutes of discussing the terms of an agreement, burning logs and tires were poked to the side and trucks speeded up to pass over hot char marks left in the road. Then they turned into the Fanca road, presumably to begin filling in muddy and rutted roads. Popular political action had prevailed. 

It was too late when the road opened to catch the plane. A friend of Patricio's who happened to be in the line of blocked cars offered to take me along on the three-hour drive to Guayaquil. The ride gave me a chance to think about the possibilities for changed conditions that may prevail in Bahia when I return next August. There were riots when I arrived this time and a blockaded road on the way out, but no one was hurt and the peaceful roar got louder and greener.

[Top]