Revelations in a Cattle Slough

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

When contacts are hard to make quickly they often get even harder. That’s the way Brian found getting in touch with Pedro Otero, an ecologically-minded biologist who teaches, does water testing as “Peter’s Lab”, and is an owner with four brothers of a significant parcel of badly eroded land. Located in the El Toro Creek watershed behind Leonidas Plaza, it is one of the larger holdings at 257 hectares (nearly 700 acres) within the stretch of our intended revegetation corridor. Pedro is a founding member of El Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia and once expressed great interest in accompanying us on a survey of his place, but over a period of two weeks he seemed to be unreachable even though his telephone was answered and messages were taken. 

People are often unreachable in Bahia. It’s not clear which way an attempt at communication will go until three or four tries are made. After that a certain wariness of the inevitable begins to take hold. Five, six, seven attempts and the slog is on. You have to weigh new factors that come into play here like cultural differences, language ability, realistic consequences of failure, personal stubbornness, and even heat-derived fixation. Brian felt compelled to succeed because of the strategic position of the site halfway along the whole corridor and the great potential future impact of mud flows originating there. It was becoming an uncomfortably familiar situation and I became anxious about leaving in a few days without helping him to meet and assess the prospects with Pedro. Trying unsuccessfully to vault over obstacles in contacting people can produce the most isolating moments I experience working here. Locals encounter the same problem, but for foreigners it can create a degree of incapacitation that is a worse malaise than loneliness.

After close to a dozen attempts, Brian resembled a rescued sailor from a shipwreck as he blurted with elation about finally reaching Pedro himself and arranging a time and place to meet. “Where?” I asked. “I think it must be his house. He said you had been there.” “I never was.” During the following moment he might have felt that he was going to be tossed back into the sea. We agreed that painful as it was he would have to find out where we would meet, and the directions if it was Pedro’s house. I forget how many tries it took to finally establish that it would be the house and how to find it. Brian is going to survive in Bahia.

When we found the place at 9AM Pedro was expecting us and also waiting for one of his brothers named Jose. We were invited aboard Pedro’s well-used jeep and joined by his highly capable machete-carrying thirteen-year old son. “He is my partner on an ecological radio program,” Pedro explained. Within a few minutes we were jolting along the rutted road beside El Toro Creek. Appallingly eroded twenty-five feet high straight-sided banks of the main creek soon became visible on the side of the road.   After a few barbed wire gate stops, we drove through an even worse prospect when the road itself descended into the deeply eroded canyon of a dry tributary creek. How will anyone get through this steep terrain with a vehicle when intensifying winter rains turn all of the ground to mud? When the fences ended Pedro stopped and we began what became a two hour hike.

It was a completely novel experience from the start where we encountered a side canyon at least thirty feet deep that terminated abruptly in a semi-circle. Backtracking from it about twenty feet, I showed Brian how we could experiment there by planting deep-rooting trees that far away. They would trace at a distance the eroding edge halfway before it reached what might be a presumed endpoint. We couldn’t totally stop the steep-sided bank from eroding, but we might be able to halt it before the maximum distance dictated by the angle of repose about fifty or more feet further than its present position. Long-lived, deep-rooted ceibo trees in a curved row three or four trees deep could make an effective defensive barrier against losing more land.

We dropped down to the creek and found skinny cows staring at us. They stood along the erosion-widened bed of an extremely sparse and slow trickle. Cow and burro manure in all stages from fresh to dry lay in the water and along the wider muddy sides. I got over my initial revulsion when I recognized that this would be a good ingredient in a compost soil mixture for filling holes of new plantings. Special protective measures would have to be taken fencing them, of course. Soon Pedro began an informal walking lecture by explaining that the soil was highly saline. It flowed along salty soil that was elevated originally from the ocean floor by tectonic uplift resulting from the South American continental mass colliding with the Pacific Plate. He pointed at sodium chloride pellets in the stream bed and carbonate layers in the mud banks derived from ancient colonies of miniscule shellfish. Then he began identifying plants whose names I had only heard before (or never heard): Saman, jaille, and balsamo trees along with estrella grass.  Then the horribly eroded canyon walls of tributary creeks appeared like a desertified Middle Eastern landscape. Denuded mud mounds rose where the water courses came together. I was having the heightened sensibility that might come with seeing a beautifully rendered painting of a monstrous scene, beauty and terror mixed as in Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Children”.

Brian separated from us to follow the rapidly walking, rubber-booted, shotgun carrying younger brother who Pedro described as “verdad hombre de campo” (true man of the countryside). At a kind of fall line above which cows were unable to scramble and an increased uphill grade caused stream water to run clearer and faster, Pedro and I sat down to sketch the whole property and discuss an appropriate revegetation process, specific plant species, and the outlook for future protection. He began by putting his hands palm outwards to show it wasn’t possible for him to control the future of land use on this property inherited from his father. Some brothers wanted to sell and no one could dictate what new owners might do. The five tributaries that entered  the main creek course through their holdings roughly defined a sub-parcel for each brother, but they weren’t actually assigned yet. Having said this, he brightened adding that he wouldn’t sell and stated he wanted to hold onto his fifth. The brother that accompanied us wanted to farm fruit trees but was conservation-minded about the remaining part of his piece. Most of the area in sub-parcels two and three could be guaranteed safe.

There is a precedent for family land preservation. The ridgeline zone around the entire water basin had never been cut and remained an intact indigenous forest. His father had planted dry tropical hardwoods in a fairly wide semi-circle below there about twenty-five years ago. Much of this was cut seven years later but it was replanted and those trees were still there. At the core of the property near the main creek there had been widespread deforestation, burning, and different types of row farming. It was the most badly eroded zone.

With distractingly beautiful tropical birds and butterflies flying past, I began to become inspired about what lay before us. This place was one of the greatest contributors of water and mud flows through the area where we drove in with its farms, buildings, and the main highway into Bahia de Caraquez. Those locations had experienced one to two meters (three to six feet) of mud flows during 1998’s El Nino rains. Two types of erosion controlling plantings were needed: extension of existing forests downward toward the creek, and plantings along water courses to shore them up. It would take thousands of trees and months of labor, untold amounts of individual and space-enclosing fences, and hundreds of gallons of  hard-to-carry water during the dry season (probably using burros). The harder the work seemed, the more I felt certain about doing it. A rising wave of elation caused an imbecilic grin to come over my face. Everything done here would have the biggest payoff in the entire strip. We were ecological lottery winners! 

Walking back with the brother, I was shown an oven bird’s nest sculpted from mud, told about a bird whose loud predictable song at 5:30 AM was a farmers’ alarm clock, and another that didn’t sing but barked like a dog. “No one has mentioned snakes to me, ” I commented pointing at his shotgun. “The worst is mata caballo (horse killer). It doesn’t go after people but can drop a horse.” “How big is it?” “I saw one five meters (fifteen feet) long that was this wide,” he depicted the circumference of a small pie. When Brian and I were walking to the apartment, I said “Can you believe what we just did? I’m too high, I’ve got to come down. I can’t think straight if I stay like this the rest of the day.” 

Cuisine notes. The proportion of starch in a range of forms that is consumed in the diet of undeveloped world populations runs higher than in more protein-rich developed countries, but the extent of this in Ecuador must be at the top throughout the world. Almuerzo lunches at midday featuring a soup course followed by a main dish often contain as many as seven different kinds including rice, potatoes, bread, yucca, wheat noodles, corn, and fried platanos patacones. These aren’t just served to field laborers but appear as inexpensive restaurant fare (at around $1.25 including a juice drink) for office workers and professionals. Portions of meat and fish are small in almuerzos (although often larger in the evening meal). Since gradually registering the predominance of starches I’ve begun leaving three or four uneaten.

On the incomparably positive side, fruits can be equally numerous at breakfast. I have counted pineapple, banana, papaya, orange, watermelon, maracuya (passion fruit) juice, and pechiche jam in a morning meal. The degree of ripeness and flavor is outstanding and in the case of papaya (or locally found naranjilla) unsurpassed. Experiencing how good the fruit here can be has caused me to healthily eat more of it in general, but I will no longer look for papaya outside this country. Its dense core flavor and high sweetness defy substitution elsewhere.

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