Moving Several Levels Higher

Report #1 from Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

Ciudad Ecologica (Ecological City) activities are at the highest point since the city declaration two years ago. I don’t believe just one person any longer knows everything that’s going on here, so I’ll only update some of what is interfacing with Planet Drum’s projects.

Amy Jewel, volunteer recycling planner from New York, and I have taken separate rooms in a large second floor balconied apartment overlooking the main street Simon Bolivar. It is furnished with two bathrooms, an office space, double-size living room, and kitchen. At a hundred dollars a month, it luxuriates in the upper range of Bahia apartments, but we despaired of finding anything suitable for less money. There are much less livable places where we would not have been able to avoid colliding into each other that were more than half the rent, and after seeing them Amy decided to contribute the remainder from what I could afford. It’s Planet Drum’s field office while I’m here for a month more and Amy for a month after that. If someone else (or two) shows up to help us, they could keep it active until I return on my usual six month circuit.

The team of a dozen or so women in the Arte Papel paper recycling cooperative remain in Planet Drum’s previous Leonidas Plaza building at nearly double the rent we paid due to national inflation of about one hundred percent in the year since we originally began using it. They only use the space as a workshop in the daytime, so the continuous sawmill buzzing, lack of water, dogs barking all night, and muddy conditions that decided me against staying there any longer aren’t nearly as great a hindrance. A second recycled paper-making group has been established nearby in Leonidas Plaza, and another in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. There is also a Club Ecologico children’s paper-making group in the temporary (although it is becoming permanent) Fanca settlement for those made homeless by El Nino and the earthquake in ’98.

The City Council just passed an ordinance I previously requested to make our revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora a public park, now officially named El Bosque en Medio de Las Ruinas (The Forest in the Midst of the Ruins). Claire, Tony and Marcelo were the foundation for a team of paid workers and volunteers who built several stairways of spaced logs shored up by muyullo stakes that may actually leaf out, and senderos (paths) throughout about two hectares (five acres) of the site. There is a ridgeline path connected by stairways to a main lower path that leads through native vegetation, and looping secondary paths running from it to ruined house sites. All of the logs for steps were recycled from various former construction uses, and rubble from the ruins bolsters some paths. There’s even a bench of poles held up by stacks of old bricks. A remarkable amount of work went into making it a genuinely agreeable place.

Padre Xavier from the city’s Catholic church performed a benediction at the inauguration ceremony for the park last December. I was incredulous about stories I heard, so I asked for his own description at a dinner of fried shrimp and grilled steak in Columiu’s restaurant last night. He called it a baptism with earth instead of water. Everyone was asked to reach down to their feet and pick up a handful of dirt, then sprinkle it over their heads. He followed that with the Prayer of St. Francis and some words about restoring the environment. I asked him to describe Liberation Theology to Amy because I’m aware of his continuous assistance to poor and homeless people. Instead he began talking about the fact that he was a Basque, not a Spaniard, and a political separatist. How fitting for me to have a devolutionist and proponent of Pacha Mama (an indigenous Quechua word for Mother Earth that almost everyone here knows) as the priest in this city! He knows that I’m a pre-Christian type but invited me to speak about ecology “in human terms” when the extensive church restoration program is completed and it is rededicated next August.

Hobo tree stakes piled at the park site have leafed out in the magical way of tropical plants, and we’ll put them in the ground soon. Hobos are magnificently branched, low-growing trees whose roots are a mirror image underground, thereby creating the best possible soil retention for erosion control. Their prized fruits are eaten green with a tangy flavor when young, and red when mature with a plum-tomato taste and texture. It’s the early part of the rainy season, so I’ll wait until mid-February to evaluate how the park construction is holding up and make whatever emergency repairs may be needed for safety. Major maintenance will have to wait until summer when the rains are over and we can see where inevitable changes have to be made.

We’re going to make identification plaques for ten plant species in the park. It seemed a good idea for public input and awareness to have a contest to select a logo design to go on these plaques, so I wrote up the problem for a newspaper announcement (which Jacob Santos translated into appropriate Spanish) and offered a $10 prize. It comes out this weekend with a deadline the following week. This could be a popular event or completely misguided, I can’t guess which until there are submissions, or not.

Revegetation of Maria Auxiliadora was partially an experiment to see what type of land damage could be repaired using native plants. There are places elsewhere in Bahia where nearly perpendicular cliffs as high as twenty meters (about sixty feet) were created at the crests of hills when mud slides from water saturation of the clay soil during El Nino three years ago fell away. They are still there and won’t be remedied by plantings alone as in Maria Auxiliadora. From the center of the city out to a place called Kilometro Ocho (Kilometer Eight) there is major land erosion along the main highway above areas where a large percentage of the city’s people live. It will get much worse in the next El Nino. I began a survey of this strip that borders Rio Chone with Ivan Aguirre of the Public Works Department last time I was here and completed it a few days ago. We couldn’t get too close to the eroded hillsides in the short time available because of muddy roads or a total lack of them, so the survey was made from a truck on the highway. It would be fair to say that it underestimates the extent of damaged land by as much as a third owing to the fact that hillside surfaces aren’t flat and the amount of curvature and existence of defiles couldn’t be accurately seen. I’ve written up the results for the mayor and council members titled “Report on Bahia de Caraquez Hillside Erosion Suitable for Revegetation Using Plantings Without Physical Alteration of the Landscape.” From a dozen or so observation points along the way between Astillero barrio and Kilometro Ocho, a total of 160-198 hectares of eroded land (400-495 acres) can be seen. Something over half of it, 97-115 hectares (243-288 acres), can be treated similarly to Maria Auxiliadora by using plantings of grasses, bushes and trees without physical intervention such as terracing or removing parts of hills. The other half of this area is so steep that it can’t be remedied by plantings alone, at least not within a reasonable time frame of five years before the next El Nino. (The full report follows.)

It must be a nearly irresistible temptation for planners to suggest using heavy equipment to deal with the steep part of the land. Bulldozing terraces or carrying large truckloads of dirt away appeals to the engineering mind, and the amount of money involved appeals to contractors. But there are forbidding drawbacks. There is no geological structure under the soil here. It is mostly hardened clay without underlying rock formations. Terraces will become saturated and could easily fall away. Removing tops or sides of hills invites runoff problems and slides that can be disastrous. In most cases, both methods will require high maintenance of continual rebuilding or removing more dirt that is too expensive to be practical.

What should be done then? Nothing. The steepest hills should be left alone. For someone who hasn’t seen Ecuador’s cliffs that are directly on the coast this may seem a defeatist proposal, but they are often nearly ninety degrees sheer with faces permanently bare of vegetation. They erode constantly and massively. The beach below them is brown clay not white sand. The ocean itself is usually brown with clay for a surprising distance out from shore. This isn’t land that can be held back or pushed into shape for long.

Then what about the threatened houses and roads? Move them. That’s right, it will ultimately prove to be less expensive to rebuild elsewhere than to persist in attempting to preserve untenable places. California is a sister region of Ecuador on the Pacific Rim that offers plenty of examples of houses that fell down hillsides and hillsides that fell on houses. And the soil there is usually more substantial than Ecuador’s absorbent coastal clay that is prone toward sloughing off whole hillsides in mud when it finally becomes saturated with rain water.

Is moving structures and roads really a doable suggestion? I suppose that depends on what the time frame is for getting it done. Local governments owe it to their citizens to at least warn them immediately about the situation. It is also a responsible step to begin mapping alternative sites for people to live and forbidding further development where conditions are dangerous. For example, a recent Civil Defense report rated a substantial part of Bahia as vulnerable to the greatest damage from earthquakes. Maria Auxiliadora’s inclusion in this high-risk category and unsuitability for building was listed in the ordinance as a reason for making it a park. A far-seeing government should go even further and begin investigating ways to swap land with owners so that presently imperiled residential areas can be reconfigured into less vulnerable and beneficial uses such as farms, restored wild areas, or parks. Don’t mistake this for pessimism and negativity, it’s actually part of a positive and sustainable perspective.

While we’re on the subject of optimism, I haven’t tallied all of the budget elements but using the cost of work at Maria Auxiliadora as a baseline, the treatable half of eroded land will probably cost in the low six figures. “Seis ceros” (six zeroes) in local parlance. I don’t have any idea where we can get that much money for this kind of work, but I’m going to write a proposal for funding it anyway. 

Reader Interactions

Leave a Reply