Why “Revegetation” Rather Than “Reforestation”… and Where?

When we started the planting project in Maria Auxiliadora, it was clear that this could be a testing ground for ideas about recovering eroded land with major potential locally if not throughout coastal Ecuador. Here are some of the factors that make work on only a few hectares of earth so significant. To start with, it consists of either denuded small cliffs or piled up mounds of mainly sub-surface clay soil remaining from nearly the worst kind of mud slides. Whatever works here can work anywhere where there are conditions as bad or in less disturbed places along the coast. The only exception is extreme land slippage that has left perpendicular faces ten to nearly a hundred meters high that require terracing (or might be better left to wear down and round out on their own over time). The land area that needs attention and is treatable with our revegetation method may be as much as one-third of the entire coastal region of Ecuador.

All of the plants used in the project are natives of the indigenous dry neotropical forest. None of them came from more than a few miles distant, so they are as well adapted to the site as possible. They were chosen to represent each stage of natural succession in this forest system. Paja macho grass is one of the primary plants, algorrobo and muyullo bushes are from the second stage, and Ferdnan Sanchez, guayacan and hobo trees are found in the climax forest. Some other brush and trees species including cascol will continue to be planted during the next rainy season starting in December. Plants from each stage play a different role in erosion reduction. Paja macho grass causes rain to run off the steepest slopes to help prevent water absorption into the soil, algorrobo and muyullo can also grow in steep areas and they send down roots to grip the ground, and Ferdnan Sanchez, hobo and guayacan trees put deeper roots into the subsoil as they mature over the longest period of time for any of these species. The forest that results from the mixture as soon as five years from now (plus native volunteers such as the vigorous frutillo trees that already dot the project site) will be a rich habitat for native birds and other animals. (It seems a difficult stretch of imagination at this time, but we will actually need to thin out some growth by then.) The whole ecosystem will be an effective and interesting variation on the dry forest theme.

Then why isn’t this called “reforestation”? Why insist on calling it “revegetation” instead? The reasoning behind a seemingly regressive choice of terms is that the natural indigenous forest here is a wondrously diverse phenomenon. It can shift with near abruptness from tall trees on the wet side of a hill to thorny brush only a few feet across a knife-edged ridge to the dry side. The forest floor can range from bare dust to spongy humus within a couple of steps. Tree species may be stunted in one spot and overly large in another. Fern-like plants requiring relatively high levels of moisture grow close enough to be seen in the same glance as pole-shaped cacti that use little water, creating an unnerving visual effect of mixed-up biomes. There are slender vines with thorns growing on the sides that resemble spear points and are wider than the diameter of the plant. Elegant white tree snails the size of cockles climb along stems and branches everywhere. Lines of leaf-cutter ants each bearing similar sized green pieces that are larger than themselves march along like members of a flag-carrying precision musical band performing in a stadium. Any attempt to duplicate what can be found in a few hectares of native forest would have to be enormously painstaking and most likely prohibitively expensive, if it could truly be accomplished at all. If one can’t actually recreate this remarkable forest, why puff up the endeavor with the high-sounding term “reforestation”? It’s like the eco-hucksterism behind “ecoforestry” when it is used to describe nothing more than plantation scaled agriculture with exotic commercial species mimicking types found in different stages of natural succession (tall coconut palm trees with shorter coffee plants with ground level berries, or some similar concoction). Planet Drum’s project is more sensitive to native features than most planting efforts, and if its methods were followed in all of the applicable eroded places they would succeed in helping to eventually regenerate a significant part of the indigenous coastal forest. But we will continue to be respectful of the real thing and simply call it revegetation.

Yesterday (9/26) city engineer Ivan Aguirre drove me around the base of the hills through Astillero barrio and Leonidas Plaza to make an initial survey of land slippage from El Nino rains and the earthquake. We started at the back of Armada (Navy) headquarters on a street named 3 de Noviembre where Astillero begins. This spot also marks the end of the La Cruz area that is the most threatened location near downtown Bahia de Caraquez. and was rejected as a site for our revegetation project because the likelihood of losing the entire hill top and sides in the next major land perturbation is extremely high. It is a similar if less dramatic situation at the highest point about 75 meters above the Armada building. The purpose of the survey was to determine which areas could be treated through the means used in Maria Auxiliadora. I judged the upper part as not possible through planting alone and the lower as possible but continuously imperiled by land slides above it. The total area for both parts is about a hectare (2.47 acres). The next section along 3 de Noviembre extending to a short street named Eugeno Santos and comprising about a hectare and a half is nearly perpendicular from top to bottom and was listed as not possible. In support of this determination, there are no houses above the string of them immediately bordering that side of the street. Just as my hopes for transposing our method from Maria Auxiliadora to this barrio were failing, the next 4 to 5 hectares of hillside along 3 de Noviembre from a point before an unnamed side street with a pumping station on the corner to the beginning of a curve in the road beyond is completely remediable by planting native species alone. Similarly mixed prospects continue to the end of Astillero and the beginning of houses in Leonidas Plaza.

The main road turned left onto Sixto Durn Bellan boulevard but we took a right and went on a dirt road to the top of a hill. Most of three to four hectares on both sides were treatable through planting until the crest where a perpendicular cliff rose from the roadside for twenty meters above us. The opposite side of the road was at a slightly upward angle that seemed to just drop away. Ivan got out and gestured for me to join him there. The ground at our feet was step-like from land subsidence. Suddenly the ground ended at the lip of a cliff that fell away more than 125 meters below us revealing all of the Astillero section we had just driven through. It was a genuinely astonishing moment. Not only could we clearly see the precipitously steep conditions that we had strained to judge from below, but we were humbled by the magnitude of fallen earth that started its slide two years ago from the point where we were standing. “Did you hear it?” I asked Ivan. “What did it sound like?” “Oh, at first it was so loud!” He put his hands over his ears and made a hoarse creaking sound. “Then it went shwoo-schwoo-schwoo for a long time.” Now his hands repeated pressing down movements in front of him and I could feel what he was describing in my stomach as though I was on a roller coaster.

We drove back and through the flat El Toro neighborhood that is actually the flood plain of a large creek that begins inland and sent a flood of mud to level houses here before ending as new landfill in Rio Chone. The survey should eventually include the whole creek watershed coming into the river, and the rest of Leonidas Plaza to Kilometer Ocho which makes up the greater planning area of Bahia de Caraquez. For now there is sufficient evidence to begin making funding proposals for revegetating a significant part of the potential slide area above the most heavily populated sections.

A note on cultural adaptation as a two-way street. Yesterday a waiter at El Capitan restaurant, an open-sided place on the bay front Malecon favored by locals that specializes in hearty chicken dishes of several types, gave me a choice of the typical fruit punch that is included in the almuerzo lunch special or bottled water. Having just gotten over a gastro-intestinal episode, I chose pure water and expected to pay extra because anything not included in an almuerzo is usually charged separately. I was happily surprised to only be billed the normal amount. Today at another place named El Pepoteca, I passed on a beef almuerzo offering and the waiter who knows me immediately suggested substituting fish for the same reduced price. Normally no substitutions are possible.

They may seem small and inconsequential, but these gracious adjustments in my favor were the opposite of what defensive visitors believe thinking everyone is out to rob them. I was prompted to consider how many ways the residents of Bahia have had to alter their expectations to deal with me, other gringos, and even Ecuadorian outsiders. Speaking some English, listening to bad Spanish, explaining conditions such as unreliable electricity which they take with cooperative good humor, apologizing for the lack of unfamiliar things that strangers might feel are essential, tolerating loud laughter and finger pointing, or ignoring lack of appropriate respect, or accepting inappropriate dress, or….how many other concessions are there? It is undoubtedly a longer list than the most finicky outsiders can produce to complain about.

Which brings up the other side of cultural adaptation. It takes a thorough regimen of new practices for newcomers from developed countries to avoid becoming sick from contaminates in public water supplies. (See the US Center for Disease Control web site for details that guarantee Ecuador’s safety from being overrun by hypochondriacs.) Not drinking unboiled water and sticking to beverages that come from sealed containers are obvious measures. Raw fruits and vegetables are suspect unless they have a fairly thick outer skin that can be peeled away. Fresh salads are notorious for causing problems. Whether or not brushing teeth is done with bottled water depends on personal susceptibility. In case all of these fail, it’s always wise to carry a little of your own toilet paper.

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