Dancing Public Revegetation onto Private Land

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

Eduardo “Cheo” took on the role of locating owners of land on the eroded hillsides above Leonidas Plaza to enroll them in revegetation activities out of his dedication to ecological betterment of the Rio Chone Bioregion. A high school English teacher by profession, he has often aided other dry tropical forest restoration efforts and led or sent student volunteers. Cheo visited each of the many owners and was assured by thirty or so that they would attend an introductory meeting the day after Carnaval. Refreshments and coffee were purchased for at least twenty to actually show up. With Marcelo Luque, he had engaged the spacious Centro Agricola for the meeting at three in the afternoon, located four Club Ecologico volunteers ready to assist with extra chairs or any other need, and enlisted upbeat Patricia from the Civil Defense Corps to take names for locating participants afterwards. Cheo had set things up as well as possible.

The prospect of involving landowners has made this a more anxiously anticipated project than others Planet Drum has undertaken here. Our revegetation park in Maria Auxiliadora is publicly owned now. Fanca Produce is a voluntary barrio-wide program but it has a direct relationship to public garbage collection. Use of by far the greatest part of the six-kilometer long eroded area from Bahia to Kilometro Ocho is entirely at the discretion of private parties who must be attracted to the benefits of revegetation in order to consent. It remained a largely unknown group except to Pedro and Eduardo, and a great deal depended on who belonged and how they felt.

At 3:30 there were mainly friends, staff and volunteers in attendance, but I decided to introduce the project anyway before they would have to leave. At least they would all know enough about what was intended to fill in future participants. Three were actually landholders in the area who had been with the Eco-city movement since the beginning. (See following declaration for main points of the presentation.) Toward the end of the talk Mayor Viteri arrived but gestured for me to continue. Rather than taking questions immediately at the conclusion, I turned to him for whatever observations he had to further the project.

Surprising everyone he asked what percentage of owners was present. Learning it was less than a tenth, he rhetorically asked why more weren’t there. “Greed!” he answered. It was mostly useless or marginal land, Leo ventured, and owners wanted to get rid of it for a price, not improve it for the public good. Stop wasting your time there, Peter, and finish up Maria Auxiliadora instead!

If I had been neutral or logical sounding during the talk, an opposite emotion came over me now. I shouted in a way that could easily be taken as impolite, although most public discourse here is a kind of verbal volcanic eruption. Leonidas Plaza was an urgent situation where just this month’s rain had caused mud to block the streets, consider what a full-scale El Nino would wreak! Preventing a catastrophe would be at a miniscule cost compared to cleaning up after another tragedy, I seemed to yell at the top of my voice. Besides, Planet Drum had received small grants toward this work that could go into effect immediately.

Reacting to what actually might have been reverse psychology by the mayor, others began shouting that mud slides would be much worse next time, that native trees could do the job of controlling erosion, and that there should be an ordinance requiring compliance if more owners didn’t agree. Now Leo changed direction completely and demanded that I write a statement declaring the city’s intent to carry out hillside revegetation. “Don’t say, ‘Owners should donate land.'” Tell them you will do free planting and that they can harvest fruits, seeds and other plant products that result from it as long as they don’t cut down the trees. Ordinances are the last resort and only support what most of the people already agree about, he observed. Do a small test patch first so that everyone can see the work in progress and figure out how it can benefit them. “Start now … tomorrow!”

We were breaking up to get a regional speciality of savory-smelling, potato dumpling snacks stuffed with cheese and coffee thinking that this would be the extent of a resolution. Then two dungarees clad landholders finally joined the meeting an hour and a half after it began. Without hearing any discussion they wanted to get immediately involved just on the basis of the invitation, and insisted on giving their names and telephone numbers. We’ll go out to see their places next week, as well as look for possibilities on land held by the Eco-city supporters with land in the area. Even if the turnout was small, it´s a genuine start. That’s success from an organizer’s point of view.

Marcelo Luque found me a day later to make a donation to the project of a bag of seeds from mixed dry tropical forest tree species. We should be able to put the first seeds and whatever seedlings are available right now into the ground before I leave in a week. They’ll fortunately catch the remaining winter rains. Whatever grasses, bushes and trees survive through the long, dry summer can play a land-gripping role as early as next year’s predicted heavier rainfall conditions and the accompanying threat of large-size mud slides from collapsing hillsides.

Declaration of Intent

Revegetation of Eroded Portions of Hillsides in Leonidas Plaza, Canton Sucre from Astillero to Kilometro Ocho

The hillsides facing Leonidas Plaza in Canton Sucre that were saturated with rain and heavily damaged through land slides during the 1998 El Nino urgently require revegetation in order to assist prevention of further erosion.

The next El Nino will cause massive damage to this already weakened area, and according to local residents, will be worse than the mud slides in 1998 which knocked over buildings, swept away houses, carried people into Rio Chone, filled the streets and highway with mud to over two meters deep, and broke bridges. The total cost of that catastrophe is incalculable. It involved detouring the highway for nearly a year, rebuilding bridges, building new homes for those destroyed and repairing those remaining, destruction of institutional buildings, loss of businesses and jobs, illness from diseases associated with dirty water and raw sewage, and other calamities.

It is crucial to take measures to prevent reoccurrence of this tragedy and cost. Revegetation is a principal means to accomplish that goal. Planting trees in damaged areas facing Leonidas Plaza, the highway, and Rio Chone can be done at a miniscule fraction of the cost for cleaning up after the calamity of 1998.

Therefore, the Municipalidad of Canton Sucre authorizes a continuous band of revegetation at least twenty-five meters wide approximately half way up the affected hillsides from Astillero in Bahia de Caraquez to Kilometro Ocho. The roots of plants in this corridor will retain the soil, and the mass of vegetation will help slow down and hold back slides from above. Plants will be native species of the dry tropical forest ranging from grasses to brush, and trees that are both fast and slow growing. Watering during summer months to encourage growth will be accomplished by various means. The work will be done through supervision, funds, staff, and volunteers in association with Planet Drum Foundation, a non-government, not-for-profit, international organization.

Since all of the land involved is privately held, Planet Drum Foundation offers to the owners free revegetation of eroded portions that can be treated solely by planting. (This does not include terrain-altering techniques such as terracing, grading or land removal.) Benefits to the owners include harvesting of revegetated plant materials such as fruits and seeds that do not involve cutting trees, water retention on their land, and increased natural amenities of many kinds. The amount of land involved for each owner does not need to be large and will be determined through discussions with them to identify locations. The most desirable places are where owned parcels join together so that sections can be planted on both sides, along boundary lines, and following land contours. The program will begin with establishment of several sites to test various mixes of plants that are appropriate.

The community in general will benefit greatly from this revegetation program through reduced danger, disruption of life, and both public and private expense from hillside erosion hazards. There will also be considerable enhancement of river, plant, animal, soil, and other natural systems in the Rio Chone Bioregion.

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