Ecuador is exiting the past in Quito, and it is coming into important aspects of the future in Bahia de Caraquez.
Last night, national television showed the capitol with lights glaring into packed throngs in the street, smiling men and women wearing ponchos and indigenous hats, soldiers with rifles slung from their shoulders walking casually beside student protesters waving Ecuadorean flags. CONAIE, the confederation of indigenous nationalities, spearheaded a drive that took over the national congress and several provincial governments, and aimed to oust the president and his cabinet.
In the streets of Bahia the next morning, people seem absorbed in a typical Saturday as Nicola Mears and I drive in her green van emblazoned with the black, red and yellow face of a guacamayo parrot to the side of a heavily eroded hill that borders the barrio of Astillero. There is no break in the slender strip of houses beside the bay that constitutes most of this city of about 20,000 people, but the base of the hill had to be scraped away up to a height of about ten feet to accommodate them here. As we approach on a road that was as deep as that in flowing mud during El Nino rains two years ago, the hillside becomes more perpendicular until it rises seventy five feet high at an angle of forty five degrees. The face of the slope is gullied to various depths along its length with the severest cut carved five feet deep.
The soil is light orange clay and more prominently visible than the sparse shrubs and small trees on top of it. What is remarkable is that much plant life exists here at all.
Nicola’s partner Dario Proana instigated a revegetation effort with barrio residents a few months after the hill face had nearly completely slid away. When that happened, surging mud quickly flattened a low wall of field stones, over-ran the narrow storm drains, and swept away houses on its way to fill in the shore of the bay. Hoping to prevent this from happening so severely again, they both painstakingly assembled some cuttings of muyullo and seedlings of algarrobo, both native dry tropical forest trees. Roots of these species grow fairly deep and can help hold the clay when it absorbs rainwater, becomes super-saturated, and breaks away with the pressure of increased weight. Residents, mostly children, joined them in chopping muyuyo branches and pounding them into the ground, digging holes for foot-high algarrobo seedlings, adding some grass and other plants found nearby, and spreading wet sawdust at the bases for mulch.
The replantings aren’t difficult to spot among the few trees that remained after the slide. They are uniformly about three feet high and bright green. Spaces between each of them are uneven and it isn’t possible at this time to determine whether this is a pattern that developed haphazardly at inception or if it reflects the success of particular plants. No records were kept. Enough of them thrived to give the impression that after one or two more normal rainy seasons, this small section of the hillside will have a fairly dense cover of plants and a better chance to withstand the next El Nino. And it can provide a foundational habitat for restoring whole indigenous ecosystems.
Bahia de Caraquez is far from the urban centers where dramatic political changes are taking place right now. It doesn’t have a significant population of indigenous tribal people, but the symptoms of discord are as evident here as anywhere else. The currency has been devalued by fifty per cent twice in six months, and most wages are frozen at pre-devaluation levels. People have become economically desperate. “Dolarization” that was proposed by the now-hated president would probably have the misery compounding effect of raising prices. The government has also virtually ignored all of the social complaints that exist here: impoverishment, homelessness, disease, lack of adequate educational opportunities, and unreliable or non-existent infrastructure elements such as pure drinking water, sewage facilities, electricity, and roads. In addition, governmental corruption is rampant and unrepentantly visible.
The people of Ecuador rose up because of all of these burdens, and they also recognized the necessity to oppose globalization in the form of the previous government’s assent to becoming a guinea pig for mercenary International Monetary Fund loan repayment demands. It will take time to see how well their best interests are served by whatever changes take place.
It will also take several years to prove out the fledgling reforestation effort at Astillero, and a new planting project of indigenous species to match the previous wild mix that Planet Drum Foundation in partnership with Eco-Bahia Learning Center for the Environment is beginning next month in the mudslide devastated barrio of Maria Auxiliadora where over a dozen people were killed. Like farmers have done for millennia, we are waiting hopefully at present for the rainy season to begin.