Ecuador Green City Revisited

This is Peter Berg’s report from the first year of Planet Drum Foundation’s involvement with Bahia de Caraquez, an eco-city in Ecuador.

When the people of a small urban area decide to pass a law declaring an “ecological city,” it is an unusual and laudable act of public dedication. If there are already some extensive reforestation projects immediately nearby, and a non-profit estuary protection agency that employs local residents along the river as workers and guides, this city could strive to actually become harmonious with its surrounding natural systems. And if it is located in the “undeveloped world” and thereby offers a working model for the entire planet (including the “developed” world), it presents a glowing vision of sustainability to tempt any fervent reinhabitant, an irresistible opportunity to help create the first truly bioregional Green City.

Planet Drum Foundation (PDF) has begun a long-term partnership with Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, a community devastated in 1998 by El Nino mudslides and a severe earthquake. The city decided to rebuild itself as a “Ciudad Ecologica” and passed a by-law to that effect in February 1999. As PDF’s Director, I was invited to assist and spent a month there organizing community consciousness through strategy meetings, talks, interviews, media appearances, workshops, and planning sessions aimed toward an Eco-Gathering for the Bahia de Caraquez Ecological City Declaration and International Mangrove Day Celebration (described in DISPATCHES FROM ECUADOR, available from Planet Drum Books—change to hyperlink?).

After the inspiring success of those events, it was evident that for any future work in Bahia, PDF needed to define a direction of its own. We decided on developing a proposal to create a consultancy of skilled practitioners who could focus on finding ecological solutions for major problems in the city’s infrastructure. Areas examined by this study include: biological waste treatment facilities, renewable energy power installations, reforestation of the dry tropical vegetation near the city, public transportation alternatives, retrofitting buildings for alternative energy use and water reuse, community-wide recycling, and other beneficial innovations. For each of these the consultant group would research working examples in other places, propose several possibilities, and draw up final plans. The consultancy is envisioned as the first step toward realizing a series of major long-range transformative public works projects.

While we sought funding for the consultant team from sources outside of Ecuador (where no financial support exists on a national or local level because of the current severe economic crisis), we decided to undertake a survey of positive activities that had already been started by Bahians themselves, what support they needed, and how their projects could be tied to large-scale infrastructure improvements. In order to get a first hand view of the situation since the Eco-Gathering, a second visit to Bahia was made the following August, accompanied by Judy Goldhaft, Planet Drum’s Managing Director.

First Days as an Eco-City

There has been considerable improvement in public awareness of the need for sustainability in Bahia and other Canton Sucre communities in the five months since the Declaration. A profound symbol of this is the new municipal government sponsored housing project for hundreds of people made homeless by 1998’s mud slides and earthquake. It is now completely designed, ground has been cleared, and construction will hopefully begin by 2000 on the bayfront in Leonidas Plazas. In keeping with the spirit of the Ecological City Declaration, it is named Los Mangles 2000 (The Mangroves 2000). Planned as a large community of individual small houses, it features some built-in environmentally beneficial aspects such as bicycle paths and mangrove restoration on the bay side. A thorough information campaign will teach new residents about recycling, water conservation, alternative energy, composting and gardening, and mangrove protection so that Los Mangles can progressively become a more ecological neighborhood.

In the temporary housing community of Fanca, a children’s “Club Ecologico” of about two dozen members has planted hundreds of mostly fruit trees in the settlement and on some hillsides. They also recycle trash and clean up the streets. Club members hold regular meetings to learn and exchange information about other aspects of ecology and plan further projects. They publicize their efforts by wearing specially designed club t-shirts.

The new non-profit Eco-Bahia Centro de Educacion Ambiental (Eco-Bahia Environmental Learning Center) has about 100 members who come from a wide range of social sectors including workers, students and homeless, as well as professionals, business people and activists. The current president is also an agriculture teacher at Colegio Tecnico San Vicente. He arranged a presentation by Judy and myself to over fifty students from his classes and a tour of their hands-on demonstration projects including a tree nursery with native species. Activities of the Centro so far include sponsorship and training of an eco crafts learning group which is developing hand-made recycled paper products of various kinds. It also carried out two small-scale mangrove reforestation efforts, one near the plot that Actmang, the Japanese mangrove restoration group, started near Bird Island and another to ameliorate the effects of sewage runoff into the bay from some houses in Leonidas Plazas. Still in its early stage, the Center continues to reach out for new members in an inclusive democratic fashion, and intends to become an organizational “umbrella” for grassroots citizen-generated projects by any of the organizations and individual citizens in Bahia. The municipal government has just given Eco-Bahia Centro land to construct a building near Los Mangles 2000 to serve this purpose.

Nicola Mears and Dario Proano-Leroux have maintained the recycling program officially begun on the day of the Ecological City Declaration at the main marketplace to recycle organic waste and make compost. This remarkably industrious pair also directs Rio Muchacho Organic Farm, runs a business to recycle paper as stationery and other items named Eco-Papel, assists in developing the first certified organic shrimp farm, guides “ethical tours,” and teaches sustainability directed activities. They aim to provide self-reliant working models while educating both locals and visitors. I visited Rio Muchacho and was struck by the vision and strenuous effort that has been employed there. The farm has been completely converted to organic status, growing bananas in circles rather than rows so that they provide their own mulch and compost from dead leaves, using “chicken tractors” whereby moveable poultry cages fertilize and turn over arable land in small sections at a time, and pioneering other techniques of tropical permaculture. The beautiful grade school that they initiated nearby has a strong ecological thrust and is teaching local children how to appreciate and improve their land-based heritage.

Actmang’s mangrove restoration efforts are yielding an encouraging 75% successful growth of plantings. It was a pleasure to boat back out with Taka Tsuji to the spot in the bay where we had worked before and see young trees which have grown at least a foot high in just half a year. Residents who live nearby along the banks of the Rio Chone are now growing mangrove seedlings for Actmang as well as collecting seed pods.

The Coastal Resources Management Program (PMRC) has rebuilt the boardwalk and observation tower on Heart Island, a mangrove information center, and plans to employ up to thirty local inhabitants there. They will be trained as guides who can teach visitors about marine resources and traditional sustenance methods and skills. PMRC works extensively with the estuarine community and will create employment for hundreds more through a dozen new self-help projects related to preserving the environment, agriculture, education, aquaculture, and fisheries. It is an undeniably vital force for reinhabiting the Rio Chone Bioregion.

We were fortunate to meet Alejandro Bodero Quintero while he was visiting Bahia. A forest protection advocate from the city of Esmeraldes, he has visionary plans for new cottage industries and eco-tourism in the Majaqual estuary. I’ll probably make a visit to that area during the next visit to Ecuador which will also be an opportunity to see Actmang’s elaborate mangrove restoration work there.

Emergence of Cotacachi Eco-Canton

Ecuador has a surprising amount of locally generated ecological activity, especially in Cotacachi Canton (County) where there was an inter-city meeting in September 1999 to discuss making an Eco-Canton Declaration. A popularly elected committee will discuss by-laws for six months before reconvening to approve them. Bahians Patricio Tamariz and Jacob Santos went to observe the meeting through an arrangement that I had previously discussed with Mayor Auki Tituana Males to begin a relationship based on mutual interests of the two eco-governments. Auki will pay an exchange visit in November to observe sustainability projects in Bahia de Caraquez.

The canton of Cotacachi is an extremely significant ecological area because of its proximity to the large Cotacachi-Cayapas Biosphere Preserve established by the United Nations. The territory covered by the Eco-Canton Declaration can be considered as part of a potential unified buffer zone to protect the unique biological richness of the preserve. Judy and I traveled through this zone which also includes the famous indigenous market city of Otavalo, the large Intag area of farmland cum wilderness, and the truly remarkable small Reserva Los Cedros administered by the Center for Investigation of Tropical Forests.

Inside a Cloud Forest

Reserva Los Cedros is within the “choco” cloud forest vegetation formation in the western foothills (Pacific side) of the Andes. It is extremely steep country and mules are required for a six hour trek to the reserve over a mountain trail that is “camel backed” with long sections of corrugated ruts a foot or more deep. Starting from Quito, we were guided by Jose Decoux, the Reserva’s founder and manager, in his vintage Land Rover that I christened “Excuseless” after the jolting trip over progressively worse roads to a back country rancheria where we spent the night. The mule-back journey began the next morning by crossing a swaying narrow plank suspension bridge high over the rocky rapids of Rio Magdalena. We next wound through banana plantations with “living fences” of thorny cacti and corn fields that ran nearly to the tops of the surrounding peaked hills. Farms and infrequent houses fell away as we climbed higher to places where the trail measured only a foot wide with the mountain face like a wall on one side that fell away on the other in a sheer drop to the Rio Magdalena — now visible as a thick blue and white cord more than 500 feet below. (The concerned attention I paid at those moments to every step by the mule I rode was laughably over-absorbed compared to the truly keyed-up encounter on the return trip when in a similar place we met another mule train headed in the opposite direction. Our party had to turn around in that incredibly narrow space to retreat and clamber up forty five degree angled gullies while a dozen mules squeezed by.)

A cloud forest is lush beyond anything I’ve seen in the northern temperate zone: green walls, green ceiling, green floor. Because of the steep foothill terrain, my visual perceptions were permanently confused since the view in every direction was nearly always of roots, trunks, branches, and tops of trees appearing at any height and all at the same time. Every part of a tree is completely covered with mosses, air plants, vines, ferns, and other growth so that it feels like the middle of a cloud of leaves. Plants growing on plants growing on plants, and the trail is only discernible where it isn’t overgrown because some of its leaves are brown. Climax “choco” forests date from the Pliocene Era and although they are so dense that glimpsing a distant vista through the trees is rare, most of the ground area away from the trail is clear enough to be traversable (albeit slowly) without chopping a path. Butterflies are encountered constantly, and incredibly, each new one is usually a completely different looking species than the last. One of them is transparent winged except for a small dot of red at one side resembling a speck of dead leaf, making it invisible on most surfaces from only an inch away. Another has thick horizontal blue and black stripes that are as startling as face paint. The chatter of birds such as toucans and parrots is frequent but it usually takes prolonged observation to see them through the vegetation. If they do appear, their sharp color and distinctness of design tends to be sumptuous. The unique Cock of the Rock has a large flaming orange knob on top of its head with a cape of the same color extending part way down its back above an otherwise dark brown body.

Jose begged off providing a name for anything we saw during the week that we explored different trails because “choco” species are so numerous as well as not completely listed. But he asked to hear about anything interesting that we might see because it could possibly be unknown to the Reserva staff. When I returned from a walk and described a thick braided-looking mass about three inches wide, two inches high and a foot long consisting of hundreds of small black larvae that lay alone in the middle of the trail, there were blank stares from Jose and other Los Cedros regulars followed by acknowledgement that another previously unseen “choco” phenomenon had been found. Some of the few studies of biota that have been undertaken in this region reveal the reason for difficulty in knowing it well. There is a greater diversity of species here than in the Galapagos Islands which are celebrated for their uniqueness, and far more of them are endemic. Vascular plants alone number over six thousand species with over one thousand occurring nowhere else on earth. All of the endemic plants and animals are especially threatened by logging, mining, and increased settlement. Since only about one-twentieth of the total forest of western Ecuador remains intact, protection through reserves like Los Cedros and the rest of the potential buffer zone around Cotacachi-Cayapas is urgently essential to save and learn about exceedingly rare forms of life.

Expanding Planet Drum’s Role

We are attempting to raise about $70,000 for the consultancy to determine which projects are the most appropriate for making major municipal infrastructural changes in Bahia de Caraquez. Planet Drum sent a proposal to two dozen major US and international foundations, and we are waiting for responses. In the meantime, consultancy participants are being lined up to meet in the San Francisco Bay Area and later travel to Bahia to carry out site research and make recommendations. Our intention is to generate the most practical suggestions for solutions, create public enthusiasm for them, and help raise more funds to eventually carry them out. The consultancy phase can be completed within the next year if it is funded soon. The actual projects could easily take five to ten years and run to tens of millions of dollars. (In the case of a sewage system, for example, even the present unfunded municipal plans calling for a conventional type of sewage plant that would continue to empty pollutants into the bay is budgeted at $3.1 million.)

During the first visit last January, I became aware of a municipality master plan for reforesting hillsides immediately adjacent to Bahia that had originally been designed by PMRC. The City Planning Department chief stated that it would cost $210,000 and that he had applied for an inter-Andean agency loan (not Ecuadorean funding) and hoped to receive it soon. In August I learned that the needed funds hadn’t been allocated and would not be in the foreseeable future. I offered to try to raise money for incremental work on those sections of the master plan that were scheduled solely for native vegetation and didn’t require new landscaping (these sections are the most bioregionally significant).

The city planner agreed, and both he and Municipio Mayor Cassis wrote letters authorizing PDF to carry out part of the reforestation plan, and the Bahia Rotary Club agreed to sponsor it as well. Since then we have written a $24,750 budget for this project, and are actively seeking full funding support. Cottonwood Foundation has started the project fund off with a grant of $1,000 which is already planned for use in acquiring seedlings and planting them during my next visit in January 2000.

There are plenty of tie-ins for the revegetation project with ongoing local efforts. Determining the proper mix of native dry tropical forest plants and drawing up a working ground plan can be done by groups that have had success with smaller revegetation activities. Seedlings of native trees can be grown at Colegio Tecnico San Vicente. Paid workers can come from barrios near the reforestation sites, and volunteers from various community groups.

With approval for this project already won from so many parties, PDF needs to have a field office in the municipality to oversee future work. I signed an agreement with Eco-Bahia Centro’s acting secretary, Jacob Santos, to find a suitable space in Leonidas Plazas, a predominantly working class district. Our hope is to obtain an office with a small living space, possibly with additional room for temporary use by Eco-Bahia Centro or other groups. Planet Drum staff, interns or volunteers expect to visit Bahia for a few weeks twice a year. When the office is unoccupied by us it can possibly be used by other non-resident organizations such as Actmang.

Although the Ecuador projects involve different places and conditions, this isn’t a total change for Planet Drum. We have always advocated recreating urban environments so that they can become sustainable within the restored natural systems of bioregions. Now we intend to help design and build a practical model that will embody this vision.