3rd World or 3rd Planet?

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-gathering Report #4

Finding enjoyable aspects of Bahia is as easy for a stranger as anywhere I’ve been. All of the most populous areas of the city — market, ferry landing, municipal building and downtown businesses — are within a few blocks of each other. Walking to them is so full of contact with residents and visitors that it can’t be accomplished without numerous stops to converse or pay attention to whatever immediate situation or attraction is happening at the time. Local people are equally unaffected doing necessary business such as shopping or simply lounging against a covered sidewalk post and taking in the scene. There are usually dozens of mostly pedestrians (I’m deliberately underestimating because Carnival just concluded with thousands crowding onto the streets and beaches to distort normal expectations of numbers) mingling all classes, ages, types, and occupations that exist here. Bahians are to a pleasantly great degree casual, convivial, upbeat, and inviting people in a tropical setting that breeds easy-going, energy-conserving activity.

Carnival was less exhibitionistic than usual this year, I was assured, because of the hard-hit region’s economic losses in resources-based and tourist trades. About half or more of the personal vehicles bringing people here from the interior were mud-spattered trucks of all sizes owing to the nearly impassable roads. Nevertheless, there was a wonderful display in town and especially on the Malicon walkway along the bayshore of un-self-conscious people on a beach-going holiday, wearing an unlimited range of different but generally spare-clothed swimming outfits clinging to every imaginable size, shape, color, and condition of human body. If it wasn’t Rio it was as authentic and well-enjoyed a Carnival as anyone might wish. In fact, “authentic” is the descriptive for Bahia in general that arches over all of my impressions here. May it remain that way even after its recovery and transformation into a eco-municipality!

The Chone River is especially wide by the time it reaches Bahia. In this expanse of water remarkably close to town exists what must be one of the densest and most easily accessible populations of birds in the world. “Bird Island” is actually three small stands of mangrove standing alone on a shallow sand bar between two deeper channels of the river. It is easily visible from the hill behind the city and a small motor boat can reach the spot within twenty minutes. Because of this ease of approach, I frankly didn’t expect the remote game preserve, herd-size type of populations that can be seen while anchored only a few feet away. Frigate birds, pelicans, egrets, and herons are some of the 30 species nesting here in such great numbers in the dense bushes that they are literally branch-to-branch and foothold-to-foothold apart from each. Even though clouds of birds flew up when we approached there were still so many when we arrived that more individuals filled my line of vision than I have seen short of a chicken farm. Close up to so many birds you can simultaneously see specific behaviors that would take weeks of peering to observe. Young begging for food, adults disgorging it for them, carrying branches for nests (pelicans were building them just then), females scouting us for protection of their young, bellicose males, bringing in food, flying out for it, fishing, testing territory — all at the same time in the same spot! When I couldn’t control my enthusiasm and spouted out exclamations (with no effect on the birds who had more or less accepted us within a few minutes), I was informed that Chino, the boat operator, had gained vastly more respect for “Bird Island” after hearing so many first-timers cry out this way. He now describes himself as an “ecologista” and subscribes completely to the Eco-Bahia vision. (Chino should also be honored for taking the company boat out into the river during the heaviest mudslides in anticipation of people being carried into it and thereby saving a number of people, grabbing some of them by the hair. He and fellow skippers who reacted similarly managed to keep from losing a single sweptaway’s life.)

I asked to talk to some heads of city departments and was able to meet with them within a few hours. The chief planner is an architect who possesses a personal dream about building an eco-municipality. He developed a full-scale plan for reforesting the collapsed hillface behind the city with native trees and shrubs as a kind of wild garden. It needs $210,000 for completion and he hopes to get that amount from an inter-Andes funding source for implementation within this year. (Buena suerte!) Since most city projects go through him and the mayor for approval, I asked about a variety of ecological approaches for rebuilding infrastructures including power, water, sewage, roads, and transportation. He is open to biological sewage treatment of the New Alchemy Institute type, developing local alternative energy for electric vehicles, household water re-use systems, and kitchen scraps collection. He welcomes visits by consultants in these and other areas. He sent me on to the Department of Public Works chief, a seeming hard-work-in-the-outdoors type and direct-speaker who I imagined wouldn’t ask anyone to do something he couldn’t do himself. Traffic-calming devices and other ideas to reconceive city streets didn’t seem necessary to him although he’s open to reviewing possibilities. On the other hand, he is irate about the narrowed drain system for runoff water down a main street that probably augmented flooding during El Nino and wants it widened regardless of the loss of pavement for cars that would result. I was next directed to the sewage department head who complained about heavily engineered features in a new sewage re-building plan that involved tearing up city streets and would cost $5.5 million, so he is also open to an alternative direction. When I criticized the present system that puts last-stage effluent directly into the bay, he concurred and stated his preference for treating last-stage material so that it could be used for fertilizer. Suggesting organic rather than chemical means for this also won his approval. During the inevitable machinations of public policy and hard-biting realities of funding, the best intentions of these civil servants may not be realized. But I am hugely encouraged by their responses and will begin contacting ecologically inclined experts in related fields to consult about methods and systems that can fulfill the potential for a green city.

About that pesky funding demon, does anyone have a suggestion for financial assistance to a city so short of means that it can barely pay employees and meet expenses at the present time, and definitely can’t afford through internal means to meet its sincere and historic commitment to become a full-scale, deeply transformed eco-municipality on its own?

Which brings me to the title section of this report, the subject of Third Worldness. At the first encounter with townspeople concerned with rebuilding Bahia (Stuarium Foundation), I was asked, “Have you ever worked to achieve your eco-municipality goals in a Third World country before?” I cited Mexico. “If you exclude Acapulco and Cancun from the sense of Mexico,” I said as a joke at that moment, but afterwards the existence of expensive tourist destinations that are out-scaled for the countries where they exist, and the notion of the Third World itself,  became a fixture in thinking about this place. Since I never hear the term “First World” except awkwardly in academic contexts, and have never actually heard the term “Second World” in conversation anywhere, “Third World” must mainly continue to exist only as a pejorative substituting for “poor” or “bottom-rate” rather than as a genuine classification for equivalent comparisons. There are plenty of places in the never-called “First World” that equal the latter descriptions. In many U.S. inner cities, there is at least one large section that fits so thoroughly it could be interchangeable with any other totally undesirable spot in the world. With this exception: it wouldn’t have anything like the level of humanity, concern or sharing that exists in most of the “undeveloped” world.

At this point in human history, what is any place on the third planet in the solar system anyway? It is inevitably part of the planet’s skin, the biospheric web of life. New York City, Ecuador and the Kalahari Desert are all the same in this. Any of them are redolent and ambient, paradisical and miserable, known and mysterious, rainy and dry, inhabitable and visitable, tedious and exciting, revelatory and monotonous. Anyplace is any place. (Isn’t it astounding that so many different ones exist and that they co-occur at the same time?)

It is possible to wake up and feel revived anywhere. Then to be propelled like an avalanche boulder into smell, foothold, blinking color, levelling wind, stinging heat, steadying necessity of standing at a cliff-edge — too many variations to describe. It is one’s own body that seems to always know best where it is. (I’m leaving out the strange lost-limb experiences of technological surroundings but it’s always the body that loses the limbs.)

Finally, we all affect each other now. It’s only a matter of intention, whether visiting by Greenhouse gas emissions or arriving on an ocean liner. We can’t avoid touring each other anymore. The real question is whether we can learn to inhabit our own life-places with interdependent grace and move through others with the sensibility of respectful bioregional guests.

(In the next report, the outcome of the first meeting of the Eco-Bahia support group composed of city residents, and a little on the remarkable but largely unrecognized previous cultures that dwelt on this part of the Ecuadoran coast over the last 14,000 years.)

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