Still More Levels

Report #2 from Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

When the mayor asked six months ago for a volunteer Environmental Planner to assist him personally, I promised to fulfill the request. I correctly supposed that he wanted to undertake initiating and coordinating the ecological policies and activities of city agencies, while also responding to numerous suggestions and needs of non-profit and business groups as well as private citizens. In this spirit, a Department of Tourism and Environment has been created in the intervening months. The new department is in the process of being staffed, and an Environmental Planner was found, Gabriela Chejtman from Argentina, who arrived at about the same time I did in mid-January.

What I incorrectly guessed was how much that promise would occupy my mind in the space of time until my return to Bahia. Locating a planner in San Francisco didn’t seem to offer a wide enough range of choices, so I decided to explore finding someone solely through the Internet. A brief job description was sent to one professional and one special interest listserve. It was almost immediately picked up by another half-dozen web sites that broadcast somewhat garbled versions of their own. In most, the condition of “bilingual English/Spanish” was retained but “volunteer” was unfortunately dropped. As a result, I received fifty or so serious responses over a space of two months (another one actually came yesterday) from places as widely separated as New Zealand, The Netherlands, and several countries in South America, besides those that could be expected from the US and Canada. They each required different responses depending on what version they had read, their requirements, and each one’s qualifications. Many dropped away when informed that the announcement they saw had “volunteer” missing. I composed a second, more detailed description and list of questions for the remaining candidates. Another round of personal follow-up correspondence was then required with about a dozen capable and willing applicants, and more e-mail conversations with each of them took place as the selection process narrowed. It was a huge amount of work and concentration for the intervening six months, ranging up to several hours roughly every other day while electronic messages crossed back and forth.

Gabriela has spent most of her time so far meeting with the mayor or city agency staffs and following up leads to citizen eco-ciudad activities. There is so much information and first-hand observations that she needs to absorb that I haven’t seen her much. She went on the eroded land survey, jammed between Ivan Aquirre and myself in the front seat of a pick-up truck as we veered through mud-clogged sections of the main highway or bounced along back roads, asking pertinent questions about local social conditions as well as natural features. I hope to have an impression of her general approach and specific recommendations before I leave in less than a month. To questions I ask about these things now, Gabriela cagily answers “Veremos” (“We will see.”) With the marvelous but peculiarly isolating increase in activities that is underway, there is an urgent need if for nothing else to have a central source of information that everyone can use to stay current. The new department and Gabriela’s planning position have the promise of doing much more, of course. They might eventually be able to match what has been up to now a mainly bottom-up citizen’s movement toward a green city with a complementary top-down effort from the government.

Amy Jewel works for a recycling company in New York City and immediately threw herself as a volunteer in Bahia into the task of conceiving an overall view of waste generation. She envisions converting the city’s garbage program into a recycling operation with remarkable single-mindedness. She became an instant confrere of Canary Islands bred fellow volunteer “Jay” McConnell whose dedication during the last two months has revived and transformed the main public market’s moribund waste separating effort. Operating under the aegis of Stuarium Foundation, the market now consistently provides organic material for compost to a private agricultural producer as well as the city. (An official understanding was created this week between the city, the market, and the private company that will insure proper waste separation with Gabriela’s supervision.) Now Amy wants to find ways to recycle the non-organic portion. She was disgusted by the pollution and disease-fostering conditions during a visit to the main landfill. Inspired to create an alternative for burying the municipal trash, Amy made a sample survey of household and hotel waste by actually getting up before dawn several days to beat the garbage trucks to refuse containers on the sidewalks outside buildings. She put on gloves and opened up garbage bags to get at the true story! It’s her impression that half of the discards are organic matter that the city could render into compost She has even made a preliminary tour looking at land for potential compost pile sites. Recycling companies that operate on a fairly low level here haven’t escaped her scrutiny, and she now knows the local going rates for cardboard, glass, plastic, and metals that can be separated out by each household and commercial establishment. Amy is writing a report to present to the mayor next Tuesday along with mine on eroded hillsides. Overcoming the gulf between good intentions and demonstrable results is a formidable challenge anywhere. Native-born residents often warn us that Ecuador is particularly slow in this regard. Our transformation-minded evaluations need to be circulated in a finished form within the city council and appropriate agencies for approval as policies. Then they can guide future actions that can be large-scale and dramatic. But first comes a briefing for Dr. Leo who candidly told me, “I’m good at two things: doctor and mayor. I need knowledgeable people to explain everything else.”

Aching legs when I stand up or walk today are proof that Marcelo Luque, Amy and I accomplished more than just a sightseeing tour for her through the Maria Auxiliadora park site yesterday. We carried one-foot diameter, four feet long sprouting hobo logs down the fairly steep entrance stairway into the interior to plant alongside the trail. This is the first time that plantings have been used to support structural elements of the park. Some low parts of the trail were previously built up to a level height by shoveling in dirt. Those spots have looser soil than places that are naturally level, and could eventually slump or fall away. Hobo trees will provide a nest of roots to support the trail.

Cultural notes

“Maldicion” (“curse word”) appears regularly in Spanish subtitles that run throughout English-speaking movies and television programs as a substitute for four (or more) letter words. The same thing happens by using bleeps or silent spaces in US televised versions of movies. The moralist’s ax is a little sharper here by adding “damn,” “hell,” and other religion based words. Sometimes the censor seems to have a special prejudice or simply lacks exposure. For example, in a recent film Julia Roberts’ character called someone “a limp dick” which was translated in a Spanish subtitle as “homosexual.” What happened there? Did “limp” transfer over to “limp wrist,” or was limp dickedness chauvinistically assumed to be a condition of homosexuals? Even though it was an inappropriate translation, more of the Spanish-speaking audience might have understood the slang expression “maricon” without needing to check the definition with each other. Was the potentially more English-sounding “homosexual” chosen to make a critical cultural reference? Or was it used to simply make things even more obtuse? As off-the-wall censorship, this bit requires genuine cultural archeology.

Socializing on weekend nights here includes a curious combination of urban cruising and country-dances. Small groups walk or drive around the ocean front Malecon Boulevard and main streets waving from the curbs or calling out the windows to friends, drinking beer, and stopping to talk. What makes this different from a strictly teenage scene is that it can be completely inter-generational. Older couples get out of their cars to dance at high school celebrations, twelve year olds ride along with cousins in their twenties and thirties, and different groups can all start singing together when a well-memorized song happens to come over a passing car’s radio. It may be limited as a diversion, but no one is excluded.  

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