“Viva Eco-Bahia!”

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-gathering

(This is probably the last account of events here until after the Eco-Gathering February 27-28. In fact, there may not be a chance to send another before leaving Ecuador March 6 because of uncertainty about travel and e-capability.)

The barrio of Santa Martinita is a workers’ district of cement block houses near the center of town that rises on a hill to overlook the ocean. It was completely transformed when the hill top and sides slid down carrying along houses and burying them like toys left behind at the beach sticking out of the sand. Now the main road there is lined on both sides by a dense gauntlet of shacks thrown together with every imaginable piece of salvaged rubble.

Some of the gathering organizers went to a neighborhood meeting in Santa Martinita’s church to invite participation in the ecologically-based restoration process and attendance at the Bahia Ecociudad event. At the beginning there were mainly women and children, and with only ideas to offer people in such a desperate situation, we felt in an awkward position. It is a tribute to the warmth of people in this community that although there were just ideas to share and new-sounding ones like recycling and alternative energy at that, the gradually increasing crowd (it eventually included “The Bee” and his sons) were receptive and asked about getting jobs in those fields.

Joined by a nun from the convent school and Taka, coordinator of the Japanese-based mangrove restoration group Actmang who had just arrived, we went the next day to a similar meeting in the barrio of Astillero. It was held outside in the street sitting in a square made of chairs where second floor apartments with missing walls faced us like a silent jury. There were nearly as many men as women, separated from each other by an invisible line that ran diagonally through the square. After brief introductions by us, the men began asking questions about the eco-municipality process such as what were the specific projects, how long would it all take, and exactly what jobs might be involved. Women began speaking up in response to our question about whether there was sufficient child care so that mothers could attend the gathering panels, discussion groups and celebration for International Mangrove Day. The inter-barrio representatives who arranged the meeting in Santa Martinita had also helped get this one together, and along with Astillero’s leader they suggested a large workers meeting tomorrow night before the coming weekend program. It’s a remarkable opportunity to help persuade more townspeople to participate.

There are prominent natural features in this coastal bioregion. The ocean influence, of course, but starting immediately inland it becomes a uniquely dry tropical forest. Rio Chone is the main artery up the valley surrounded by hills east of Bahia. It has a salt-fresh water quality that varies considerably in response to heavy rain or high tides. On a trip up the river, I saw aquatic birds in huge numbers, sometimes outlining every branchtip of high trees. It isn’t easy for me to absorb such a multiplicity of new species or the differences between some of them and their relatives in temperate areas. A sandpiper that is about two feet long, for instance. Or tiny owls. While we powered upstream we passed iguanas sunning themselves on trees over the water above our heads. One was red and the size of a child. Boys and men tossed round nets into the water at many places along the way, and pulled out small and medium-sized fish regularly. Their riverside communities are only of a few houses each on stilts that are sometimes in the water. The people were often ankle-deep to chest-high in the river themselves, catching fish or pushing boats.

It seems an utterly untouched scene except that the river only represents a wild corridor with huge expanses of shrimp farms just behind the bordering trees. Ranging from one-half to twenty hectares, these flat, diked ponds now occupy 6,000 hectares of former Rio Chone mangrove forest (only a fraction of the original extent remains) and recirculate 10% of their water daily through the use of large pumps. It’s a nearly completely managed environment, but with still-remaining large numbers of wildlife in a hugely reduced area. Shrimp farming on this scale is equivalent to rice-growing or similar monoculture cropping in other areas. At this point in the history of this watershed, more than enough native mangrove forests have been sacrificed for the benefit of an aquaculture that feeds many people and undoubtedly does a part in preserving some ecosystems that would otherwise be sacrificed. There is presently no such thing as certified organic shrimp from any of these farms, with the improvements that would bring in ecological terms. But some local producers are strongly inclined in this direction and are initiating changes. Eventually, restored mangroves as an integral part of the ponds, elimination of fish-inhibiting poisons, solar-derived electricity powered pumps (instead of the present diesel-using ones with attendant spills in the river), and other improvements could transform shrimp farming into a more benign industry such as rice-growing is becoming in California. Exportation of shrimp will continue to be a huge player in the bioregional future here since it dominates the local economy by providing about 75% of the area’s income and employing 10,000 people (3,000 in the packing plant alone).

I’ve moved into Jacob Santos’ downtown Bahia Bed & Breakfast to get closer to the majority of residents and hopefully learn something about their receptivity for a green city. (Cold water showers, bare wood floors, typical meals, and a young, dreamy but helpful staff.) 

At the Astillero barrio meeting, I met Eduardo Gonchozo who wanted to tell me “About some ideas of my friends.” We spent several hours walking through the city while he inquired about Eco-Bahia and I listened to his story. He and Marcello Luque, who is one of the inter-barrio representatives who helped to arrange meetings, were working on Marcello’s father’s land just over the hill behind the city to create their own “Cerro Seco” nature interpretive center. El Nino mudslides wiped out the building and in-progress works they constructed over three years of previous labor. It may or may not have been worth all of the approximately $30,000 USD that Eduardo claims they put into it, but their dream for which professional architectural and landscape plans that he showed me had been made was definitely ruined, and they don’t possess $5,000 needed to start over now. This particular crisis was even more painful to understand after Eduardo concluded by saying that his generation’s brightest hopes may have been irreparably damaged by the city’s experiences, and that Eco-Bahia should concentrate hardest on the present teenagers who seem everywhere, needing jobs and a future with promise. Currently Eduardo operates a small food stand near the ferry landing.

Our appeal brought at least 30 e-letters of support for Eco-Bahia from Catalonia (both city council and a green organization), Italy, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and from big cities and small towns in the US. They have meant a lot to the organizers but can mean a great deal more shortly in leverage with local, national and international agencies. Some have been published in the local press, and they may also be read aloud during the gathering.

Nicola Mears makes beautiful “Eco-papel” recycled paper stock with imbedded dried flowers that is popular for uses ranging from note paper to wedding invitations. Dario Proano-Leroux and she carry out an impressive variety of ecologically oriented activities ranging from an organic farm cum visitors center to a company specializing in “organic tourism.” Dario was instrumental in starting the eco-ciudad prospect through Stuarium Foundation, and they both have worked unceasingly to make the Eco-Gathering a success, including final touches on a compostable waste recycling program at the city’s main mercado.

There is a remarkable organization titled Coastal Resources Management Program (PMRC) that works to protect natural features such as the remaining mangroves and gave workshops about potable water, waste systems and electrification in the small communities throughout the Chone estuary. It is a perfect support group for bioregional aspects of Eco-Bahia such as mangrove reforestation that will be featured during the gathering (Motohiko Kogo, founder of Actmang, is here to make a presentation). I had the sensational luck of meeting the new coordinator his first day on the job and was able to establish a partnership role for PMRC in whatever form of inter-institutional support group(s) are formed following the gathering for the purpose of creating participation opportunities for all the sectors and every person in Bahia.

I closed a radio call-in show yesterday with “Viva Eco-Bahia!” Let our best intentions now become manifest!  

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