Bahia de Caraquez
All of Ecuador is in the near-frantic clutch of election fever. There are over ten political parties (listas) who have been running candidates for offices from president and first deputy down to city council members in a time frame of just two months before mid-October voting. In Bahia the pitch has risen daily since the first week in September when emphatic speeches were made to inaugurate poster and balloon festooned, recently painted multi-color storefront offices with caña liquor offered afterwards in small plastic bags from unmarked trucks to outgrabbing supporters. At this point there are offices for different listas on nearly every block near the city center and some parties boast two. Even Marcelo Luque who supervised the Bosque park plantings is running for Bahia’s City Council and sometimes appears glad-handing people in the Lista 4 storefront across from our volunteer center. The same pop tunes blast at top volume from each of these outposts beginning before eight in the morning until ten at night, so that walkers pass from one zone of music to the other. Convoys of cars and trucks plastered with signs and dangling flags honk through the city. Marchers shout slogans as they parade in front of each others’ storefronts. Small stickers with candidates’ names sprout from doors, windows, light posts, and any other public-facing surface. The main park in the riverfront malecon is occupied by one loud speaker equipped group after another while whole sides of nearby buildings are instantly covered with brightly painted advertisements for various listas. Two of the presidential candidates flew in today for appearances before cheering adherents. As soon as one lista pulls a new stunt it is upstaged by something by another party, and an amazed kind of anticipation waiting for what will happen next keeps things constantly on edge.
There is a swollen audience for these desperately fervent exhibitions of political ardor because this is a public day off to celebrate the patron saint of the city’s annual Fiesta de la Dia de la Virgen de las Mercedes (Fiesta of the Day of the Merciful Virgin). The party officially begins at nine-thirty tonight with live music for a street dance in front of City Hall. Before that peak moment occurs I’ll step out of the simmering sensory soup to attempt a calm recounting of some previous events.
About three weeks ago Judy and I rode the bus for eight hours northeast to Quito, slowly rising above the daily gray overcast of early fall on the coast into sunny foothills and finally the thin breathless air of the Andes. We came to complete an essential stage of a new, grandly conceived Ecological City project that a dozen people have been working on since last winter. (Cautionary Note: What follows has a technical cast that can make even me fidgety, so I’ll try to relate it simply without agonizing numbers or jargon and hope your patience in following along will prove worthwhile.)
Alternative energy proponent George Tukel visited Bahia from New York last February at our behest to survey possibilities and write Renew Bahia: A Preliminary Report on Alternative Energy Choices at the House, Neighborhood, and Municipal Scales. Since that time proposals to several international foundations to fund more detailed research have been arduously written in our San Francisco office. Engineers need to prove out and certify appropriate equator-suited means for producing electricity locally. We also need their recommendations of ways to refit buildings for both energy conservation and to produce hot water from rooftop passive solar collectors. It would be a sweeping and expensive transformation, so we also requested money to pay for major financing of the final phase during which the first neighborhood-based electricity generating facility will be built accompanied by a refitting program for buildings.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) promotes a Public and Private Partnership grant that specifically features local energy production. Unlike other funding possibilities, UNDP requires an in-person visit to the relevant country’s office to submit a proposal. It may already be clear from visiting Planet Drum Foundation’s web site and following our activities that an institutional source on the level and type of the United Nations is a startling departure for us. But so is working directly with a municipal government and seeking what amounts to over fifty times the usual budget for one of our projects. We adapted to this unprecedented fund-raising climate for the benefit of Bahia de Caraquez’s ambitions toward ecohood. Judy and I surrendered our passports in the United Nations building lobby and wished ourselves buena suerte (good luck).
To our relieved surprise, a helpful program officer greeted us and the proposal enthusiastically as the first Ecuador candidate to appear for the upcoming round of grant considerations. In keeping with the unpredictable and wildly flexible time relationships that are taken as normal here, we were at least a month early! The formula for private-public partnership requires support by the municipal government and a local non-government organization. Agreement from both of these was already in the works. A private business such as an alternative energy company with Ecuadorian experience is also necessary and one has now been contacted. An impressive series of UNDP’s procedural steps still have to be navigated which puts the odds for eventual approval of this request at about one in ten, but at least we’ve become a real player in the game.
We traveled from Quito to the somewhat isolated mountain city of Cotacachi. Buses stop outside and then it’s a walk or cab ride of several miles in from the highway. The contrast in social-cultural atmosphere between the two cities is immediately palpable. Quito has the sophisticated and diplomatically cool feel of a capital city. Indigenous people are everywhere but they are subjected by rather than in control of the tenor of the place. There has been a turn toward rip-off behavior during the present difficult economic times that was symbolized by a cab driver when we first arrived who independently manipulated the meter upward to three times the normal fare. On our way out at Quito’s central bus station a con man pretended to find a dollar bill in front of our party of new volunteers. He waved it in our distracted faces roguishly asking whose it was while his confederates made off with a small carry bag.
Cotacachi has retained its identity as a proud indigenous community while moving ahead in contemporary directions. The civic entrance features a large modern sculpture of the sun in a square shape that is unique here. Remnants of the original heliocentric culture that built Cotacachi’s pyramid remain in marking the summer solstice as the primary community holiday. The city adopted an extensive guiding plan for becoming an ecological city a few years ago and sponsors an annual Sustainability Fair to which Judy was invited to perform her Water Webshow and I was slated for the Natural Resources Management round table. An international organic coffee exposition with representatives from Mexico, Brazil and Japan in addition to several parts of Ecuador immediately preceded the Fair and we luckily arrived in time for its closing Cultural Evening.
Women in Cotacachi-Otavalo tribal dress with multiple gold chains around their necks, local men in round-topped felt hats and brightly colored shirts, Japanese college girls in kimonos, eco-freaks with long hair and beads, and Afro-Ecuadorian women in long multiple pleated dresses and kerchiefs were abundantly evident. Over ten music groups ranged dramatically from a dozen-member costumed marimba folklorico presentation to an older indigenous man who played a traditional harp fitted on top of a bass violin-like sound chamber that was continually hand-drummed by a younger player. Their ancient abstract multiple melodies would have fit perfectly with jazz improvisations. At one point Cotacachi’s dynamic mayor Auki Tituana (he helped negotiate terms between the revolt-leading association of indigenous groups and the government in the most recent civil uprising) was coaxed by his wife to dance to a salsa band. Enough people eventually joined in to form a conga line around the aisles of the entire theater. He returned to the floor later to lead a timeless-seeming shuffling line of mostly fellow Cotacachi-Otavalo dancers while Andean flutists and pan-pipers played.
At the Fair the next morning there were three sets of four or more simultaneous free presentations. During the resources round table, I had the unusual pleasure of fielding a question about bioregional education for children from an indigenous woman who was breast-feeding her baby. After Judy’s show another local woman came up and simply held her hand while wordlessly glowing in appreciation. It was a truly high quality gathering both in terms of information and the consciousness level of attendees, taking place in a spot well outside the mainstream in thinly populated Imbaburra Province. It felt like Ecuador’s future.
Since the last Dispatch we all helped build the missing rear wall in the office/volunteer center. There has been an initial meeting with Fanca residents about them taking over the composting project in some form, and a second, more concrete meeting is being held tonight. Sacks for growing seedlings are being filled and today we’re preparing seeds of the notable hardwood tree Black Guayacan for later planting in the large revegetation project. The Catholic University wants to sign a convenio (agreement) with Planet Drum about revegetation of some gullies on their grounds, building a greenhouse for raising seedlings, and some degree of involvement for their students in the whole process. Copies of the Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas wild park brochures are being made to replace the hundreds we brought from San Francisco to hand out, and markers matching sites on the brochure’s self-guided tour will be placed appropriately. The present crew of three volunteers will be joined intermittently by at least four more helpers starting next week. We worked up to twelve hour days during this month and much more will be accomplished in the time between now and February when I return.