Ecuador and Planet Drum Undergo Major Transitions

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

This is the last of five straight years worth of work pledged beginning in February 1999 when Planet Drum Foundation was invited to assist in realizing Bahia de Caraquez’s Ecological City Declaration. 

An earthquake and El Nino mudslide ruined municipality in 1998 with fallen buildings, impassable streets and highways, and 5,000 outright homeless families living on the sidewalks, the city is now mainly restored. Most split-open buildings have been repaired or torn down, and some new ones have risen in their places. Dispossessed families have been relocated in new neighborhoods, some in specially constructed housing. Bright as the new paint, people seem generally more easy-going and playful as the memory of past catastrophes inevitably fades.

Unfortunately, the local economy reflects Ecuador’s general impoverishment. Prices have risen since the US dollar became the standard currency here. As an example that touches everyone, bread rolls that were once the equivalent of two cents now cost five, which may seem cheap but represents an increase of two hundred and fifty percent. Wages have usually failed to keep up or sometimes gotten lower. The local shrimp farming boom of several decades collapsed through disease and over-supply at around the same time as Bahia’s natural disasters. 

Newly elected president Lucio Gutierrez took office this week vowing “economic war for a year” to help stop the country’s persistent slide. He has higher than usual credibility for accomplishing change since he was the former leader of a military-indigenous peoples-labor union triumvirate whose criticism of International Monetary Fund demands on the country toppled the president in 1999. Cashiered from his colonelcy in the army and prevented from taking leadership as “a dictator” at that time by US support for the vice president’s assumption of the top office, he has at last come to power through democratic means. Lucio’s recent appointment of indigenous and socially responsive representatives to several key government posts indicates that the original rebellion is finally succeeding to some degree and long-overdue economic improvements could follow.

This is an auspicious time to make an assessment of the effectiveness of Planet Drum’s various eco-city projects here. The Forest in the Middle of the Ruins erosion control cum recreational “wild park” in Maria Auxiliadora barrio is much more visible through the addition of two roadside directional signs and eight numbered markers to identify native plants described in a self-guided tour map. Community members have been strong participants by helping to set the signs in concrete and pioneering a new entrance path with rubble concrete steps. They are an exemplary group judging from the sweep of ideas that ten of them brought to a meeting in our field office/apartment last week. Spokesperson Leonardo Maya described guided tours (wearing the new t-shirts emblazoned with park logos in full color), an information kiosk, classes for children, public puppet plays, photos and postcards for sale, and a full-fledged museum with educational documentation of the factors that produced El Nino and the earthquake. Next Sunday we will start with a prominent painted steel sign five by ten feet with the park’s name and a directional arrow that will be erected to protrude above the school wall where there is already a bioregional mural. It will be positioned to be visible from City Hall three blocks away. A dozen barrio members are expected to help Planet Drum staff and volunteers transport the sign, set support poles in cement, and celebrate with a fresh ensalada de frutas tropicales (tropical fruit salad). Publicity has begun with a radio show about the park featuring barrio residents, and a newspaper account with photos of the new sign is scheduled. Park maintenance will be minimal now that winter rains have begun: a few strategic new plantings, clearing paths and dead brush, and finishing the new stairway. Our future efforts in the park will be mutually developed through weekly meetings with the community steering council.

A long-neglected aspect of the Fanca Produce composting project for recycling organic household waste from the barrio of Fanca (along with city market refuse) has just been resolved. We located a commercial distributor for red worms and ordered 50,000 of them for delivery hopefully within a week. It will be the first use of brick worm beds originally built nearly two years ago to create highly enriched compost. Breeding worms will also begin in earnest. These may eventually prove to be the whole operation’s most viable activities. Citrus plant seedlings are presently growing and many other fruit trees for Fanca residents will follow. Building community involvement with waste separation and compost production similar to Maria Auxiliadora residents with the park is a critical step. During a Planet Drum staff meeting with Mayor Leo and the Department of Public Health director earlier this week, we decided that three months of concentrated effort is needed to create a Fanca community association this winter. Fanca residents have the right to twenty-five percent of compost production and can use it for everything from a community garden to grow seedlings for sale. This can be a genuine economic asset for Fanca’s disadvantaged population if it can be successfully managed by a self-regulating group of local stewards. 

The fledgling project to revegetate roughly six kilometers of eroded hillsides leading into Bahia de Caraquez with a “wild corridor” of native dry tropical forest plants is re-energized since the rainy season fully began last week. Planet Drum has built a shaded greenhouse on the property of the Universidad Catholica near the community of Kilometro Ocho at the far end of the intended revegetation strip. Two weeks ago we filled one side of the structure with a compost-rich soil mixture (aiming for equal parts compost, dried horse manure, rice hulls, black soil, and clay) and seeds of several native species. Abundant cascol tree seedlings are already coming out. Seedlings previously grown at Fanca Produce for use in established planting sites were moved here a few days ago to mature to planting size as well, along with several hundred prepared growing bags in which seeds failed to germinate. These will now be used to transfer seedlings developed in the beds when they are large enough in about two weeks. More seeds will follow and continuous seedling production will occur throughout the rainy season. A new cycle to grow thousands of plants will take place during the dry season beginning in May, and subsequent seedlings will grow large enough to be placed into the ground at new sites next winter. Completion of the whole project will undoubtedly take several years even with increasing numbers of plantable trees.

The first location for planting will be a hillside with a prominent 100 meter (300 feet) land fault about a foot wide that lies above the greenhouse. Fifty of the seedlings moved from Fanca to the greenhouse (pelo caballo, “horse hair” named for its stringy cambium layer) are viable for placing there now, and hundreds of stakes cut from nearby moyuyo trees will fill in approximately 2 hectares (five acres) of accompanying eroded hillside. On a survey walk through the site we saw the skeleton of a small, cross-toothed mammal Ecuadorians call Zorro (fox) that is actually a different species, tiny intensely blue flowers, a metallic ruby humming bird, and an unexpected long row of hundreds of moyuyo trees following the watercourse of a creek the way willows might in the Northern Temperate Zone. It was the single most satisfying event in the two weeks of my current visit.

The immediate community that can participate with the revegetation project is university staff and students, so there will be work-learning classes with them helping to produce and plant seedlings starting in June when the next semester begins. All of the land in the intended revegetation strip is privately owned. Property holders who participate in allowing use of their land have the right to harvest seeds and fruits as long as they leave standing trees uncut. We still need to contact about thirty more owners to complete the strip.

Fundamental to our involvement in Bahia has been the vision of bioregionally inspired city living practices. We have aimed at establishing a working model of this unique perspective using the vast natural opportunities found here. The Rio Chone watershed, winterwet-summerdry climate, the offshore blend of Humboldt and Nino ocean currents, predominantly clay soil, dry neotropical forest plants and animals, and a 5,000 years running indigenous domestic culture based on farming, fishing, and trading are all strongly visible and sometimes remarkably intact. City dwelling is powered by fossil fuels and electricity, informed by newspapers, radio and television, reliant on retailing and tourist industries in addition to commercial-scaled agriculture, utilizes the option of plumbing and piped water, and employs a predominantly indoors style. But Nature is still clearly dominant in the city. A distant electrical power plant fails on a monthly basis restoring country-style darkness to streets and houses. Water supplies evaporate in the dry season rendering faucets in household and businesses useless and their owners as dependent as farmers on cisterns and transported water barrels. Common fruits such as bananas, papaya, and limes have been nativized and can be seen growing in yards and on hillsides everywhere. Yucca is a native starchy vegetable used daily for everything from bread flour to a soup ingredient. Locally caught river and ocean fish, shrimp and shellfish are consumed amazingly fresh on a daily basis. A significant number of houses are still elevated on poles, sided with bamboo pounded flat into boards, and roofed with palm thatch. Direct dependency on native natural systems for sustenance is a continuous reality.

Planet Drum’s erosion control effort in a barrio which evolved into a valuable public “wild park”, the large organic waste recycling project in another barrio that keeps polluting waste out of a landfill while providing soil to grow food and native plant seedlings, and the new massive revegetation effort to resist watershed erosion while creating a “wild corridor” of harvestable plant products are directly based on restoring and maintaining natural systems while delivering human benefits. This is not just urban ecology, environmentalism or natural resources improvement as they are typically considered and followed. Certainly benefits occur during our process which are similar to those pursuits, but they aren’t the main accomplishments. The real goal is to establish a deeply bioregional pattern of practical public activities for achieving true long-term sustainability. Hopefully, they also serve as examples for duplication throughout Ecuador, the less developed world, and even the overdeveloped industrial North which is so badly in need of ecological restoration.

After five years it is clear that Planet Drum’s vision is increasingly linked to active public involvement. We are making a transition toward turning our existing projects over to be run by various communities as the final stage of our involvement. Plans for new projects include a barrio-wide renewable energy system to generate electricity and retrofit houses for hot water production, and creation of a publicly accessible bioregional map incorporating natural, archeological, historical, and contemporary human land use features. Although only in the funding proposal stage, they already feature inputs from public meetings and will incorporate participation by residents at every stage of development. Ultimately, they will be run by residents of Bahia.

A final promising transition is knowledgeable and energetic Brian Teinert who trained in our San Francisco office and is now in Bahia to serve as chief of project operations for at least a year. Brian looked good on paper, better in person, and is a marvel of self-motivation on the ground here. He will introduce all future volunteers to tasks and direct them on a level of continuity that we haven’t possessed before. The first new addition will be college student Megan Shea who arrives next week to join veteran British volunteer Simon Winch. We’ve cleared some obstacles to promising presentable housing to volunteers by signing a new one-year lease agreement with the same generous terms as before. Rent is split between repairs and cash, but we have already accumulated repair costs that will last through next September. The roomy office/dormitory is fully painted in public areas now, the front door lock has been replaced to regain privacy after the loss of several keys, plumbing will be completely operational by the end of this morning, and plants in containers are being dotted around to naturalize our space.

Ecuador and Planet Drum are both undergoing dramatic transitions this year, astonishing changes should become the norm. 

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