Growing Into the Dry Tropical Forest

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador

The rainy season seems to have begun in earnest. A light sprinkle two days ago may have been the actual starting point, and last night’s downpour that continues into the morning appears to remove any question about an end to the annual coastal drought. The revegetation of Maria Auxiliadora barrio can get underway soon now that the soil is damp and there’s a promise of continuous rain to water seedlings.

Marcelo Luque, a devoted native botany specialist in his late twenties who is from a long-time local family, joined me in a walk to view the ridgetop of Alta Bahia where the central slide began above the barrio. The clay soil that knuckled up from the sea floor to form the coast hills here is different from what derived from a similar meeting of Pacific and North American, rather than South American, tectonic plates in northern California.

It covered our shoes with an orange-white dust, and was mostly visible as small pebbles on the ground. Instead of having a lumpy, slick and damp consistency, a sample from six inches into the bank of a slide was the same as on the surface: completely dry and rough-textured. When rain saturates this material, it swells to a greater size and becomes much heavier with water than Shasta Bioregion clay. Consequently, mudslides often begin along the ridgelines, shearing loose and leaving bare subsurfaces for a distance ranging from a few feet to practically an entire hillside. That’s what Marcelo and I found just below a stand of tamarindo trees that was holding the Alta Bahia hilltop in check. It is a typical steeply angled patch of naked ground that extends down for several yards before ending in a jumble of stripped away soil mounds with light plant cover that continue for a third of a mile through the canyon where many of Maria Auxiliadora’s houses were rolled, crushed and buried.

Learning about dry tropical forest species from Marcelo is a high-energy event that fixes attention like a circling bee. His excitement and narrative power (even at my infantile level of Spanish) is completely consuming. Perspiration ran down his cheeks while he sank into a squat before grasses (“Paja brava, Pea-tear!, Paja BRAVA! …Mira, paja MACHO, PAJA MACHO!!”), jumping up to pull down leaves from tree branches and holding them with fixed eyes an inch from my nose (“Pea-tear, mira. NEEM! No nativa. No INDIGENA, NO NATIVA!!”), or elegantly gesturing to a guayacan tree like a doorman … a bull fighter … a samba dancer. We marveled together at a seiba tree that had the appearance of an African baobab with bare branches whose elbows are permanently bent and a tall, bulging trunk that thickens into a pot-belly at the bottom. As though consciously representing this totem species of the dry tropical forest, it stood prominent and alone above the edge of the slide, all of the brightly lit bark glowing with a light green color.

Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia has entered the revegetation project in partnership with Planet Drum Foundation. I made a presentation at a special meeting of its dozen or so member board of directors stating that the $1,000 grant from Cottonwood Foundation was available and that a decision was needed about how to establish a bank account, who would represent the Centro in the project, and how funds would be dispersed.

Eduardo Rodriguez, who teaches at San Vicente Vocational institute and has already assigned students to begin growing seedlings, will actively coordinate the project with Luis Duenas. The funds have been put in a special account in the name of the Centro, and will be dispersed by the president and treasurer. These arrangements are part of a general process to involve community members as widely as possible. In the same vein, Marcelo Luque will serve as a native plant species and ecosystem adviser to the project, and Nicola Mears will consult on planting methods and techniques.

Eduardo took me to see seedlings and visit with some of the staff and students in San Vicente, a jitney boat ride away with twenty other passengers across the Rio Chone from Bahia. Six hundred guayacan and five hundred Fernano Sanchez plants are thriving at various stages of growth in slender tubes of soil wrapped with thin black plastic. A total of six thousand of various species can be provided. A half-dozen enthusiastic mid-teenage male student “chicos” who tend the plants circled around, some push-riding their bicycles, while we visited fields of watermelon, banana, yucca, and other crops that they raise to sell or eat in the institute cafeteria.

Planet Drum’s field office that will also serve as a staff apartment has been located in the town of Leonidas Plaza directly bordering Bahía de Caráquez and is part of the same municipal/county government. This is a working class area that also contains the inadequate “temporary housing” at Fanca and the new Mangles 2000 project of permanent houses for over two hundred families. The reason for choosing an admittedly less comfortable and in some ways more inconvenient site than Bahia, which has upscale and vacation visitor features, is that it represents the majority of the population and can be used for their participation in ecological sustainability activities of various kinds. A Centro project for ten or so unemployed women from here to learn how to make and eventually derive income from stationery and other products manufactured from recycled paper was invited to use Planet Drum’s main room for a cottage industry space, and has already begun operation there. Later on, there can be meetings of other local organizations including the Club Ecologico from Fanca or another outside group such as Actmang, the Japanese mangrove reforesters. It is conceived as a general staging area to help realize the eco-city vision.

I have been staying at Flor-Maria Duenas’ fine Casa Grande guest house in Bahia, buoyed by her caring hospitality and generous assistance with everything including the computer on which this is written. With so many needs provided for, I’ve been able to pursue the revegetation project and arrange to move into the new space with an ease that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It has been an invaluable gift considering my usual lack of comprehensible Spanish and “lack of adaptiveness” (a term Patricio Tamariz and I have agreed upon for the sake of politeness) to the pace of getting things done, a condition that is more than compensated by the amazing sympathy and helpfulness that is offered by nearly everyone. Jacob Santos lent a bed and refrigerator from his Bahia Bed and Breakfast Inn and I plan to move into one of the five rooms remaining from the paper-making today, and will begin finding furnishings for another room to be used by Carey Knecht when she arrives in the second week of February to be Planet Drum’s project overseer for two months.

A note on the political situation. The national Department of Tourism has subsumed the previous Department of the Environment as the new … Department of Tourism and the Environment! Its head was the former chief of tourism and accepted the new office acknowledging a leading role for “eco-tourism.” Since that term can mean so many different things at this point, I smell heavy commercialization and feel that the drift of emphasis should have been reversed, environment subsuming tourism. Patricio says the main opinion expressed here so far is that the two departments differ too much in their major functions and should have been kept completely separate.

New cuisine item. Stewed wild pechiche “native cherry” fruit for dessert. It has a flavor that contains something of flan, prunes and Asian bark spices.

Fascinating popular song theme. “Yo quiero que a mi/ me entierren como a mis antepasados …” Roughly, I want to be buried the way my ancestors were, which later is revealed to be in an ancient Andean ceramic jar. It has a simple, solemn melody associated with Bolivian or Peruvian flute music, and what impresses me most is so many people know it. When I showed the words written in my notebook by a local rock musician to a middle-aged woman on the jitney boat, she immediately hummed the melody and then sang with other passengers joining in.

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