In the summer of 2012, I traveled with thirteen other students and one professor to Ecuador to learn about bioregionalism and sustainable city building. Our destination was Bahia de Caraquez, a coastal city that met with disaster in 1997 and 98, experiencing heavy El Nino rain that resulted in a massive landslide followed by an earthquake. In 1999, the city decided to rebuild with a focus on sustainability, declaring itself an “EcoCity.” The focus of our study was to see whether or not it was possible to build and maintain a sustainable city and how outside factors, like consumption and community, would affect that idea. We partnered with Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco based nonprofit founded by Mr. Peter Berg, and helped plant and maintain trees to prevent future soil erosion.
Bahia de Caraquez is a tiny city of around twenty thousand people, situated where the Rio Chone meets the Pacific Ocean. Spending three weeks here was a great, eye-opening experience. It was interesting to compare and contrast the slow-paced lifestyle versus a more “modern” one in the United States. More importantly, it was great to reflect on just what a person really “needs” to be happy. One doesn’t need to buy the latest and “best” gadgets to live a happy and fulfilling life. Something that amazed me about Bahia was the ethic of the people. In the US, if something breaks, the common mantra is to buy a replacement instead of investing in repairs (or doing the repairs yourself). This comes from living in a society where disposable income is more readily available for more people. Walking the streets of Bahia let me see people doing work, repairing bicycles and other necessities instead of buying new, in stark contrast to a disposable commodity based lifestyle. Also, it was not uncommon to see a person ride a bike with one hand and hold a tool or part in another, suggesting a culture where people are not afraid of getting dirty when doing work that needs to be done. All the same, the slow pace allowed people more leisure time. The energy of a group of people huddled around a television cheering when their favorite soccer team scores a goal is indicative of the sense of togetherness the community displays. Aside from what we learned in the classroom and in the field, being out among the local people can teach one lessons about community.
We traveled to Ecuador as students taking a class, first and foremost. In addition to being assigned books to read prior to arriving to provide context for the class (from influential authors such as Kirkpatrick Sale, Peter Berg himself, and Harvey Molotch), we also had discussion sessions several times a week to talk about the readings and how they related to activities and homework throughout the week. During one of our sessions, the Clay Plager-Unger, the project manager at Planet Drum, visited and answered our questions. It was great to have a guest lecturer with real-world experience in running a non-profit and the territory that goes with it (maintaining good standing with the community, local politics, et cetera).
In addition to class time we also collaborated with Planet Drum with planting trees in the area to mitigate soil erosion. For a few days a week, we rode the bus to the organization’s greenhouse and helped with whatever needed to be done that day. Duties ranged from mixing compost, planting seedlings in plastic bottles and moving them into the green house, clearing trails to growing sites with a machete, or watering the young trees to ensure their survival during our visit in the local dry season. The hands-on experience was wonderful for several reasons. For one, it broke down the ivory tower approach to academia, suggesting that learning needs to take place in classrooms. We were able to take the theories and ideas discussed in the classroom and see them applied out in the field. Also, being on an environmentally charged trip, having the opportunity to work with Planet Drum and help carry out their mission of environmental stewardship gives one the feeling that he or she is doing a wonderful thing for the local community. Being a part of the group that Peter Berg built and carrying out its mission would make him proud. When we weren’t in the field, working to help mitigate soil erosion, our group took field trips to points of relevance around the area. Destinations ranged from museums and archaeological sites to learn about the history of the area (indigenous peoples and how they lived off the land, et cetera) to national parks and organic farms to learn about local efforts in establishing a more sustainable relationship between people and the environment (shrimp farmers planting mangroves to purify the Rio Chone at Isla de Corazon, green schools where children learn about composting at Rio Muchacho, et cetera). Knowledge can be attained in discussions and lectures, but combining knowledge with first-hand experience leads to wisdom.
This class was the last thing I needed to graduate with my Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies, but my three weeks in Ecuador offered a lot more than I dreamed it would. Aside from the scholastic endeavors in the class, the experience of living in Ecuador and working with Planet Drum did a lot for my outlook on life and my work ethic. I got a lot out of it, as did all of my colleagues who participated on the trip. I would wholeheartedly recommend this experience to other people. Che Guevara said, “Let the world change you and you will change the world.” With this experience, I feel I can go out and make a tangible difference and leave the world better than I found it.