Ecuador Dispatches Jan/Feb 2000
Click on map for larger version.
On his third visit to Bahia, in January/February 2000, Peter
Berg opened Planet Drum's local office and inaugurated
the Revegetation Project, to restore the hillsides devastated by the 1998 El Nino
mudslides. Peter sent the following dispatches to report on this work.
Index of Jan/Feb 2000 Dispatches
[Most recent dispatches at top of list]
Ojala! (30 Jan 2000)
By Peter Berg
January 21, 2000
Ecuador is exiting the past in Quito, and it is coming into important aspects
of the future in Bahia de Caraquez.
Last night, national television showed the capitol with lights glaring into
packed throngs in the street, smiling men and women wearing ponchos and
indigenous hats, soldiers with rifles slung from their shoulders walking
casually beside student protesters waving Ecuadorean flags. CONAIE, the
confederation of indigenous nationalities, spearheaded a drive that took over
the national congress and several provincial governments, and aimed to oust the
president and his cabinet.
In the streets of Bahia the next morning, people seem absorbed in a typical
Saturday as Nicola Mears and I drive in her green van emblazoned with the black,
red and yellow face of a guacamayo parrot to the side of a heavily eroded hill
that borders the barrio of Astillero. There is no break in the slender strip of
houses beside the bay that constitutes most of this city of about 20,000 people,
but the base of the hill had to be scraped away up to a height of about ten feet
to accommodate them here. As we approach on a road that was as deep as that in
flowing mud during El Nino rains two years ago, the hillside becomes more
perpendicular until it rises seventy five feet high at an angle of forty five
degrees. The face of the slope is gullied to various depths along its length
with the severest cut carved five feet deep.
The soil is light orange clay and more prominently visible than the sparse
shrubs and small trees on top of it. What is remarkable is that much plant life
exists here at all.
Nicola's partner Dario Proana instigated a revegetation effort with barrio
residents a few months after the hill face had nearly completely slid away. When
that happened, surging mud quickly flattened a low wall of field stones,
over-ran the narrow storm drains, and swept away houses on its way to fill in
the shore of the bay. Hoping to prevent this from happening so severely again,
they both painstakingly assembled some cuttings of muyullo and seedlings of
algarrobo, both native dry tropical forest trees. Roots of these species grow
fairly deep and can help hold the clay when it absorbs rainwater, becomes
super-saturated, and breaks away with the pressure of increased weight.
Residents, mostly children, joined them in chopping muyuyo branches and pounding
them into the ground, digging holes for foot-high algarrobo seedlings, adding
some grass and other plants found nearby, and spreading wet sawdust at the bases
The replantings aren't difficult to spot among the few trees that remained
after the slide. They are uniformly about three feet high and bright green.
Spaces between each of them are uneven and it isn't possible at this time to
determine whether this is a pattern that developed haphazardly at inception or
if it reflects the success of particular plants. No records were kept. Enough of
them thrived to give the impression that after one or two more normal rainy
seasons, this small section of the hillside will have a fairly dense cover of
plants and a better chance to withstand the next El Nino. And it can provide a
foundational habitat for restoring whole indigenous ecosystems.
Bahia de Caraquez is far from the urban centers where dramatic political
changes are taking place right now. It doesn't have a significant population of
indigenous tribal people, but the symptoms of discord are as evident here as
anywhere else. The currency has been devalued by fifty per cent twice in six
months, and most wages are frozen at pre-devaluation levels. People have become
economically desperate. "Dolarization" that was proposed by the
now-hated president would probably have the misery compounding effect of raising
prices. The government has also virtually ignored all of the social complaints
that exist here: impoverishment, homelessness, disease, lack of adequate
educational opportunities, and unreliable or non-existent infrastructure
elements such as pure drinking water, sewage facilities, electricity, and roads.
In addition, governmental corruption is rampant and unrepentantly visible.
The people of Ecuador rose up because of all of these burdens, and they also
recognized the necessity to oppose globalization in the form of the previous
government's assent to becoming a guinea pig for mercenary International
Monetary Fund loan repayment demands. It will take time to see how well their
best interests are served by whatever changes take place.
It will also take several years to prove out the fledgling reforestation
effort at Astillero, and a new planting project of indigenous species to match
the previous wild mix that Planet Drum Foundation in partnership with Eco-Bahia
Learning Center for the Environment is beginning next month in the mudslide
devastated barrio of Maria Auxiliadora where over a dozen people were killed.
Like farmers have done for millennia, we are waiting hopefully at present for
the rainy season to begin.
A bloodless rebellion led by native people and the restoration of wild
habitat with native trees. The present and future is coming out of Ecuador as a
By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador — January 27, 2000)
The rainy season seems to have begun in earnest. A light sprinkle two days ago may have been the actual starting point, and last night's
downpour that continues into the morning appears to remove any question about an end to the annual coastal drought. The revegetation of Maria
Auxiliadora barrio can get underway soon now that the soil is damp and there's a
promise of continuous rain to water seedlings.
Marcelo Luque, a devoted native botany specialist in his late twenties who is from a long-time local family,
joined me in a walk to view the ridgetop of Alta Bahia where the central slide began above the barrio. The clay soil that knuckled up
from the sea floor to form the coast hills here is different from what derived from a similar meeting of Pacific and North American,
rather than South American, tectonic plates in northern California.
It covered our shoes with an orange-white dust, and was mostly visible as small pebbles on the ground. Instead of having a lumpy, slick and
damp consistency, a sample from six inches into the bank of a slide was the same as on the surface: completely dry and rough-textured.
When rain saturates this material, it swells to a greater size and becomes much heavier with water than Shasta Bioregion clay.
Consequently, mudslides often begin along the ridgelines, shearing loose and leaving bare subsurfaces for a distance ranging
from a few feet to practically an entire hillside. That's what Marcelo and I found just below a stand of tamarindo trees that was
holding the Alta Bahia hilltop in check. It is a typical steeply angled patch of naked ground that extends down for several yards
before ending in a jumble of stripped away soil mounds with light plant cover that continue for a third of a mile through
the canyon where many of Maria Auxiliadora's houses were rolled, crushed and buried.
Learning about dry tropical forest species from Marcelo is a high-energy event that fixes attention like a circling bee. His
excitement and narrative power (even at my infantile level of Spanish) is completely consuming. Perspiration ran down his cheeks
while he sank into a squat before grasses ("Paja brava, Pea-tear!, Paja BRAVA! ...Mira, paja MACHO, PAJA MACHO!!"),
jumping up to pull down leaves from tree branches and holding them with fixed eyes an inch from my nose
("Pea-tear, mira. NEEM! No nativa. No INDIGENA, NO NATIVA!!"), or elegantly gesturing to a guayacan tree like a doorman ... a bull
fighter ... a samba dancer. We marveled together at a seiba tree that had the appearance of an African
baobab with bare branches
whose elbows are permanently bent and a tall, bulging trunk that thickens into a pot-belly at the bottom.
As though consciously representing this totem species of the dry tropical forest,
it stood prominent and alone above the edge of the slide, all of the brightly lit bark glowing with a light green color.
Centro de Educacion Ambiental Eco-Bahia has entered the revegetation project in partnership with Planet Drum Foundation. I made a
presentation at a special meeting of its dozen or so member board of directors stating
that the $1,000 grant from Cottonwood Foundation was available and that a decision was needed about how to establish a
bank account, who would represent the Centro in the project, and how funds would be dispersed.
Eduardo Rodriguez, who teaches at San Vicente Vocational institute and has already assigned students to begin growing seedlings, will
actively coordinate the project with Luis Duenas. The funds have been put in a special account in the name of the
Centro, and will be dispersed by the president and treasurer. These arrangements are part of a general process to involve
community members as widely as possible. In the same vein, Marcelo Luque will serve as a native plant species and ecosystem adviser to the
project, and Nicola Mears will consult on planting methods and techniques.
Eduardo took me to see seedlings and visit with some of the staff and students in San Vicente, a jitney boat ride away with twenty other
passengers across the Rio Chone from Bahia. Six hundred guayacan and five hundred Fernano Sanchez plants are
thriving at various stages of growth in slender tubes of soil wrapped with thin black plastic. A total of six thousand of various species
can be provided. A half-dozen enthusiastic mid-teenage male student "chicos" who tend the plants circled around, some push-riding their
bicycles, while we visited fields of watermelon, banana, yucca, and other crops that they raise to sell or eat in the institute cafeteria.
Planet Drum's field office that will also serve as a staff apartment has been located in the town of Leonidas Plaza directly bordering
Bahia de Caraquez and is part of the same municipal/county government. This is a working class area that also
contains the inadequate "temporary housing" at Fanca and the new Mangles 2000 project of permanent houses for over two hundred
families. The reason for choosing an admittedly less comfortable and in some ways more inconvenient site than Bahia, which has upscale and
vacation visitor features, is that it represents the majority of the population and can be used for their participation in ecological sustainability
activities of various kinds. A Centro project for ten or so unemployed women from here to learn how to make and eventually derive income
from stationery and other products manufactured from recycled paper was invited to use Planet Drum's main room for a cottage industry space, and
has already begun operation there. Later on, there can be meetings of other local organizations including the Club Ecologico
from Fanca or another outside group such as Actmang, the Japanese mangrove
reforesters. It is conceived as a general staging area to help realize the eco-city vision.
I have been staying at Flor-Maria Duenas' fine Casa Grande guest house in Bahia, buoyed by her caring hospitality and generous assistance
with everything including the computer on which this is written. With so many needs provided for, I've been able to pursue
the revegetation project and arrange to move into the new space with an ease that wouldn't have been possible
otherwise. It has been an invaluable gift considering my usual lack of comprehensible
Spanish and "lack of adaptiveness" (a term Patricio Tamariz and I have agreed upon for the sake of politeness) to the pace of getting
things done, a condition that is more than compensated by the amazing sympathy and
helpfulness that is offered by nearly everyone. Jacob Santos lent a bed and refrigerator from his Bahia
Bed and Breakfast Inn and I plan to move into one of the five rooms remaining from the paper-making today, and will begin
finding furnishings for another room to be used by Carey Knecht when she arrives in the second week of February to be Planet Drum's
project overseer for two months.
A note on the political situation. The national Department of Tourism has subsumed the previous Department of the
Environment as the new ... Department of Tourism and the Environment! Its head was the former chief of tourism and accepted the new office
acknowledging a leading role for "eco-tourism." Since that term can mean so many different things at this point, I
smell heavy commercialization and feel that the drift of emphasis should have been reversed,
environment subsuming tourism. Patricio says the main opinion expressed here so far is that the two departments differ too much in
their major functions and should have been kept completely separate.
New cuisine item. Stewed wild pechiche "native cherry" fruit for dessert. It has a flavor that contains something of flan, prunes
and Asian bark spices.
Fascinating popular song theme. "Yo quiero que a mi/ me entierren como a mis antepasados ..."
Roughly, I want to be buried the way my ancestors were, which later is revealed to be in an ancient Andean ceramic jar. It has a simple,
solemn melody associated with Bolivian or Peruvian flute music, and what impresses me most is so many people know it. When I
showed the words written in my notebook by a local rock musician to a middle-aged woman on the jitney boat, she immediately hummed
the melody and then sang with other passengers joining in.
Why Did I Come To Ecuador To Live
With A Lumber Mill On Each Side Of My House?
By Peter Berg
(Leonidas Plaza, January 29, 2000)
This may be completely to the side of everything else that is going on with
the eco-city process in Bahia de Caraquez, or it may be part of the core. I'm
too personally involved to know. It has to do with the close-to-the-bone
experience of occupying Planet Drum's new office/apartment in Leonidas
Although a first and last month's rent was paid along with a security
deposit, the landlord balked for the entire month of January about doing any
needed maintenance on the place. There hasn't been any water during three weeks
while the paper-makers were there. Painting a new apartment before renting it is
required by law, but that hadn't been done. Six "broken" window
spaces, or I suspect them to actually be unfinished windows because they are all
at the rear of the place, weren't covered by screens when I moved in despite a
succession of promises. Without suspecting the adventure that lay in store, I
left the considerable comfort of Casa Grande and spent the first night.
When the rainy season begins in Ecuador, a powerful biological message
resounds throughout the insect world. It may be a burst of sexual energy, it may
relate to their homes being flooded in ground burrows, but crickets (called
"grillos") become visible in numbers that are beyond calculation. It
was the night after the rains began, and as I went to bed at 10 o'clock, a
patter of light thudding spread from the windows that were intact to the walls
and floors of my room. Judy and I had brought tent-shaped insect netting with us
on the previous trip. The sole time it was used then was on the chance that
mosquitoes might come out while we were visiting a backcountry hot spring, but
we left it in storage for some future emergency. Feeling like a gringo hypocrite
and hypochondriac, I brought it to the new place thinking that mosquitoes might
be a special problem because of the open windows. I have seldom been as grateful
for such a relatively small item.
They seemed to be giant flying cockroaches, and the first few gave me the
familiar high-tension apprehension that those insects can cause. I grabbed the
netting and draped it over the bed. Now hundreds began hitting the windows with
flat-sounding bangs that I thought would break the existing glass. Whirring
crickets flew into the room and hit the walls and netting. They crawled just
above my eyes and mouth. My knees went up automatically to create a kind of
ceiling of netting above my body while I waited for the invasion to subside, but
it didn't. So many crickets accumulated that they began to weigh down the net
above me. I shrugged and punched to dislodge them, which succeeded to a degree
but may also have been the reason that a few got underneath and began jumping
with rapidly oscillating wings across my face. It was difficult to make the
decision to lift the netting and slap away those intruders when the room outside
is filling with more crickets. Obviously, a greater number might actually get
in. I took the chance in a quick, confused, whirling dance with covering sheet
and netting, ignoring as much as I could the crunch of squashed crickets
underfoot. I brushed away those that crawled up my legs with frantic downward
karate-style chops. Back in bed, I tucked the netting around my body and hoped
that the level of cricket numbers wouldn't increase and that no other insects
would appear. I was wrong on both accounts. Cricket bodies hitting the walls and
floor now put up a constant sound like radio static, and mosquitoes began biting
through the netting stretched against my knees that acted as short tent
Then a condemned person's balmlike feat of memory occurred . I remembered the
first time I spent the night alone in the woods. It was in the Florida
Everglades with a twenty-two rifle I bought as a twelfth birthday present for
myself. A transplanted "Yankee" from New York at the age of six, I had
never really learned or appreciated what I was doing or how to do it. My
immediate family didn't understand why I was doing this. The rifle was all that
I brought along. When I was dropped off in a car at a random spot near a levee
where I requested, the world turned quieter than I had ever imagined. It was
early afternoon and the passage of time between then and sunset seemed eternal.
I shot a small bird simply because it landed close enough to make a good target.
It has always been one of those regretful moments remembered in adulthood for
its sheer stupidity, but immediate payback followed as well. When night finally
fell, mosquitoes began what was surely the easiest and most popular feast they
would ever attend. Mosquitoes crawled and bit everywhere on my body. They bit on
top of bites. I experienced pain, frustration, loneliness, feelings of
stupidity, and a pure aching for the quick passage of time fully for the first
time in my life. I don't remember anything of the next morning after a
completely sleepless night except that my arms and face were so swollen that it
was difficult to move until I was gratefully picked up at an arranged spot. This
memory might have become buried before now because ironically I was admired for
what I had done and chose to forget how much of an ordeal it had been.
All of that previous experience was recirculated in my consciousness by the
relentless crickets. I went through a fatigued narrative repeating it several
times and considered various alternative outcomes and possible morals. If I
slept at all this time, it was flat on my back with knees in the air being
gnawed by Ecuador's mosquito cousins. I got up at dawn to the neurotic barking
of dogs and crowing of roosters and noticed that the crickets weren't flying
anymore. Morning light had an increasingly stuporific effect on them. I brushed
some off of my clothes and dressed inside the netting. They sleepily prefer dark
places in daytime. A dozen fell out of my boots.
The landlord was just outside the building to my angry good fortune. I ran
out with a piece of screen he had left unused on the floor and waved it in his
face. Suddenly, I was confident in Spanish. He flinched and arched backward
while I bellowed about the windows and "mille (a thousand) cucarachas."
(I wouldn't know they were crickets until later.) The insect invasion was
obviously well known by everyone in the neighborhood because he apologetically
turned to an assistant and described the problem. It would be fixed immediately.
But I had heard this before! I left still unable to breathe without puffing,
fantasizing about my options for revenge if the windows were still open
A tired day passed, and there were screens after all. In addition, the
crickets had been swept up. It wouldn't be the last time, as I hoped during the
epiphany of experiencing sealed windows. There was a significant pile after
sweeping this morning and again in the afternoon. But it's a condition one can
live with now. The boatman Chino, who saved several people swept into the bay
during El Nino mudslides by pulling them out hair first, gave me a ride and
helped hang the netting properly by string and nails above my bed. There's still
no desk, chairs, or dresser, but the hopefully repentant landlord promised to
paint in two days. I'm undeservedly euphoric. It's the tropics, and pluses
quickly take away minuses.
Tomorrow we start the revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio.
Eduardo, Nicola, Marcelo, and I had an enthusiastic meeting about what species
and numbers to acquire or grow. Today I went to the main market to buy large
used feed bags at about four cents each for hauling sawdust mulch.
This is what I mean about pluses. The landlord maintains a sawmill on one
side of the building where the cricket episode took place, and there's a second
mill on the other side. The whine of sawblades is banshee-like for five seconds
every few minutes all day long (a working class district is a working class
district), but we'll have all of the free acidic mulch we'll need to hold in
water and neutralize the alkaline clay somewhat for young seedlings.
South American surrealistic image of the month from Maria Elena Cedeno, who
has first-hand experience operating a shockingly modern quick-stop store at the
new gasoline station that is surrounded by pavement:
"If they could cement the sky, they would!"
("I hope so!" A common Spanish expression obviously derived at the
time of the Moorish occupation from Arabic, "As Allah will have it.")
By Peter Berg
(Leonidas Plaza—Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, January 30, 2000)
The morning of Revegetation Day I began with a round of sweeping up crickets,
the mound only slightly smaller than the day before. There's a barrel of rain
water on the roof-patio (a typical Ecuadorean amenity even in low-income houses
that seems luxurious and is probably only possible because of the tropical
climate) that I scooped into a basin and used to wash, shave and brush teeth.
The view on one side was of the Bird Islands in the bay, and on the other a
perfectly conical mountain which is intact without any sign of slides and is
covered with seemingly untouched native vegetation. It deserves a visit to learn
what is contained in this particular formation of plants and why the mountain
didn't collapse during El Nino like its neighbors.
Bahia can be reached by bus from here, but shared taxis are the same price or
a little more expensive in the morning, so I took one. Patricio was escorting a
Guayaquil TV crew and requested that I get filmed at La Cruz, at the foot of the
now-slanted cross that stands at the peak of the highest hill adjacent to Bahia.
Slides of rain-soaked soil left a precipitous drop right at the base of the
cross because the hill top was also fissured by the earthquake. We previously
rejected this site for revegetation because its fate is too tenuous. The next
earthquake or El Nino will surely carry away half of what remains.
The narrator asked me what sparked the eco-city idea and I related the need
to reconstruct the city and how making it more ecologically sustainable became
the theme. "It's the first bioregional eco-city," I added and pointed
at sites that featured continuing restoration of ecosystems such as mangroves in
the river and our project using only indigenous plants on land. "How long
will it take for the eco-city to be realized," he asked. "It isn't
like flipping on a light switch," I replied. The Ecology Club(s) of at
least one hundred eight to twelve year-olds came to mind as an image. "In
five years they will be teenagers with the background and potential for
completing the transition. That's when you'll see the true eco-city
For what should be the glorious day of initiating the portentous re-wilding
of Maria Auxiliadora barrio, things began moving with a haphazard slowness that
strummed my nerves. Marcelo wasn't where he said he would be at 2 o'clock to
help me load 150 algarrobo plants that Flor-Maria Duenas donated from her
accumulation of about one thousand seedlings. Patricio was also supposed to be
there with a truck at that time, and wasn't. I telephoned Marcelo's house at
2:30 and found out he was just starting lunch. We were losing daylight for
planting and the situation concerning volunteers from the barrio was uncertain.
Marcelo had originally guessed there would be fifty but now he wasn't sure. I
had previously bought sodas and cookies for that number and brought them by
triciclo to load into the non-existent truck. Adjusting the amount to bring to
the barrio was a concern.
Then the impasse began to split and blow open like a dam that can't hold back
an overfilled reservoir. Flor-Maria decided to take her truck. Marcelo arrived
and we loaded it. Flor had other problems such as handling the feeding of the TV
crew, so she was somewhat impatient. We drove to Maria Auxilidora not knowing
what reception was waiting. There were a few friends of Marcelo's and Luis
Duenas, a partner of Eduardo Rodriguez in Eco-bahia Centro's reforestation
committee. But it turned out that Marcelo had spent the morning chopping close
to five hundred hobo and muyullo lengths to stick into the ground as plantings.
Flor continued to be preoccupied so we unloaded quickly.
I walked first with Macelo's friend David and then with Luis to look at the
area. Some barrio residents had chopped out a small patch of low growth,
probably to plant corn. Luis and I revisited the site where Marcelo and I had
seen a steeply pitched break from a ridgetop on our first visit and decided that
this would be the starting point. A triceclo appeared to haul seedlings and
cuttings up to that point and then some men from the barrio appeared to help.
Flor had spread word that wages would be paid and we eventually had twenty or so
helpers. She also joined us, in a better mood, leading about ten small
The work that David and his girlfriend had begun now became a serious project
with Marcelo and Luis working in different areas, planting trees at a distance
of 3-4 meters as I suggested from observing how guayacan grew in a grove at the
Vocational Institute. Marcelo directed a mixed pattern of planting for hobo,
muyullo and algarobbo, while Luis ingeniously guided their placement along
"contoursos" which I took to be topographic-like lines on the hillside
to create the effect of terracing when the trees were larger, but without
mechanically disturbing the soil which we all agree goes against our best
Workers jimmied posthole diggers into the ground of hillsides that were
angled at forty-five degrees. In the three hours we had remaining before sunset,
they set two hundred hobo sticks in the soil, some in front of twisted and
broken house walls. One hundred and fifty muyullos were planted in alternating
spots, and one hundred and fifty algarrobos were placed between those two. The
finished day's job covered five to six acres. I asked the group whether the
barrio would respect our work and leave the revegetation area intact, and they
stated that they would do so and continue to work on more with us.
While we were hard at planting, Flo-Maria had begun organizing a new Ecology
Club that grew to about thirty children. We served them sodas and cookies as
well as the workers. She continued teaching, perched on a sack of sawdust facing
them in a row, when we came back from the replanted area. I realized at that
time that her tiredness and impatience had been completely reversed. At some
point she had decided to stay for their benefit and it totally revived
The project has begun more successfully than I could have imagined. We pick
it up again two days later. Will we actually create a complete covering of
indigenous plants that can hold the soil and provide habitat for native
ecosystems in a wild corridor around the barrio? Ojala!
By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador — February 5, 2000)
There isn't a way for me to know from experience how it would feel to have
been born somewhere near the equator and later move to the northern temperate
zone. But it is powerfully clear how the equator feels to someone who comes from
nearly half-way to the north pole. Especially after working outdoors at
comparatively heavy labor to plant paja macho grass and muyullo tree stakes for
Planet Drum Foundation's revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio.
The sun is directly overhead much of the time here in a way that is only
typical of summer in the northern temperate area. On a cloudless day, it emits
penetrating heat that is reminiscent of being too close to a steam radiator in a
New York apartment building. In the shade, whatever air movement that happens to
exist contrarily blows occasional puffs of heat across the face and arms. In
open places, the sun imprints a burning spot on any part of the body it touches.
The top of the head when hatless is perhaps the most susceptible because heat
rolls off of it downward like a hot shower. Your knees can buckle when standing
up fast. I'm sitting indoors writing this while looking out at glaring white
light on the sidewalk. Some men walking by have their shirts rolled upward to
mid-chest. It's only 9:30 AM and sweat is running freely from my neck.
Plants grow with a lushness, speed, profusion, and diversity that is
unfamiliar in most other places. These are greenhouse conditions. The
high-wattage light bulb of the sun rises in practically the same spot every day.
It also sets regularly in the same place. Every day is the same length, and so
is every night. It's hot enough during both periods to perspire without moving.
This is the four-five months rainy season when downpours, cool only in
contrast, are followed by heat that bakes water out of the soil and into the air
as though wet dough in an oven was becoming bread. The effective humidity during
this process is palpable like a sponge damp with hot water pressed against the
body. Walking feels almost like rowing against the hot, soggy air.
The effects of this climate on humans and plants came together as an
illuminating tandem during a replanting session three days ago. We worked on the
face of a seventy-five degree slope, nearly lying on the ground. Paja macho
clumps had been carefully chopped out of a large native stand nearby. They were
then divided into single stalks with some roots attached by twisting the clump,
not an easy task with this grass whose name implies rugged toughness. We took a
handful of paja macho and a muyullo stake and walked to where the trail came
close to the slope, and then edged with spider-like carefulness onto the bare,
soft clay slope. A plunge of the stake made a perfect-size hole for placing
grass at half-foot distances in a line across the face of the slope.
"When you're done, you plant the stake! Can you imagine any better
way," said Nicola, working just above me planting two rows at a time, the
distance between her fully stretched-out thigh and the ground forming fifteen
degrees of clear space when she reached above her head to place grass in the
"Using native plants. That came from the same locale where we're
replanting. With the sun out after the first rains. In damp soil that would
erode otherwise. With a crew from the barrio. This is it! Marcelo, oro puro
(pure gold)!" I yelled down the line to where Marcelo and some others were
placing muyullo stakes (that had already begun sprouting small green leaves) in
yard-long spaces along the lines of grass. When we finished, there were hundreds
of stalks and stakes dotting the naked slope. Below this spot on more level
ground there were stakes of hobo and seedlings of algarrobo trees to encompass
about a hectare (two and a half acres).
We had spent three hours in the late afternoon sun, and as I walked back to
our starting point my whole body sagged. It was an act of will to walk erect or
in a straight line. I smiled stupidly, euphoric and exhausted in the same
moment. Heat was draining energy away through the soles of my feet, and it was
replaced with a revelation of the links between plants and soil, climate and
sweat, barrio and wildness, and the separate but united identity of the workers.
Even though I slumped to sit on the ground in the shade, shirt completely soaked
with sweat and feeling waves of dizzying internal tightness, all of the problems
to get to this point were negligible compared to the time-scale and meaning of
what we had just done. Human faults and errors, personality conflicts, cultural
gulfs, even overwhelming social problems, were on a different level compared to
the vastly embracing reality of plants.
Grass grows fastest. For two or three years it will cover the slope so that
more rain rolls off and less of it saturates the soil. Trees will grow taller,
much faster than in less tropical places, and eventually shade out most of the
grass, but by then the native tree roots will start to tightly grip the soil.
When heavy rains come again, and this may be sooner and even greater than
previously because of global weather changes, drops of water will diffuse more
evenly when they strike millions of tree leaves. The remaining grass and several
species of shrubs that we'll plant later when the seedlings are tall enough will
cause much of the rain to run off. Even if an excess of water enters and the
soil saturates more than normally, a deep continuous web of tree roots will help
hold it back from sliding much more than a retaining wall could.
The most magical aspect of the process of natural succession from grasses to
a thick grove of trees and bushes is the shifting habitat that will be made for
a chain of indigenous species. From rodents to possibly mascota, the large
spotted cat of the dry tropical forest. Accompanied by various birds and
butterflies at different phases along the way.
Yesterday we started another section that we're calling Station II. It
adjoins the first part and has even more wreckage of houses that slid. There's a
cement staircase running from top to bottom of the slide area that has been
shifted, lifted and broken in at least five places. We'll leave it, Marcelo
says, "As a sacred memorial to those who were killed." I have the
spooky feeling of being at the birth of a ruin that will puzzle future
Station II is at the edge of an even steeper slope that is the boundary of an
"invasion" (squatter) green banana garden plot. While Marcelo and I
twisted apart blades of paja macho, a shy girl of the squatter shack came out
and pretended to play with a hammer while she watched us. Marcelo left to meet
up with a group of thirty uniformed students from Eloy Alfaro high school who we
could see walking up the road on the opposite side of the barrio canyon to meet
us. I asked the girl's name and learned that she was Monica and thirteen years
old, the average age of the students. Poverty thin and shoeless, a life-shaping
chasm existed between her and them. I brought a bag of grass clumps to where she
was sitting on a half-burned log and showed her how to twist off one blade with
some roots attached. She was immediately proficient at it. I asked if she had
been one of the children in Flor-Maria's new Ecology Club and she nodded with a
quiet, "Si." While we worked she asked if the students were coming to
this place by her shack. They were her only spontaneously spoken words. I told
her that they were and asked if she would join us. She stared ahead silently. We
finished the bag of clumps and waited without talking.
Eduardo led his class carrying stakes and more grass clumps. They quickly
over-ran the small station, standing perilously in a line along the edge of the
steep slope. "Cuidado (careful)," I told them, imagining a dozen boys
in khaki pants and white shirts with ties tumbling down together with girls in
sailor shirts and dark blue skirts. Marcelo stood below the slide area and
looked upward instructing them with playful gestures and jokes about planting
grass and muyullo. Then they formed an amazing bucket brigade to pass plants
along an angled line of fifty feet from the top to the bottom of the slide face,
leaving piles at various points. When they began putting plants into the soil,
another eighteen students of the same age but in different uniforms from Miguel
Malverde school at the bottom of the barrio filed through the wreckage from
across the canyon to join us. At least two hundred and fifty paja macho blades
and probably an equal number of muyullo stakes were planted in less than an
hour. We have a total of five to six acres of our wild corridor planted at this
I looked for Monica but couldn't find her during the instruction period. Then
I called into her shack when the students began planting. She eventually came to
the door and listened to my entreaties to work with us impassively. She answered
by shutting the door. But later she reappeared at the edge of the group. I don't
want to project my own suppositions, but if it had been me at that hugely
self-conscious age, I would have felt like an outcast in spite of any adult's
urging, much less a gringo who spoke Spanish as though it was coming out of a
shredder. She vanished again after a short period. Maybe we'll see her when we
come back to finish there and move on to establish Station III tomorrow. Getting
Monica involved more deeply would be a bonus from our work whose value to her
can only be guessed.
By Peter Berg
(Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, February 14, 2000)
The political demonstrations a month ago as part of a peaceful roar which
caused the president's resignation in what eventually only amounted to a palace
revolution in Quito finally erupted in Bahia de Caraquez. Whether ironically or
with perfect poetic timing, it was on St Valentine's Day.
With Flor-Maria at the wheel and Patricio as company, we drove out of town in
the early morning of my last day of this visit to catch a plane in Manta for
Guayaquil. Carey Knecht had arrived about a week before to take over at least
until the end of March in order to complete the last two-thirds of Planet Drum
Foundation's revegetation project. A meeting with Marcelo and "Cheo"
(school teacher Eduardo's tag) a few days before had produced a realistic
schedule that made everything "transparent." Even though we've only
known each other for little more than a month, I felt relaxed about Carey's
ability to deal with the considerable problems our work entails, which extend
from constant mundane precautions to ward off gastro-intestinal disorders to
hiring and overseeing workers, organizing logistics for obtaining and
transporting seedlings, and the daily round-trip through mud soup when it rains
from our apartment/office to the planting site. She is meticulous about
improving Spanish fluency and that had already smoothed out our work together
during the previous week.
We didn't know why soldiers of the National Police stopped the car at a
temporary bridge that remained from the mud slides more than a year ago. An
overturned tank with burn marks lay in the road just beyond the bridge, and
thick smoke was rising ahead beyond a curve. Flor convinced the officer in
charge to allow us to continue over his warnings and we cautiously progressed to
where burning tires and tree branches created a blockade across both sides of
the road. "Careful, Mom," Patricio said in English so that I could
also be warned. "We don't know the mood yet." We watched seventy-five
or so people at the junction of the dirt road from Fanca holding back traffic in
both directions and cheering "Paro, paro, paro (Strike, strike,
strike)!" When we got out to begin moving slowly toward the crowd, the
smell of burning rubber and an ominous high-pitched, gravelly-metallic sound
greeted us. Patricio whispered, "Do you hear that? It's machetes scraped
along the road as a warning." Faces in the crowd quickly became familiar as
people Flor knew from numerous trips to aid the destitute Fanca barrio. There
were a few intense leaders, a high proportion of young men with machetes, some
women and children onlookers and a few drunks. The fires had an out-sized
heating effect as the day progressed because of the normally high temperature,
causing everyone to perspire heavily. We had arrived just after the blockade had
been built and other cars began lining up in both directions on either side of
the burning line.
With a bare grasp of Spanish, I was thrown into a negligible role for what
followed. Patricio handed me a camera, "Take a picture of Mom with those
barrio leaders." Flor listened intently in the center of a ring of
onlookers four or five deep while some men explained the situation. She called
to Patricio who pulled out a cell phone and began what seemed to be a
negotiative dialogue with city officials back in their downtown offices.
At first there was some tension about my taking photos but it seemed to
vaporize along with the columns of smoke rising from the barricade. Drifting
away from the circle, I could see how the blockade dynamics were being played
out. An informal group of less than ten men with machetes and some older women
had stationed themselves by a sidewalk backed with a wall on the side of the
road for incoming traffic. They called out and whistled at anyone who tried to
drive through. When some passengers in stalled cars tried to walk through
carrying sacks of rice and other goods, the guard group approached shaking
machetes and shouting, "Paro, paro!" The blockade had been
deliberately made at the closest point in the main road for Fanca residents to
come out and join, and as time passed a steady line of them kept arriving.
Soldiers were kept at least a hundred feet back from the blockade on the
outgoing side. Their officers and local police slowly joined the discussion
circle without incident.
At this point, the whole event could be seen as more playful and less
potentially violent. Most of the participants had never done something like it
It was a piece of history but it was also a melodrama in which the actors
were without a scripted conclusion. The air of anticipation had shifted from
preparing for an attack to holding out until some favorable terms were reached.
The difference in tone became clear when different people asked to have their
photo taken and afterward said, "Gracias." I emptied Patricio's camera
and began using what would eventually number three of the recyclable cameras in
my pack. I was approached by Angel, one of the workers that had been hired for
our project who told me in a perfectly routine way that he was only going to
stay for another hour and then go to work at the site in Maria Auxiliadora. He
brought over some other Fanca demonstrators and asked if they could work too. I
explained that we didn't have enough money to hire more of what Patricio called
"revegetadores" until I could raise additional grant funds or
donations and that I was headed to the airport for that purpose. It was the most
unexpected discussion with protestors who continued throwing more tires on the
fire that I could have imagined. One of them had a broken tree limb held under
one arm by two stubs like a machine gun that he pointed at the soldiers with
comic opera delight.
Patricio explained that there were several pressing complaints. One was the
mired condition of Fanca's roads since the rains began. Another was overflow
from a large municipal sewage pond adjacent to the barrio that was held to be
responsible for many of around six hundred cases of malaria in Bahia during the
month of January. As we talked, a man approached Flor and began describing the
horrendous situation of a sick woman related to someone for whom he was the
godfather who dwelled in a shack that was flooded with rain water runoff from a
garbage heap. Under normal conditions, Fanca is hellish. More than a year of
continuous neglect and the additional problems of the rainy season had just
become too much to bear.
The vice-mayor eventually arrived at the head of a line of debris trucks.
After a few minutes of discussing the terms of an agreement, burning logs and
tires were poked to the side and trucks speeded up to pass over hot char marks
left in the road. Then they turned into the Fanca road, presumably to begin
filling in muddy and rutted roads. Popular political action had prevailed.
It was too late when the road opened to catch the plane. A friend of
Patricio's who happened to be in the line of blocked cars offered to take me
along on the three-hour drive to Guayaquil. The ride gave me a chance to think
about the possibilities for changed conditions that may prevail in Bahia when I
return next August. There were riots when I arrived this time and a blockaded
road on the way out, but no one was hurt and the peaceful roar got louder and