A Celebration & A Reflection

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

We hosted a dinner billed as a “celebration” for both landowners and representatives of urban communities who have participated in Planet Drum’s 2008 revegetation program. After an hour of meeting each other and waiting for the inevitable late arrivals, Clay as Field Projects Manager explained the purpose of the gathering, described Planet Drum’s history in Bahia, and invited everyone to watch a slide show of recent highlights. It began with background about the benefits of planting trees to reduce erosion that deteriorates soil, creates siltation in the river, and leads to public disasters ranging from destroying houses to closing roads. New vegetation also restores animal habitat, provides native plant resources, and contributes to the global environment. 

Clay’s an excellent photographer with a distinctive off-centered style that shows people clearly but to the side of their work rather than dominating the frame. He presented the greenhouse operation through all phases of plant development, compost-making, gathering seeds and seedlings (one particularly effective scene of a volunteer digging out seedlings from under a tree growing in the cement rubble of a ruined house), digging post holes for fences to guard sites, planting, weeding intruders from newly planted saplings, and arduous watering by hand during the entire half-year or more dry season. None of the guests had seen all of the sites or phases of work in the show before, but they all knew some of it and the resulting sense of recognition and fulfilment gave a special binding introductory tone for the evening. 

As one guest shouted out, dinner was saborosa (flavourful) home-prepared fish soup followed by a sautéed fish entree served with blackberry juice or beer. Discussions ranged from farmer talk about this year’s heavy rain (bad for watermelons, good for corn) to mobilizing neighborhood cooperation in the city. There were some surprises such as unusually frequent comments regarding uses for native plants including gathering algarrobo seed pods for cattle fodder, making fence posts from hobo and muyoyu branches, and blending jaboncillo with piñon to make a traditional dark-colored soap. The dangerously erosion-threatened city barrio of El Astillero was a central subject all evening. This may have been because there were several representatives from there who want Planet Drum’s help in revegetating the steep hillsides whereas everyone else came from places where work was already underway. One of that barrio’s residents had even begun his own composting efforts ingeniously using cafeteria remains from the nearby National Guard headquarters, and planted a handful of native trees for erosion control. There was a particularly enlightened discussion led by the Universidad Catolica administrator about whether El Astillero should have an entirely independent program with its own greenhouse, tools and education program.

Clay closed by asking for support in finding more participants to revegetate new areas, creating public awareness by giving radio and newspaper interviews, and assisting in raising public awareness in other ways. It was a completely successful first gathering of what could become a strong network as our work continues with more tree-growers.


The conflict between the spirit of progress and the precepts of ecology isn’t difficult to understand even if it often seems impossible to reconcile. Progress usually involves introducing new methods, tools, materials, and techniques to solve old problems or facilitate new possibilities. Ecology is based on the healthy interdependence between organisms and the natural systems that support them. Change is the inevitable accompaniment of progress whereas ecology thrives on balance and homeostasis. 

The difference between these two driving forces is glaringly apparent in comparing highly industrialized, materially developed countries with more traditional, less developed ones. There is always the question of ecological consequences when considering whether established practices should be improved or discarded. As a random but clearly present example, should sandals be made of native materials like straw or leather or manufactured from plastic, or whether autos should replace walking altogether. We know that plastic is notoriously resistant to biodegradation and exacts a rapidly mounting toll on ecosystems all over the world including the hundreds of miles wide swirling gyres in the middle of oceans. Automobiles have proven to be one of the most potent contemporary ecological disasters in all aspects of their existence from construction and disposal to fueling and contribution to climate change. 

There’s a metal working shop two blocks from Planet Drum’s office in Bahia de Caraquez where I went today to have some uselessly dull kitchen knives sharpened. It occupies a street-level corner space without a roof and spills out onto the front porch of an adjacent house and the surrounding sidewalk. There’s a forge, welder’s outfit, some workbenches, an emory wheel, and other well-worn basic equipment completely out in the open. The stacks of blank materials such as iron plates and rods for assembling new items or repairing broken ones are clearly visible. All of the work done is a public performance. In spite of glowing-hot metal and flying sparks, the three or four men who do it wear blackened t-shirts and shorts without aprons or other special protection except welding lenses when necessary. Sometimes the sidewalk itself becomes a solid impervious surface for pounding metal into shape.

Amazing work is done in this shop, everything from sharpening long machetes to fabricating finished chrome-surfaced pieces for such up-to-date construction projects as apartment buildings or an international chain gas station. I mentioned remembering the gas station job to the shop chief and he described the repair he was making at that moment on an air conditioning unit. The bottom had rusted out so he cut it away, replaced it with some plating, and was bending a shiny decorative spare strip into an L-shaped piece as flashing for the front. I’m sure there are few familiar objects with metal parts, old or brand new, that he wouldn’t consider fixing. 

It’s an obvious observation that a lot of this work isn’t done anymore in the “developed” world, or it has become so expensive as custom work that people will throw away an air conditioning unit or other consumer appliances rather than have them repaired. This open-air shop is actually a surviving contemporary version of the blacksmith’s shop that disappeared from everyday life in more industrialized countries near the beginning of the twentieth century. It has never been replaced except by growing piles of refuse thrown into pestilentially polluting landfills.

The blacksmith shop in Bahia isn’t just a quaintly antique holdover. Recycling, repairing and reusing items of all kinds has become re-found technology in the developed world, and more “modern” than throwing them away. (Making compost and planting trees is “modern” in this same way.) Like a lot of other older practices and behaviors, the metal-working shop is an inspiration for changing the ruinous styles that have dominated the more industrialized world. Luckily, Bahia still has a lot of them

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