Kat introduces herself and reports on the first three months

Arriving in Ecuador

Eager to be in Latin America again, I jumped at the opportunity to use my degree and pursue science here with my brilliant hydrologist friend, Emily Santos. She was able to open the door to research here for me.

I first arrived in Bahia in 2018 burnt out and ready for change from the University of Colorado with only a backpack full of clothes, a journal, lanterns, knives, and a hammock. I had been working in labs and doing fieldwork in tundra and alpine ecosystems for the previous two years and had been dreaming of the beach. I’m incredibly interested in water and food systems, so naturally this was a good fit for me.

I entered the Tropical Dry Forest (TDF) for the first time in the early pre dawn hours of the morning. We had stayed the night at Punta Gorda Reserve, a massive 300 hectare forest the Loor family has been trying to protect and conserve for decades. Dark, hot, not knowing what to expect I turned my lantern on to only have insects swarming at my face. More bug spray please.

We took water potential measurements at one location, listened to the monkeys get riled up while eating peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, and were on our way to another site 5-6 hours away by foot. The brush was incredibly overgrown on the trail and since we were transitioning into the rainy season,some spots were still very wet. I was tired. Not to mention the poisonous Ecchi snakes that were taking in some sunshine near the trails or hanging in the trees, we had to be on alert with our machetes.

Our guide had grown up here and possesses an enormous amount of knowledge regarding TDFs, more than any papers I had read beforehand. We learned the groundwater had been drying up and not replenishing itself as it had in previous years, and dug new wells to measure the changes.

Due to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 the river system had shifted and redirected into smaller systems. Due to economic struggles here, many TDFs are being deforested and changed into shrimp pools or just being used for lumber. Some locals are continuing to cut down endangered species, such as Palo Santo to export for sale. Shocked at first but after being here for some time now, I understand the economic struggle and reason for cutting down these forests.

Little did I know I this research was preparing me for my future position here at Planet Drum. The fact that we were also investigating Planet Drum and their reforestation efforts was poetic to me. We were curious as to why they were planting citrus trees in the TDF after the earthquake and not all native trees. When I heard about Planet Drum, I thought, “Now THAT’S the perfect job for me!”

Everything came full circle in October when I was offered the project manager position here. Sitting across the table from the previous project manager I was able to ask him why citrus trees. He replied it was the easiest way to gain community involvement. While planting native trees is indeed important and necessary for regrowth of damaged forests, it is also important to let the forest regenerate and not touch it. In addition, we must first understand community dynamics, economic situations, and environmental attitudes in order to influence positive impacts towards the environment.

For example, citrus trees are very water intensive and will change the water uptake system in older tree roots nearby, stealing their resources. But they provide food security during natural disasters like earthquakes. In 2016, there was no electricity for 8 days and sewage systems were backed up in some places for at least 8 months. Citrus trees allowed residents access to fruits during this time when the government was only delivering cans of tuna and water.

Only 2% of the TDF is left in Ecuador and is still being destroyed regardless of conservation efforts. Urban expansion is also a huge threat to these areas. It is a delicate system but the forest is able to regrow if conservation efforts are continued by communities and organizations here. I have total faith in the efforts Planet Drum is making and intend to make an impact in not only reforesting and conservation but also providing different communities and age groups with educational opportunities.

In February we are welcoming an engineer from the States to help me build a water collection system for students at a local school using local materials and implementing bamboo rain gutters on their roofs. This will allow them clean drinking water. They may also store and collect it for the dry months.

In early January we are helping to sponsor a clothing drive for people living in the countryside, and in exchange they will help us plant trees. In the spring, we are planning a trash run with a local family that started a running club. The participants will be racing as well as picking up trash for points. It’s a fun healthy way to raise bioregional awareness, clean up the beaches, and give away citrus trees to the participants. I will keep you all updated for these events! In the meantime, we have been collecting ornamental trees which will be used by the new mayor to revegetate the highway.

October 2019

3-4x a week I met with Clay to learn how to properly care for the Greenhouse at the University. I never had taken the bus this far before. Had some trouble adjusting to the keys at the water pump but overall the puppies kept us good company. We thought the chickens could be eating one of the plants but it could also be the puppies jumping on them. They are so cute though.

I also learned about the history of Planet Drum and a lot about the founder, Peter. It seemed he poured his heart into this project and it would be really cool to carry out his wishes. I have been warned to not work with the guys from Cordillera del Balsamo, but wasn’t given much detail as to why. I was able to study the reforestation here in the Tropical Dry Forest for a few months and that’s where I fell in love with it so after hearing about the open position at Planet Drum, I was excited. Clay planted a ton of citrus trees which he said was to gain more community involvement, which makes sense, although they are water intensive.

I skyped with Judy a few times and I do enjoy talking to her and we are both on the same page about a lot. It seems I have some freedom to take the project into the direction that I want to. This will take time but I’m excited to create long lasting sustainable projects.

We began an 8 week environmental educational class at PUCE Manabi. The students were awesome and very excited to be outside working with us. The extra hands were great in the Greenhouse plus they taught me a lot about which plant is which. I want to continue working with the professor there.

We meet with Judy Loor, the new mayor’s right hand woman, to discuss the future projects they are planning. She took us for a ride in her car with a man from the agricultural sector to Las Coronas. Clay then spoke about Planet Drum Foundation and invited the community to help us plant trees on the highway but the president of the community kind of put him on the spot and asked if everybody can have trees in front of their house. It was a huge crowd so hard to say no to. (They were receiving their IESS El Campo insurance that requires them to be in town when meetings are held monthly.) So over 300 families were present. I hope they care for their trees and properly dispose of the plastic bottles we reuse to plant the trees in. That’s bioregionalism right there–upcycling single use bottles.

We also sold 300 trees to a family in Canoa making $600 in donations for Planet Drum.

Clay then brought over the furniture (beds, table, one chair, kitchen appliances) and archives of Planet Drum to the new volunteer apartment. Lots of dust on the archives. I am instructed to keep them safe until Judy gets here with her family.

Overall, very excited to be contributing to Planet Drum Foundation!

November 2019

We started off November strong with an incredible volunteer from Wisconsin. We had some issues with her finding the house and I had to pick her up at a park nearby but had some good laughs about it. Throughout the month she helped me rewrite the volunteer book and gave good directions to future volunteers from her experiences. She also played a hand in brainstorming ideas for the Study Abroad course packet. I am continually revisiting and adding to the packet before giving it to Judy for approval.

We spent LOTS of days in the greenhouse transplanting trees, cleaning things up, and organizing. I was devastated to find out that somebody had stolen our hose from there one morning. Hopefully they needed it more than the city of Bahia…

We also collected lots of citrus seeds as well as some tagua seeds. Tagua is a species of palm and the seeds have been used to make items in jewelry as well as pipes. We have started a seed bank for native species here and will continue to collect as well as plant each year to track the evolution over the years. I have been drying them, putting them in plastic bags, and freezing the embryos. However I am still thinking that when the electricity goes out here in Bahia what we can do about it? It happened this month a few times.

We planted four trees at the senior center. Everybody greets you with hugs and is so happy to just converse. We met with one of the women working there who also happened to be the president of San Roque community. The soil there was very sandy and we were uncertain if the trees would grow, but checking back, they are doing well. Somebody at the center is definitely watering them!

Yessenia, the president from San Roque, asked if we plant anywhere else. It was fun to explain what we do and be proud of the work here. She asked if we could help her reforest the side of a mountain in her neighborhood near the coast. It can help with future erosion that occurs with earthquakes. She also wants us to build a bamboo bench so they can watch sunsets every night. We rounded up some local volunteers—Galoe Espinosa, Tomas Loor, Marlo Mera, Luis Carlos Guzman, Diego Delgado, Antonio, Yessenia, la reina de San Roque, Marcos—as well as Judy and her family, while they were visiting, to help us plant! Super hot that day but a family donated some water to help us. Overall we planted 50 trees—some citrus as well as some natives.

We have continued the educational classes and this month was my first time flying solo. We made a bioregional map of Bahia focusing on water resources. You could tell they thought a lot about the sources for their water and where it went after use. Some of the students who weren’t from around here worked with students who were and  who could explain the town’s layout. Then they were asked where does their water come from? None of them knew the answer so the teacher made sure to give them an extra point for those that came with the right answer at the next class. The last day of classes they got to paint some signs for the greenhouse as well plant a tree on campus. We chose a location next to the rooftop to catch any runoff and I instructed the students to take care of their trees their entire University career. I have checked back and all but two trees are thriving. With the rainy season coming, we have good probability they will survive.

We were also invited to an Open House for PUCE school where I talked about my career and Planet Drum projects here. The differences within each school group was incredible as some kids were very determined to pursue university after high school and some were ready to drop out of high school right then. Their attitudes toward the environment were varying as well. Each school group was offered  the opportunity to plant a tree in the greenhouse and we had a lot of fun. Some of them even want to volunteer and learn more about the greenhouse. The volunteer emails have been flying in. SO many interested volunteers, hoping one day on having a group!

December 2019

Exciting news! We met with one of the high school teachers who expressed interest in our project at the open house. We visited their school. It was really tiny and no shade anywhere. They want to learn the bioregional curriculum and in turn we will help build them a seed bed and perhaps a water collection device from our newly committed volunteer Kristen, who is an engineer. She’s SO excited and I have begun looking for parts and communicating with her about the plan. She has asked to stay with a family here to practice her Spanish as well as learn about their culture.

We are planning to start the curriculum in February with Nicoll and Bruno (a student from the University) to help teach the classes. I think both of them will make a fantastic team and we will have a bit more muscle with building structures. I look forward to getting to know them both in the near future.

We are also collecting ornamentals for the highway project with our new volunteers Charlotte and Guillaume from France and South America. I came down with the flu and haven’t been able to closely work with them yet but tomorrow will be my first day back in the field with them. They will transplant more ornamentals and finish off the rest of the citrus trees. Some trees are getting a fungus and pests so I am experimenting with different solutions. We have also collected some free bamboo to make another seedbed in the greenhouse.

I have been writing drafts for three different grants and researching as well as looking through more archives for more information as well as making a map for areas where we have planted before. Still need to meet with Judy Loor to discuss details of money donation from government.

Guillaume and Charlotte had a tough time here and decided to leave only after two weeks to head to the mountains. The slowly paced lifestyle drove them crazy here. But before they left, we were able to plant in two different communities over the course of 4 days. We finished planting in San Roque with Yessenia. Some men from the Bella Vista neighborhood were extremely useful in helping us finish there.

We were also able to plant in Bella Vista neighborhood. This is my favorite neighborhood here as the people here are always eager to help. Together, we planted 102 trees in both neighborhoods. In addition, we are collecting clothing in exchange for citrus trees to give to some people who live further into the mountains. We plan to make it into an event and encourage locals to donate what they can..

I have also met with Andrew and Maurita Jeffery here in Bahia. Maurita is from here and I believe Andrew is from New York and has experience in marketing. They are runners and have been organizing running events here lately which are a huge success. Together, we are planning to have a trash clean-up run in the next few months. We will give each participant a pair of gloves and a bag. They will receive a certain number of points for each bag of trash as well as time for running.

Other than that, I have just been continually drafting grants to send over to Jean and plan to have them ready for early January. I have also been collecting various seeds, tending to the greenhouse, and cutting ornamentals for Ingrid. I’m very excited and feel SO much motivation to get us money for 2020 and focus on students for the summertime. I’m realizing the volunteers are all very different and I need to meet with all of them via Skype prior to accepting them to work on the project in order to get a read on their personalities and give them an idea of what to expect.

I’m not sure how the volunteer apartment will hold up if we continue to just get one or two volunteers at a time. They need a lot of attention and don’t always follow the apartment rules which of course, is expected from time-to-time, but still draining. Morgan Bailey, my first volunteer, left us with high standards and I will forever be grateful for her as a volunteer. I hope to attract more volunteers like her in the future.

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