A Re-birth of Ecologics

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 

Although economic thought is largely devoted to a seemingly unlimited array of activities and events surrounding production, distribution and consumption of goods, these are rarely seen as being nested in an ecological context. Most rational people concede that our well-being and ultimate survival as a species depends on sustaining interdependence and harmony with natural forces of life. Older environmental problems of pollution and population growth have been recognized, even if it is questionable whether they are truly being met. The present human perils to the biosphere such as global warming, over-fishing of the oceans, and the unprecedented loss of wild habitat and species go more to the actual heart of our way of life. World affairs and global stability are increasingly dominated by factors having to do directly with ecological balance in the form of availability and use of energy sources, supplies of food and water, and materials for producing goods. Nevertheless there remains a neglectful and dangerous lack of consideration for the earth-related foundations of human economic interactions.  

Our sense of economics (with its entire range of inferences from forecasting investments to valuations of the worth of goods and trade) should be reformulated with examples of different ways that people relate to those activities. This information needs to be unearthed from the area of cultural anthropology rather than limited to what can be found in statistical records of various economic conditions. 

The Pacific coastal city of Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador reacted to several simultaneous natural catastrophes (a significant earthquake in the midst of flooding and mud slides during El Nino in 1998) by declaring the intention to re-build as an ecological city through a by-law enacted in February, 1999. It was an inspired approach to adopt a more sustainable urban identity and undertake appropriate ecological practices.

These are some highlights of the declaration:

“Evolution within a new order of shared responsibility for development towards the third millennium.”

“Create an Environmental Affairs Municipal Department to coordinate all management, including continuous environmental learning for all personnel and allocate budget allowances to allow this work in the long term.”

“Strengthen citizen awareness with a campaign of public and private participation, in order to create an environmental culture.”

“Declare a reserve zone for the native dry tropical forest, within the urban area in order to regulate its use and thus preserve its already existing biodiversity.”

“Implement a new social process, assigning technical people and budget allowances for land zoning, sewage waters, solid refuse and construction projects.”

In the past five years numerous actions on many levels have aimed in the general direction of creating an ecological. Neighborhood and county-wide recycling, revegetation of hillsides to assist in preventing erosion, youth eco-clubs in disadvantaged barrios, restoration of mangroves in the river estuary, public ecology information programs and classes on sustainability themes in public and private schools, development of businesses that use recycled materials, investigation of biological means for human waste disposal, celebrations relating to natural features, and many others. New developments such as recognizing Ecological City Day with a parade of groups including school children in animal and plant costumes during this year’s Carnaval revelries are continual and expected. The city has become proud of its identity and reputation as an ecological city, and the high level of reconstruction and improvements is dazzling to someone who has been away for only a year. 

The economic situation during the same period was monumentally stressful. Perhaps as many as five thousand families, at least a third of the population, were made homeless and lived in makeshift shacks on the sidewalks using still-standing structures for one wall. Or fled to the outskirts to build temporary shacks on stilts. Sewage and water lines were broken contributing to already serious health problems from flooding and falling debris. The only large road was blocked in some places by up to two meters (six feet) of mud and the principal bridge on it was in ruins.

The Ecuadorian government response was in keeping with the capabilities of a borderline impoverished country. It did little. What response eventually came was late and weak. Some shacks for homeless victims were built that were less than one-tenth of what was needed. It took a year to clear the road and over two years to rebuild its bridge. Even reconstruction of the rehabilitation center prison destroyed by raging mud slides allowing all of the convicts to escape had to wait until four years after the event.

Gradually people left for the large cities such as Quito and Guayaquil by any means of transportation they could devise to find income-producing work. The population dropped by thousands. Those who remained were desperate and worked for as little as three or four dollars a day, when they could find someone able to pay them.

Then a catastrophe struck that cut across all economic levels. The huge Ecuadorian shrimp farming industry experienced white spot disease and the penned animals past a certain small size died from this virus. Gone with the giant prawns were the fortunes for a few in former days. So were less remunerative jobs for netters, security guards, boatmen, pump mechanics, biologists, freezer and packaging workers, and indirectly everyone else without the former tourists and other transportation-stymied supports. Always an ecological hazard because of removal of biologically rich mangroves and pumping ten per cent of each farm’s massive volume of polluted water into the river each day, the lucrative flat expanses of diked water lining rivers and bays of Bahia de Caraquez’s Rio Chone River fell victim to the same get-rich-quick global economy that had once made them profitable.

Into this harsh mix of economic horrors came even more bad news. The sitting president accepted dollarization, putting USA currency into use as the country’s own and thereby raising prices. The opponent who unseated him was elected with unanimous indigenous support to confront the International Monetary Fund’s advocacy of price increases for subsidized commodities such as cooking oil and bottled gas. After a year or so he went back on his pledge, raised prices that affected the poor more than anyone else, and even promised to send troops to prevent Amazonian indigenous people from blocking a new oil pipeline through their ecologically endangered homeland. Then he put a double-digit tax into place, the first in the nation’s history. 

How has Bahia dealt with all of these economic calamities and survived, even prospering to a small extent? The answer may be startling to devotees of monetary and proprietary economics. The basis of this culture for thousands of years has been natural provision. Direct interaction with natural systems is still a surprisingly large part of their functioning economics. City dwellers are the most removed from the phenomenon, but even they might have an average thirty per cent direct dependency on the healthy functioning of nearby ocean, river, forests, and geological features. For people on the fringe of the city this could well be seventy-five to ninety per cent.

Here’s how it works. Fishermen using dugout canoes are everywhere on the river catching wild fish and shrimp. Their boats come from the forest and the nets are handmade from twine (although nylon thread woven in the traditional way is sometimes used). They also catch langostino and several varieties of crabs. Some dig the beaches for famous Ecuadorian black clams with their inky fluid. Ocean-going boats that are constructed locally from native timber use gasoline motors but the value of each day’s catch far exceeds the cost of fuel. All of these aquatic gatherers and the general population eat an astonishing variety of fresh seafood. 

In front of the main market there are always many people selling fruits from wild native trees like hobo or limes that grow in their backyards. They also raise papayas for sale, and peddle chickens that largely feed themselves on food scraps and ground insects. Their crowing is the four AM alarm clock for the city.  

It is extremely common for urbanites to operate country farms. They often obtain a good portion of their own food there. Cheese, honey, oranges, plantains, and green peppers are examples of a few to show the range. Surpluses are often sold in the local market.

Construction is done nearly completely with local materials. Bricks are made from native clay. Earthen fill is collected near the construction site. River sand is readily available when needed. Cement is bagged nearby. Bamboo is used rather than heavy machinery to hold up second floors (or higher) during building, and preferred as scaffolding. It is also pounded flat into boards for siding. Branches of local trees are designed into airy patterns for porch enclosures. 

There are at least four times as many human powered “triciclos” (cargo and passenger carrying tricycles) than gasoline consuming taxi automobiles. They carry anything from fifty-liter water containers to construction materials to groceries for shoppers at the market. It is an indescribable luxury to ride in one along the riverfront malecon, and the price is only fifty cents. 

The list could go on for pages but the point is made. These things don’t have the costs associated with them that so-called developed countries pile on, and they aren’t obtained solely through pricey distributors. They come out of the ecological processes of the place. Bahia de Caraquez was already an ecological city in these respects when the official declaration was made.

Is this ecologics viable into the future? On the first day of the Eco-city Declaration, a public-spirited citizen approached triciclo drivers with an offer to paint their vehicles green and hang small signs on them that read “Bienvenidos a Eco-Bahia”. They stayed that way for a few weeks but then reverted back to the previous colors and the signs came off. But two years ago a new company of triciclo drivers named “Bahia Ecologico” using green-painted conveyances and wearing green caps and shirts started up. It was a success and now there are two more new companies with some variation of this idea in their names. 

When the declaration was made there were no certified organic shrimp farms. Now there are at least two large ones. There was only one company making stationery and decorated objects from recycled paper. There are at least four now. An island where mangrove restoration and education is featured can only be reached in a dugout canoe paddled by a resident guide who lives across the river in a bamboo house on stilts. The newest eco-tour company is exclusively involved with showing native wildlife. Those are some of the unique businesses that have evolved so far, and with increased public education there are sure to be more. As an example, renewable energy sources have barely been utilized and nearly the whole gamut including solar, biomass, wind, river current, tide, and ocean waves is available.

The traditional involvements with natural systems exist unchanged five years after the Ecological City Declaration and will do so as long as they are practiced sustainably. This society didn’t need to be as conserving in the past as it does now. The forest just grew. Now it needs to be grown through revegetation projects. The river just flourished. Now it needs to be kept clean of agricultural pollution and sewage, The ocean just stored seafood for thetaking. Now it needs to be watched and managed to prevent exhausting the supply. The countryside was just burned for the fertilizing benefit of released minerals in the ash. Now soil needs to be restored and the ruinous erosion of burning eliminated through use of compost because people can’t move around and leave plots of ground to rest for several years in between use as they did before. 

In the long run, the greatest benefit from preserving and enhancing ecologics in Bahia de Caraquez may not just be what it means here but what it can mean to the rest of both the developed and undeveloped worlds. We will all have to learn how to live a making.

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