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Dispatches from Ecuador February 1999

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Peter went to Ecuador in February, 1999 to attend the International Eco-Gathering and help the local ecologistas organize in the midst of natural disasters that have beset the Bahia de Caraquez region over the past two years. The following include his reports that we anxiously awaited over the two week period.

Index of Feb/Mar 1999 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

At the Threshold of a Sustainable Future (March 24, 1999)

"Viva Eco-Bahia!" (February 25, 1999)

"Put some air into our lungs!" (Bahia audience member) (February 21, 1999)

Letters of Support Requested (February 20, 1999)

3rd World or 3rd Planet? (February 18, 1999)

Eco-Bahia Support Group Forming (February 17, 1999)

Two And a Half Doses of Realidad (February 16, 1999)

"Will It Rain Forever?" (Flor-Maria Tamariz) (February 12,1999)

Latitude 0 Degrees, 36 Minutes South (February 11, 1999)


Latitude 0 Degrees, 36 Minutes South

By Peter Berg
Report From Ecuador #1

(February 11, 1999)

It's in the humid summerish 80s Fahrenheit here a few minutes south of the equator, with curtain-rippling breezes and light gray clouds.

The small city of Bahia de Caraquez (named as though it was a whole bay in the ocean) is shaped like a thumb (with the part of the hand that holds it) jutting out into the Pacific on a sandspit. Its clear distinction from the deeply rural surrounding countryside is immediately evident when driving in because of the sudden appearance of small restaurants, traffic signs, billboards, and other indications that it is both an urban center and a seaside resort. Not particularly well-known outside of Ecuador, Bahia has been a famous retreat for Quito residents for a long time, with a few multi-storey hotels and a number of summer homes. A miniature San Sebastian, Euskadi (Spain). Unlike the usual beach pleasure spot, local life is only partially based on outside visitors and there are several bioregional resources-based industries. The residents have a natural laid-back style that is outgoing and inviting. Bahia is visited enough to be interested in strangers but isolated enough to have its own identity without self-consciousness.

A catastrophic series of natural calamities took place here last year that have set Bahia de Caraquez on an unalterably different course than a typical South American resort area. Unremitting El Nino storms and rains lasted from December 1997 through May 1998 (that's a solid half-year of heavy rain) causing earth movement that carried away whole hills as well as many hillsides in mud flows of the severe kind usually associated with snowmelt from erupting volcanoes. Then a Richter 7+ earthquake at the beginning of August broke apart many buildings and caused missing pieces and cracks in those that remained. Sixteen died in one mud flow, another life was taken by the trembler, and the grinding daily aftermath of dealing with the problems of survival continues to affect everyone here. At one time there were 3,000 of the town's 20,000 residents living on the streets. There are still 500 homeless families living in shacks constructed from the ruins or government-provided flimsy temporary shelters.

Bahia must now reassemble itself after nearly complete ruin. And it is choosing to do so in a history-making way as an eco-municipality within the context of its bioregion.

(More to follow before the February 27-28 Eco-Gathering to make the eco-municipality declaration and celebrate the first International Mangrove Day.)



"Will It Rain Forever?" (Flor-Maria Tamariz)

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador — Report #2

(February 12,1999)

It's unbelievable that a small city that was already visited last year by an El Nino about four times as severe as the worst one in previous recent experience could once again endure a hillside-saturating and road-swamping season, this time by La Nina. But it has rained almost every day, sometimes extremely heavily, for the last week. Concern about large-scale washouts and slides is high. Clay-spattered barn boots on most pedestrians is a common community symbol as the population once again watches mud ominously fill its streets.

Paradoxically, eco-city activities are growing without interruption and have created an expectant enthusiasm. Uncertainty about the municipal government's cooperation and approval of a declaration at the Eco-gathering on Feb 27th was evaporated at a meeting with the mayor and his assistants earlier this week. The critical question for el alcalde seemed to be, "What do we have to stop doing if we become an eco-city?" When I explained that the thrust of bioregional Green City planning was proactive, saying "yes" to new ideas and efforts that can replace harmful ones, he began smiling and asked "What do you want from me?" A supporting message and short speech to open the gathering was an obvious request, and when he seemed to be avidly in agreement I added a space for a workshop, attendance by various department heads, an in-government contact person, and cooperation with event planners. Everything was granted, with the workshop notification and attendance directive going out immediately for 4PM the next day.

Evidence that people are in a curious and excited mood about eco-city and the gathering shows up unexpectedly. After an interview, a reporter from a local paper offered any help he could give: "If you want Bahia to know that you have a cold, I'll put it in the paper!" Just before that, Senora Tamariz suddenly announced that she's going to open an Eco-City Learning Center. An often asked question when introduced to townspeople is, "What's the first thing we can do to start eco-city?"

The workshop for city staffers (also attended by reporters and some co-planners) was intended to introduce the idea of a city harmonizing with its bioregion. After they were shown some representations of bioregions in maps from Shasta Bioregion (northern California) and Bacino Fluviale del Fiume Po Bioreggione (Italy's Po River Watershed Bioregion), the municipal bureaucrats begin making personal maps based on the workbook exercise from "Discovering Your Life-place." At some point the mayor slipped into a seat and made a joke about going back to school. Most participants were thoroughly involved because there seems to be a higher level of awareness about natural characteristics here than in most places, undoubtedly fostered by the recent outsized local events. When it was time to show their representations, two people were hungrily eager and reeled off long lists of native plants and animals, local conditions of various kinds, and well-informed descriptions of urgent environmental issues. We were pressed for time or else there would have been nearly as many volunteer presenters as there were participants. The next step was to make a list of city dwellers' basic human needs (food, water, energy, etc.) and to introduce the possibilities for seeing these in bioregional terms. Since this was only a beginning session, designed to "take the curse off" ecological thinking for anyone who was threatened by it and start a process of personal observation, none of the new topics was pursued in depth. This left some of the co-planners hungry for more local examples and applications, but the majority audience of office workers had been exposed to much more participation in the vision of an eco-municipality (especially its bioregional foundation) than they were prepared for.

Expectations have been even further cranked up now.

Bahia cuisine notes: seafood and fried bananas in many forms and combinations — all extraordinarily fresh and uniquely spiced; yucca flour rolls with white cheese fillings; naranjilla (wild jungle, orange-like) fruit and juice — extremely sharp tang with an aromatic woody aftertaste; fresh maracuya (passion fruit) in pieces, juice, and mixed with creamed oatmeal as a hot or cold thick drink (a complete surprise from the flavor of either ingredient).

Other species encounter — a white lizard-like, stagger-stepping, nervous lagarita on the floor at 2AM puts me through all the stages of wondering about our commonalities, conflicts, perceived territory, foreign status, and other adrenalin-fueled possibilities for several minutes before we both forget about it.



Two And a Half Doses of Realidad

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-Gathering Report #3

(February 16, 1999)

Even when you know what it is, the government-provided shack village at Fanca for people who were made homeless by the mudslides and earthquake here is a powerfully stark and incomprehensible sight. All of the 50 or so rough-finished wood stilt and bamboo-sided dwellings are above your head and only reached by steep stair-ladders. They float peculiarly as a light brown mass without green features over the solid gray-brown mud ground. There are at least a half-dozen thin stilts per unit, and the houses are packed extremely close together, so that the view straight through the village is like looking through the slats of a wooden fruit box at a vertical jumble of sticks. It is a visual confusion that matches the violently disordered situation that brought the residents here in the first place.

These shacks could only be offered in good conscience as emergency shelters, but they will doubtless become permanent into the foreseeable future for many occupants because of the lack of economic opportunities to change their condition. Only about 15 by 15 feet in area — one smallish room to serve as bed space, kitchen and storage area — the shacks are low-ceilinged, without water or plumbing, and possess a strange ramada-like interior light due to the flimsy, bamboo-split roll-up walls. It is ironic that these tropical-style structures would otherwise be appealing situated on a beach for day-time use or standing alone in a forested area surrounded by banana and mango trees. Jammed so closely together with only mud and mosquito-breeding standing water below them, the shacks take on a sinister prison stockade look instead. There is an adequate number of concrete block outhouse toilets within the compound but it seems unlikely that they keep human wastes confined since, incredibly, the entire complex is built on top of a mud flow that filled up a former farm field near a creek bed. The outhouse contents must surely mingle with sub-surface water and leach out nearby sooner or later as a pestilential menace. As it is, the mud spaces under and between houses are already littered with pig, chicken, dog, and cat feces. Finally, this former mud flow could even begin moving again given continued rains.

Is there any conceivable up-side to this situation? The people express a sense of satisfaction at having been saved from horrendous disasters which included some of them being swept out into the bay clinging to tree branches. Surprisingly, even with the new La Nina rains turning roads into rivers and causing Fanca residents to sink up to their ankles in mud, they say that things are getting better. There is a cement slab floored, solid walled schoolhouse on one side of the compound. The residents own the shacks and the small pieces of land they occupy, and some of them are requesting assistance to rent nearby farmland to start gardens for sustenance and income.

After experiencing Fanca and numerous other after-effects from Bahia's calamities (actually it is one long calamity entering its second year, with a few quick bursts highlighting many slower ones in between ... and continuing), I've become more respectful regarding the depth of change that making an eco-municipality in this bioregion requires. Just as the visual damage which is so ubiquitous — missing floors of highrises, absent walls, piles of rubble in roadways along with mud mounds, and splits ranging from wide crevices to small cracks in streets, sidewalks, walls, and floors — can mask the structural distress inside a building that may necessitate tearing it down, the surface need for eco-city hides the requirement for deeper transformations. There are plenty of obvious things that can be done such as separation of trash in city collection boxes and picking up the tons of litter on beaches and roads coming into town. The city's famous three-wheeled bike-truck/taxi "triciclos" could be painted bright green as a prominent symbol of Bahia's new direction. Youth teams with uniform green t-shirts can answer calls when new projects need help. Household kitchen scraps can be collected to make compost for the farm which Fanca residents want to start. The list of these outward innovations might contain hundreds of similar items.

But to make a truly ecological city there needs to be an overhaul of basic infrastructures or those superficial, perhaps only cosmetic changes will be like painting a building that is about to fall down anyway due to cracked internal foundations and girders. Water, energy, sewage, garbage, and transportation systems have to be reconstrued in ways that match the bioregional realities here. So does education and media, arts and architecture, and other aspects of public life. Most importantly, Eco-Bahia must undertake these short and long term changes in ways that provide economic advantages for the destitute victims of natural calamities and otherwise impoverished people, and encourage their participation in creating what can ultimately become a better way of life in all respects.

A comparatively half-size reality appeared in the form of a new creek across the path when Patricio Tamariz and I were returning on an already mud-rutted road from a visit to the coast at Canoa. Ominous sheer clay cliffs rise a hundred feet high at 80 degree angles alongside the road at several points. Edges of rain-broken clay hang on their faces like draped theater curtains, waiting for enough additional soaking to ooze down across the road on the way to the beach. Only a few trucks had stopped for the water crossing the road when we arrived but the rain suddenly switched its volume upwards almost as though a faucet had been opened to full. By the time it was our turn the creek was beginning to flow at the level of the door bottoms. Fast-moving, brown, gravel-spitting water was verging on impassable when Patricio began to charge through and it became untraversable just as we entered the lowest point. Stuck with water rising quickly, Patricio asked me to take the wheel while he jumped out to slog in the current examining the situation with searching eyes and half-started gestures. If the water continued to rise, the truck would be carried across the embankment on the other side of the road. He threw a fairly wide log across the creek where it bordered the road, causing water to gush in both directions around the truck and fill underneath with gravel. Several local people and other drivers frantically dug out the front and rear wheels but the truck couldn't budge forward. Everyone came to the front and pushed to get some movement in reverse, then they rushed like a team to the rear yelling and gesturing to heave the truck forward. It rose up onto the underwater gravel with uncertain slowness until a final heave carried it forward like a boat dragging bottom. I yelled to Patricio that I wouldn't stop until the truck was down the road well beyond the point where it became dry. We had already seen the water rise by a foot while we were in it. The storm continued on the way back to Bahia and through the night. The road in that section might easily be a river canyon by now.

To comply with the wishes of proud Bahia residents, the next report will feature some of the intrinsically convivial and beautiful aspects of reality here.



Eco-Bahia Support Group Forming

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Letter #1

(February 17, 1999)

Dear Friends,

Nicola & Dario spent several hours with Patricio, Flor-Maria & myself last night planning an Eco-Bahia Support Group meeting for later this week. A group of 50 or so including both officials and barrio leaders, youth and worker sectors will divide into committees to support aspects of eco-city such as transportation, water, etc.

They will also bring enthusiasm to the Eco-Gathering events.

It's an idea that will probably work here because of the local support mentioned above. Flor-Maria sent out the invitations. Nicola discussed the program which we had consulted about, but we don't know what the current schedule is.

As much as I want to see Cotacachi, I can't take the weekend off because things are increasing exponentially in Bahia as you can gather from the formation of the Committee and other aspects of community involvement. We've done the media (radio, newspapers) here but are going to do it again. When we're not telling everybody within earshot about eco-city, Patricio and others fill in time showing me different aspects of the bioregion and city or making plans for next week, the Eco-Gathering, and a month afterwards (so far).

Who says there aren't any good causes anymore?

In diversity, Peter



3rd World or 3rd Planet?

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-gathering Report #4

(February 18, 1999)

Finding enjoyable aspects of Bahia is as easy for a stranger as anywhere I've been. All of the most populous areas of the city — market, ferry landing, municipal building and downtown businesses — are within a few blocks of each other. Walking to them is so full of contact with residents and visitors that it can't be accomplished without numerous stops to converse or pay attention to whatever immediate situation or attraction is happening at the time. Local people are equally unaffected doing necessary business such as shopping or simply lounging against a covered sidewalk post and taking in the scene. There are usually dozens of mostly pedestrians (I'm deliberately underestimating because Carnival just concluded with thousands crowding onto the streets and beaches to distort normal expectations of numbers) mingling all classes, ages, types, and occupations that exist here. Bahians are to a pleasantly great degree casual, convivial, upbeat, and inviting people in a tropical setting that breeds easy-going, energy-conserving activity.

Carnival was less exhibitionistic than usual this year, I was assured, because of the hard-hit region's economic losses in resources-based and tourist trades. About half or more of the personal vehicles bringing people here from the interior were mud-spattered trucks of all sizes owing to the nearly impassable roads. Nevertheless, there was a wonderful display in town and especially on the Malicon walkway along the bayshore of un-self-conscious people on a beach-going holiday, wearing an unlimited range of different but generally spare-clothed swimming outfits clinging to every imaginable size, shape, color, and condition of human body. If it wasn't Rio it was as authentic and well-enjoyed a Carnival as anyone might wish. In fact, "authentic" is the descriptive for Bahia in general that arches over all of my impressions here. May it remain that way even after its recovery and transformation into a eco-municipality!

The Chone River is especially wide by the time it reaches Bahia. In this expanse of water remarkably close to town exists what must be one of the densest and most easily accessible populations of birds in the world. "Bird Island" is actually three small stands of mangrove standing alone on a shallow sand bar between two deeper channels of the river. It is easily visible from the hill behind the city and a small motor boat can reach the spot within twenty minutes. Because of this ease of approach, I frankly didn't expect the remote game preserve, herd-size type of populations that can be seen while anchored only a few feet away. Frigate birds, pelicans, egrets, and herons are some of the 30 species nesting here in such great numbers in the dense bushes that they are literally branch-to-branch and foothold-to-foothold apart from each. Even though clouds of birds flew up when we approached there were still so many when we arrived that more individuals filled my line of vision than I have seen short of a chicken farm. Close up to so many birds you can simultaneously see specific behaviors that would take weeks of peering to observe. Young begging for food, adults disgorging it for them, carrying branches for nests (pelicans were building them just then), females scouting us for protection of their young, bellicose males, bringing in food, flying out for it, fishing, testing territory — all at the same time in the same spot! When I couldn't control my enthusiasm and spouted out exclamations (with no effect on the birds who had more or less accepted us within a few minutes), I was informed that Chino, the boat operator, had gained vastly more respect for "Bird Island" after hearing so many first-timers cry out this way. He now describes himself as an "ecologista" and subscribes completely to the Eco-Bahia vision. (Chino should also be honored for taking the company boat out into the river during the heaviest mudslides in anticipation of people being carried into it and thereby saving a number of people, grabbing some of them by the hair. He and fellow skippers who reacted similarly managed to keep from losing a single sweptaway's life.)

I asked to talk to some heads of city departments and was able to meet with them within a few hours. The chief planner is an architect who possesses a personal dream about building an eco-municipality. He developed a full-scale plan for reforesting the collapsed hillface behind the city with native trees and shrubs as a kind of wild garden. It needs $210,000 for completion and he hopes to get that amount from an inter-Andes funding source for implementation within this year. (Buena suerte!) Since most city projects go through him and the mayor for approval, I asked about a variety of ecological approaches for rebuilding infrastructures including power, water, sewage, roads, and transportation. He is open to biological sewage treatment of the New Alchemy Institute type, developing local alternative energy for electric vehicles, household water re-use systems, and kitchen scraps collection. He welcomes visits by consultants in these and other areas. He sent me on to the Department of Public Works chief, a seeming hard-work-in-the-outdoors type and direct-speaker who I imagined wouldn't ask anyone to do something he couldn't do himself. Traffic-calming devices and other ideas to reconceive city streets didn't seem necessary to him although he's open to reviewing possibilities. On the other hand, he is irate about the narrowed drain system for runoff water down a main street that probably augmented flooding during El Nino and wants it widened regardless of the loss of pavement for cars that would result. I was next directed to the sewage department head who complained about heavily engineered features in a new sewage re-building plan that involved tearing up city streets and would cost $5.5 million, so he is also open to an alternative direction. When I criticized the present system that puts last-stage effluent directly into the bay, he concurred and stated his preference for treating last-stage material so that it could be used for fertilizer. Suggesting organic rather than chemical means for this also won his approval. During the inevitable machinations of public policy and hard-biting realities of funding, the best intentions of these civil servants may not be realized. But I am hugely encouraged by their responses and will begin contacting ecologically inclined experts in related fields to consult about methods and systems that can fulfill the potential for a green city.

About that pesky funding demon, does anyone have a suggestion for financial assistance to a city so short of means that it can barely pay employees and meet expenses at the present time, and definitely can't afford through internal means to meet its sincere and historic commitment to become a full-scale, deeply transformed eco-municipality on its own?

Which brings me to the title section of this report, the subject of Third Worldness. At the first encounter with townspeople concerned with rebuilding Bahia (Stuarium Foundation), I was asked, "Have you ever worked to achieve your eco-municipality goals in a Third World country before?" I cited Mexico. "If you exclude Acapulco and Cancun from the sense of Mexico," I said as a joke at that moment, but afterwards the existence of expensive tourist destinations that are out-scaled for the countries where they exist, and the notion of the Third World itself,  became a fixture in thinking about this place. Since I never hear the term "First World" except awkwardly in academic contexts, and have never actually heard the term "Second World" in conversation anywhere, "Third World" must mainly continue to exist only as a pejorative substituting for "poor" or "bottom-rate" rather than as a genuine classification for equivalent comparisons. There are plenty of places in the never-called "First World" that equal the latter descriptions. In many U.S. inner cities, there is at least one large section that fits so thoroughly it could be interchangeable with any other totally undesirable spot in the world. With this exception: it wouldn't have anything like the level of humanity, concern or sharing that exists in most of the "undeveloped" world.

At this point in human history, what is any place on the third planet in the solar system anyway? It is inevitably part of the planet's skin, the biospheric web of life. New York City, Ecuador and the Kalahari Desert are all the same in this. Any of them are redolent and ambient, paradisical and miserable, known and mysterious, rainy and dry, inhabitable and visitable, tedious and exciting, revelatory and monotonous. Anyplace is any place. (Isn't it astounding that so many different ones exist and that they co-occur at the same time?)

It is possible to wake up and feel revived anywhere. Then to be propelled like an avalanche boulder into smell, foothold, blinking color, levelling wind, stinging heat, steadying necessity of standing at a cliff-edge — too many variations to describe. It is one's own body that seems to always know best where it is. (I'm leaving out the strange lost-limb experiences of technological surroundings but it's always the body that loses the limbs.)

Finally, we all affect each other now. It's only a matter of intention, whether visiting by Greenhouse gas emissions or arriving on an ocean liner. We can't avoid touring each other anymore. The real question is whether we can learn to inhabit our own life-places with interdependent grace and move through others with the sensibility of respectful bioregional guests.

(In the next report, the outcome of the first meeting of the Eco-Bahia support group composed of city residents, and a little on the remarkable but largely unrecognized previous cultures that dwelt on this part of the Ecuadoran coast over the last 14,000 years.)



Letters of Support Requested

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Letter #2

(February 20, 1999)

Dear Friends,

If you are part of an informal group or belong to an organization that is associated with bioregional activities or sustainability in any form, please write an e-letter of congratulations and support to Patricio Tamariz and the Ecuador Eco-Gathering in Bahia de Caraquez at archtour@srv1.telconet.net so that it can make an impression on the national and other officials who will attend. It's a matter of helping dislodge needed funds, visibility and gaining supporters here.

Include your name and the name of the group, OK? (As an example, this means the Italian Bioregional Network, Giuseppe.)

If you can do this before Feb. 25, it will have the greatest impact on this extraordinary situation and opportunity.

In diversity,
Peter Berg, Director
Planet Drum Foundation



"Put some air into our lungs!" (Bahia audience member)

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-gathering Report #5

(February 21, 1999)

Our species has probably been as intelligent, creative and physically similar for at least the last 100,000 years. Agriculture has been practiced for only about the last 10,000 years, or one-tenth of that time. The Industrial Era probably began in the middle of the 17th Century, but has been prominent for only the last 200 years, or just 0.2% of our whole history.

There were people in the present location of Bahia de Caraquez in 14,000 BP who left arrow points behind. A culture that is now termed Las Vegas left a collective cemetery six centuries later, and they were followed by the Valdivians whose pottery remains date from 5,000 BP. There's a sharp break in the archeological record after that, with a suspicious layer of volcanic ash before the next entry. The following Bahia culture from roughly 2,500-1,500 BP had a successful, full-scale society that isn't sufficiently recognized for its achievements as the "Phoenicians of the Americas." They not only traded items such as beautiful spondylos (thorny oyster) shells which are found in burial sites up and down the Pacific coast and inland, but also exported technology that was used to build the civilizations of Mexico and Peru. They were supplanted in the area by the Chirije, Manta, Jama and Coaque "cholos" people who the Spanish encountered a thousand years later. (A reproduction of a traditional village named "Chirije" has been built on the coast near Bahia and is the outstanding local monument that recognizes pre-European forebearers.)

A public presentation about Eco-Bahia in the Cultural Center at 5PM  Friday (2/19) attracted over 50 people from many sectors including  barrio representatives, students, some mothers with small children, the city's priest, the vice-mayor, tour company operators, hotel and restaurant owners, a uniformed officer of the Ecuadoran navy, and others for whom I regretfully didn't possess enough local exposure to recognize.

Calling this meeting was necessary to build community support for the Eco-Gathering with the Eco-city Declaration and first International Mangrove Day next weekend as well as the subsequent eco-municipality-building process. Credit for such wide and interested attendance goes to Flor-Maria Tamariz who personally wrote, telephoned and talked to most of the attendees. The program was assembled in an informal, organic way that unfolded right up to the presentation. An audience member shouted, "Put some air into our lungs! Give us a reason to live!" Dario introduced the eco-city vision and explained what pieces of it were represented by the panel of speakers. Nicola explained the new recycling program while Dario handed out brochures about it. My role was to put Eco-Bahia into a worldwide (or in this case, biospheric) context starting with the probable contributing effect of global warming on the severity of last year's El Nino rains. The mammoth mudflows they created are an immediately tangible example of the necessity to live more ecologically everywhere. Bahia's ruin can now be viewed as an opportunity to rebuild as a recognizable model for other places. Eco-Bahia is a community process rather than an outside or top-down operation, and it requires everyone in the community in order to succeed. It can bring better living conditions, create employment, attract visitors, and become a continuous source of participation and pride. Practical accomplishments within this year could include municipal bins for different recyclable materials on the streets (colored green with depictions of native flowers), forming Green Teams, collecting kitchen scraps for composting, and what has become a standard suggestion because of its appeal, painting the traditional Bahia triciclos green and attaching signs that say, "Bienvenidos a Bahia, La Ciudad Verde" (explosive applause). There are longer-term infrastructure changes that need to be researched, selected, funded, and finally built. A barrio leader nicknamed "Abeja" (The Bee) who is known for his hard-working nature had previously told me that the catastrophic mudslide just across the road from where he lives which killed 16 people and caused survivors to surround his still-standing house with shacks afterwards had made "All of us brothers and sisters." I reminded the audience of that generous sense of mutuality and asked them to use it as a foundation for cooperation in making the future Eco-Bahia. There were questions and then Patricio described the Eco-Gathering program, asked everyone to take part, suggested continuing self-selected support committees for different sustainability activities after the gathering, and requested that each person in attendance bring at least one other friend into the eco-municipality process. We closed with everyone taking home a seedling neen tree (once again the donor was Flor-Maria) to plant as a commemoration of the meeting and to initiate green city as a visible growing entity.

People mingled and eventually left carrying a foot-high plant, regardless of their position or condition, and it was like watching a community-created performance piece to redefine the city. 

(Meetings in barrios yesterday and today will be in the next report, and more details of life in the center of the city where I'm making a base of operations tomorrow until the gathering is over.) 



"Viva Eco-Bahia!"

By Peter Berg
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-gathering Report #6

(February 25, 1999)

(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!  



At the Threshold of a Sustainable Future

By Peter Berg
Ecuador Eco-Gathering Report #7
San Francisco, California

March 24, 1999

It's a few days after the vernal equinox in San Francisco, a date when the equal length of days and nights is the same here as it is all year in Ecuador. How remarkable to find anything similar to what happened there just three weeks ago.

The festivities for Bahia de Caraquez's Declaration as a "Ciudad Ecologica" (Ecological City) — included here as an attachment — and the first International Mangrove Day took place February 27-28. Here are some quick sketches that shone through the blur of transforming events.

A parade of at least six triciclos painted green with signs proclaiming "Bienvenidos a Bahia Eco-Ciudad" carrying event organizers to a presentation at the combined workers union hall. The organization's president announced endorsements by both his local and the province-wide labor group.

A morning of public panels and talks on various ecological projects and ideas followed by crowded afternoon workshops where participants included activists, businesspeople, government agency staffers, and many ordinary citizens. In one of these it became instantly clear that there needed to be a new organization capable of containing all of their perspectives when a woman facilitator drew a large circle on the blackboard titled "Eco-ciudad" and then put circles inside it whose labels translated "city government-legal" and "community-moral." It was astonishing to see the vice-mayor nod vigorously in agreement, thereby publicly conceding that city bureaus weren't capable on their own of carrying out needed changes toward sustainability.

The mayor standing alongside as Flor Maria unveiled the new plaque at the entrance to City Hall proclaiming "Ciudad Ecologica" status to a crowded circle of local government representatives and townspeople. There were emotional eye-to-eye smiles and relieved congratulations between members of the core group who had fought like a band of samurai for this moment.

An intensely formal declaration ceremony inside the full municipal theater. A uniformed chorus sang Ecuador's national anthem (followed by another song that may have been the canton or province song). Then a tuxedo-wearing announcer with a stentorian voice announced the program, read some of the congratulatory letters that had been received from places like Barcelona, and announced speakers. The mayor stated the need to counter worldwide ecological destruction. Ecuador's Environment Minister Yolande Kakabadse explained the significance of a recent government acquisition of Amazonian rainforest as a protected area, and Dario enumerated local ecological projects.

For reasons that still remain unclear, I was invited onto the stage at the beginning to sit with these dignitaries and others such as the vice-mayor, the Ecuadoran Navy Captain of the Port, the head of the city council, Flor Maria, and the reigning beauty queen of Canton Sucre. It was almost cinematic to silently view the proceedings and pick out audience members who had been main performers in the creation of this event such as Patricio, Nicola, the director and many members of Stuarium Foundation, Kogo, Mother Monica, and Keibo Oiwa with his group of eight Japanese women college students who were the most radiant example of working eco-tourists that I have seen. When the announcer finally read the official "Ciudad Ecologica" by-law that had been enacted, I felt my arms go up in the air in exultation. The reception that followed in the theater foyer was nearly jubilant, and the crowd exited into an outdoor show of standing exhibits featuring PMRC projects, the organic farm at Rio Muchacho, and the proposed Cerro Seco tropical forest restoration and interpretation center.

Planting rows of red mangrove seed-pods in the tidal mudflats after a boat ride on Rio Chone and a knee-high slog through gray river-bottom ooze. An intrepid press corps came all the way with a hundred or so of us, popping photos of Yolande Kakabadse and others wearing mud-streaked new t-shirts that had been made to commemorate International Mangrove Day. Motohiko Kogo, the poetic wizard of mangrove reforestation, explained to me why certain previously planted seedlings grew well and others failed, how various depths of water and currents affected different varieties of mangroves, and why these variations made every planting an experiment. Three women from Actmang's reforestation project in Esmeraldes worked so fast at planting mangrove rows that it was obvious a new craft had been born.

Anja Light ignoring her flu to debut the song she composed for this time, "Celebrate! Regenerate! Mangrove Bringer of Life" in Spanish and English, first in a folk style accompanying herself on guitar and then with both rock and jazz musicians. On the sidewalk in front of city hall with an audience overflowing into the street, young hip-hoppers jumping up and down and townspeople passing around bottles of rum and cana.

There were too many events in this long weekend for anyone to see them all. I missed a symbolic tree-planting, the opening of the new recycling program at the mercado, and more that I didn't even know were taking place. Too much going on is probably the best gauge for knowing that history is being made.


There is a new organization, Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia (Eco-Bahia Learning Center), which is intended to fill the need for a broadly-based group that represents the entire community. It is acquiring nonprofit status and has authorized Planet Drum Foundation to initiate proposals regarding assistance and funding from various national and international sources. Outside help is required because Ecuador's already fragile financial status has recently declined into a full-blown economic crisis and hopes for internal aid are unrealistic. This is an opportunity for people and groups everywhere to combine disaster relief with development funding in a way that creates an ecologically sustainable future for Bahia de Caraquez. The result can be a model for other bioregions throughout the world.

If you can help or know contacts for possible assistance, this is the time to get involved. Please contact Planet Drum's website at http://www.planetdrum.org/ for further information, or email planetdrum@igc.org to let us know how you can help. (Go to "International Bioregional Groups" under "Links" to access addresses for getting in direct contact with some active groups in Bahia.)