Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
The rainy season finally began at the end of January this year, late but potent. Only six weeks later the hills have been completely transformed from dust blurred brown-orange to wet vibrant green. Vine tendrils hang like searching snakes from trees and slink across paths.
The ground is in a constant saturated state ranging from clutching mud that weighs down shoes when it’s not raining to the most slippery natural substance imaginable during or immediately after arroyo-filling showers. Even when it is possible to walk on flat ground without sliding, the slightest rise on a path causes feet to yield so fast it can result in a face-forward fall. Human and animal tracks turn into skid marks. Steep hillsides are nearly impossible to climb without using a stick to jam deep into the ground in front or grabbing onto trees and bushes. A misstep or broken branch can initiate a quick uncontrollable descent that only stops by a whim of terrain.
The sky is mainly overcast with bright white-gray covering clouds. When the sun burns through it is roasting, raising already hot air another fifteen or twenty degrees. Sweat can break out unpredictably even when sitting. But so can magnificently luxurious breezes that exalt the human gift of a sensuous body. It is an amazing transition after being slowed to a shuffle by the heat to suddenly feel the arousal of cooler air.
Alternating rain and heat have been intensely greenhouse-like for our plantings of native trees. When hand-watered during the dry season in the actual greenhouse where they were grown or in field sites they progressed fairly slowly. Now they seem to be racing each other both indoors and out. Stems and leaves of Guachapelli and Cedro trees poked a foot or more out of the top of netting supported by stakes that protected them from nibbling cows in the dry months. Their protruding heads are the most evocative visual symbol of what rain can do for our work. Longer stakes to heighten the netting and a wider protective enclosure have had to be made for these saplings, and chest-high circles of thorny brush have been placed around some others. How much more will they grow during two more months of rain and water saturated soil? In this site the trees were planted on both sides of a gully alternating in a crisscross pattern for several hundred feet that can be a perfect model for preventing erosion in the future.
Results aren’t always this good. In a few places farm tenants and workers have burned fields where trees were planted in their habitual passion to clear ground or to follow the traditional slash and burn technique for enriching nutrient poor former ocean bottom clay soil for growing corn. It was a reasonable technique in former times when growing plots were moved each year to give the land time to heal and not revisited immediately, but now farm land is closed in by property lines. Repeated burning in the same place every year is a major contributor to the surficial erosion that is ruining soil, creating gullies and slides, and compounding siltation of the Rio Chone river.
Cows, horses, and burros were sometimes put into fields where there were tree saplings. Newly planted trees receive regular watering during the dry months and appear to grazing animals as the only green fodder available. Plants vanished into parched hungry mouths if they weren’t individually fenced.
It is more time-wasting to locate landowners and gain their cooperation to plant trees in the first place than we would have wished. Most employ tenants to farm and don’t live on their property. Once they are found most sites turn out well, but sometimes owners who are willing to participate and sign contracts that trees will not be destroyed or cut don’t pass this information on to the workers who actually carry out burning or leave gates open for grazing.
Heather Crawford explained these problems to me and Patrick Wylie, her replacement after this month as Field Projects Manager, while showing some bamboo watering tubes that were missing their plants. We were all disheartened because it was in the Maria Dolores farming barrio where erosion is particularly critical, and the owner had agreed not to disturb the plants.
Patrick has some promising ideas about a different long-term approach. He wants to work from a Revegetation Plan that considers all of the territory and the worst sources of erosion in the large working area we have chosen. He also tentatively envisions a “wild farming” theme for landowners and ourselves. It is based on his impressions at a cornfield in Maria Dolores where our plantings have extended the wild forest at the back edge of the property and linked it up with fingers of saplings along gullies on both sides like a large U. Corn could continue to be grown in the center with much less harm, especially if compost is used for land improvement rather than burning, because trees along the gullies will help retain earth and water that would otherwise end up in the nearby creek.
We have arranged to meet with Mayor Mendoza and Ramon Farias of the Planning Department next week to discuss how the city government can help, using the following statement as a guide.
PUBLIC AND LANDOWNER SUPPORT IS NEEDED FOR
PLANET DRUM FOUNDATION’S REVEGETATION PROGRAM
Planet Drum Foundation (PDF) has a program to revegetate approximately six kilometers of eroded hillsides bordering Rio Chone from Leonidas Plaza to Univeridad Catolica. This program is necessary to reduce loss of soil and landslides, destruction of houses and roads, and siltation of Rio Chone. It will also provide economic benefits from harvests of fruit and animal feed. Eco-tourism will benefit by restoring wildlife habitat of the Dry Tropical Forest. PDF has a convenio with the municipal government of Bahia de Caraquez to carry out this program.
PDF uses native plants grown in a greenhouse at Universidad Catolica. Mainly those hillsides where erosion can be effectively reduced solely with plants are considered. Most of this land is privately owned . PDF obtains written contracts from landowners stating that they will not cut or harm plantings although they are welcome to use fruits and branches.
There are at least ten sites in the program where trees have been or are being planted at present. Many more will be attempted in the next 3-5 years. Some of these sites such as at Universidad Catolica and Jorge Lomas are well established and seem relatively secure.
The community needs to know the importance of revegetation. Landowners have to be encouraged to join the program. There needs to be a way to eliminate destruction of the plants.
This problem is especially serious in the barrio of Maria Dolores at Kilometro Ocho. That area is very badly eroded and has a creek that deposited so much mud during El Nino that it closed the highway and cut off the city for many months. It is especially important to reduce ongoing erosion in this valley because it has the capacity to do the same damage in the future.
At some sites young trees have been destroyed. They are burned when the land is cleared or prepared for planting corn. Cows and other animals are allowed to graze in places were trees are planted and they eat young saplings.
PDF revegetation contracts with owners to plant critical sections of this area are sometimes not being followed. Burning and grazing has destroyed the hard work of planting and watering trees during the dry season. Landowners have been told about this but they sometimes ignore the agreements and continue burning and grazing. There is often miscommunication between landowners, tenants and workers about preserving plants.
The city government should convene a meeting with landowners and the general public to explain the importance and benefits of revegetation. This may require identifying the landowners of eroded hillsides from Leonidas Plaza to Universidad Catolica. Invitations to the meeting could involve public media including television, radio and newspapers. Speakers need to be contacted. Educational workshops could be scheduled. Signs should be made showing where projects are underway or have been completed.
There should be a Revegetation Plan for critical areas in the hillside zone bordering Rio Chone. Landowners in those specific areas should be urged to participate.
If it is possible there should be an agreement between landowners and the city government to avoid activities that destroy plants and encourage activities to assist revegetation.