Natives are Harder

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

The main stage of the ambitious project to revegetate six kilometers of eroded hillsides directly facing Rio Chone on the road into Bahia de Caraquez with native plants of the tropical dry forest has begun. The list of bioregional criteria met by doing this is impressive. These hills are continuous with the metropolitan area and thus part of the ecological city vision for Bahia. The particular stretch of land involved is geologically unstable due to high earthquake and mudslide vulnerability which makes it unsuitable for houses. Consequently it is destined for some form of open status which can include restoring native plant and animal habitat in a “wild corridor”. While readying the return of indigenous ecosystems, revegetation will also greatly reduce the amount of erosion and mud slides in rainy seasons, especially when the next El Nino inevitably arrives. The effected land lies above the fairly dense parroquia (suburb) of Leonidas Plaza threatening homes and businesses of about 20,000 people, the principal highway into Bahia, and an already dangerously silted-up river. Most of the territory involved is privately owned and will require active engagement with landholding community members who can become participants in the revegetation vision and hopefully carry on more of the work themselves in the future. Mayor Leonardo Viteri signed an aval (statement of support) foreseeing improved public safety, lower public repair costs, economic opportunities from fruits and seeds that can be obtained without cutting down the planted trees, and ecological benefits involving soil, native species, ground water, and aquatic habitat in the river.

For all of its promise this is a much more arduous project than anyone foresaw at the beginning nearly two years ago.

A greenhouse needed to be built at the most distant point from the city on property donated by Universidad Catolica (Catholic University). It is a bamboo frame structure covered with close mesh green netting that supplied seedlings (along with some obtained from outside sources) which were carefully positioned on our first revegetation site of this project, the eroded hillside immediately above the greenhouse. Since then the beds have been reseeded. There are presently a hundred well developed, ready to plant, mixed species of natives left from the first round, and another thousand sprouts are grown sufficiently that volunteers Chris Yeager, Patrick Landewe and Ulrike Drevniok are now gently transferring them from the shallow beds into sleeve-like sacks for further maturation. The greenhouse has been doubled in size so that during the wet months usually starting sometime in December more seeds can be placed in the beds’ cultivated compost, topsoil and clay mixture as seedlings are taken out.

It has been far from an ordinary gardening operation. Field Projects Manager Brian Teinert has to concentrate intensely to sequence the whole process. Native seeds are notably more difficult to obtain and harder to germinate than domestic agricultural hybrids. They aren’t found in stores and aren’t just stuck into the ground. Most require special conditions which can vary from heat and dryness to soaking. Even then they may simply fail to grow and leave us wondering whether our cultivated soil is too rich compared to native clay, too moist, too dry, or a dozen other possibilities.

Within each species seeds germinate over a period of a month or more, probably for greater adaptivity, whereas hybridized domestic seeds usually show within a few days. After some of ours sprouted, were transferred to maturing sacks, and the beds reseeded with another species, a number of the previous seeds seemed to wait for the new ones to come up before finally rising among them. The germination season and duration period also varies for each species. Because it is necessary to time sowing seeds and growing plants during the dry months so that individuals will be ready to put onto revegetation sites in the rainy season, the individualistic and erratic quality of wild species makes success much more chancy than domestic farming which is notoriously fickle in itself.

Little information is available for the range of species and locations encompassed in the dry tropical forest. Some of this work hasn’t been done before, certainly not on the sites we’ve chosen. As in North America and other places, cutting down trees and overgrazing coupled with soil depletion through monocultural farming was carried out as though everything would magically grow back to its original state on its own. With few successful examples and so many unknowns, revegetation with natives is in a constant state of experimentation and starting over. As a particularly disappointing example, even before beginning the greenhouse process some seeds sent to us sat in a bus station for a few days and rotted in equatorial, organism-filled humidity.

After the rainy season comes seven months of drought with temperatures that generally fall between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties Fahrenheit. Vigorous plants that were first put into wet winter earth will soon wither in brick-dry, cracking summer clay if they are not watered regularly. Most are on inclines of up to sixty degrees so water must be carried uphill. Respite from repeating the sweating, grunting work of watering quite as often comes through reusing empty two liter plastic soft drink bottles which are filled and pushed into the ground beside young plants to release a trickle over several days. November is the final drying rack in the biological conditioning process of this unique forest type. The first hillside plants above the greenhouse have to endure another month before the rains come to even begin to prove that this approach to revegetation can succeed.

Walking in stands of trees and brush at this time of year brings solemn admiration of how life can persist. An absence of leaves gives away the forest interior’s intimate secrets. Ominous raw earth slides become starkly visible. Ruined houses and broken animal pens protrude from a universal brown background. All of the litter of the previous year is exposed in brash commercial colors. Birds are almost the sole inspiration for prosperity in the waterless ordeal. Outlined on bare branches like framed paintings, some of them just arrived from the north: green with white and black striped wings, light orange, solid black with electric cobalt blue flashing when they turn toward the sun.

Cuisine note. Eggs being cheap and perpetually available I set out to make a salad but tried to steer it in an Ecuadorian direction. Boiled some small potatoes to accompany the eggs, and sautéed particularly tasty local green peppers with garlic. Combined these with the usual mayonnaise, salt and pepper. After tasting there seemed a fairly wide area left for a foundational flavor of Bahian food. Cumin! Served it up to the whole crew who enthused enough to repeat in the future.

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