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Ecuador Dispatches, August/September 2001

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Peter Berg returned to Ecuador in late August, 2001, for further work on the Eco City project. Shortly after arriving he began to send back dispatches for his faithful readers on this web site.

Index of Aug/Sep 2001 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Report #4. Transforming Trash to Fruit Trees (10 Sept 2001)

Report #3. How to Biosphere (7 Sept 2001)

Report #2. Now and Future Water (30 Aug 2001)

Report #1. Counsel from an Unusual Source (23 Aug 2001)


Counsel From an Unusual Source 

Report #1, August 23, 2001
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

August is the "gringo month" on the coast according to Patricio Tamariz, who believes it brings weather that resembles the Pacific Northwest. Days usually begin with gray clouds that can last into the night, but occasionally surrender to the radiator hot sun of the equator for a few hours in the afternoon. When this acquiescence occurs, there is a peculiar phenomenon of sweating and then suddenly feeling for a moment as though cold water had been thrown over you when the clouds take command again. An unusual treat at the equator even if it's eerily like running a fever. 

This is going to be an exceptional visit in the quest to create an ecological city in Bahia de Caraquez. It has been impossible up to now to raise the amount of money needed to transform large infrastructure systems such as sewage, water, garbage, or electricity. Only small grants have come our way, and the economically stressed city doesn't possess sufficient funds on its own. Even the subsistence salary for an Environmental Planner was withdrawn in the last six months and that position is now idle. The problem of how the city can progress beyond the mainly private projects under way has been a daily preoccupation, and because of the lack of positive responses in the form of large grants, I felt that this fifth trip might be the least fruitful one. Events are already starting to prove me wrong.

When I was in Japan recently, a prized opportunity came up to visit Zen Buddhist Roshi (Abbot) Keido Fukushima at Tofukuji Monastery in Kyoto. I went with Judy Goldhaft, Ken Rodgers of Kyoto Journal, and a box of Godiva chocolates which I had heard him answer to an audience question at his last public lecture in San Francisco as an example of his personal non-spiritual attachments. Roshi Fukushima is a genial and quick-witted person whose manner resembles an artist rather than what might be typically expected from the top level keeper of a venerable religious tradition. He is in fact a gifted painter of individualistic calligraphic scrolls. (A rendition of the character mu meaning nothingness was done with so much ink that the spaces between the strokes slowly filled in and disappeared while it dried leaving behind a single dark form — nothingness.) When Ken asked me about the subjects that might be covered in our conversation, I mindlessly blurted out that I would tell him to help raise money for eco-ciudad projects in Ecuador. "You don't tell Zen abbots anything," he coolly replied. 

Tofukuji Monastery is spread over a large area with brilliant classical Japanese architectural and garden highlights everywhere one looks. The largest existing Zen meditation hall that is capable of holding 500 sitting acolytes, a magnificent three-story gate with voluptuous paintings of Nirvana on the ceiling of the top floor, and long handcrafted wood pavilions with views of bountiful red and yellow maple trees. While imposing in totality, it has the capability of focusing the mind intimately in any particular spot. 

We were met at Fukushima's residence by a monk who briskly seated us at an elegantly plain wooden table. The main decoration in the scrupulously uncluttered room was a display of a few pieces of broken ancient rice bowls on a shelf in the corner. The abbot accepted the chocolates with genuine delight and began our informal audience by telling about some of his experiences in California and other places in North America. Our subsequent statements and questions to him were met with responses that could best be described as simple good sense. In a more complicated exchange, I asked if complete revelation could be attained by direct perception of elements in nature alone. He recited a teaching of Zen's founder Dogen, 

"In spring, flowers. 
In summer, songs of birds. 
In fall, the moon. 
In winter, snow." 

He asked, "What do you think that means?" I threw the question back, realizing that he had thought this brief text through many times. He replied that when perception of those seasonal signs is experienced fully without distraction they can briefly occupy the mind in a total way that closely resembles complete revelation. You become a flower, a bird's song, the moon, or snow. What an unguarded and generously inclusive answer from someone who has meditated for thousands of hours hoping to attain enlightenment! 

The Bahia ecological city funding problem came to mind and I was moved by his candor to state it in a completely different way. I told him that I had originally come for assistance in finding financial support but realized just then that I needed his advice instead about why this obstacle had become so personally frustrating. Fukushima recalled the experience at the Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on the Environment of Amazon rain forest activists who seemed to be split over contradictory goals until an indigenous person who came from the region spoke about the situation of native people who lived there. His obvious involvement galvanized the group to drop their differences and adopt a united position. It was an example of why local inhabitants must eventually solve their own problems in ways that seem reasonable to them.

This is a basic tenet of bioregional practice, of course, and I pursue it in Bahia by involving as many groups as possible in decisions and activities, and encouraging leadership by local planners and workers on projects. But I hadn't accepted the out-sized financial limitations on undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects. I always felt that since they required outside support they were the responsibility of myself and others who might be able to get it. The abbot performed a great service by enabling me to see that the big projects had been a personal involvement and didn't necessarily fit the perceived needs of Bahia's residents. I decided that they could be undertaken at some future time and I should pitch in with what people wanted to accomplish now. 

So I wasn't sure what would happen when I returned this time with assistants Scott Farber and Edward Smallwood, capable and enthusiastic recent college graduates who will stay on until January. We could always do maintenance on the revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora and seek out local approaches to recycling, alternative energy and other sustainability possibilities. Which new projects we would undertake was undecided. I was taking the abbot's counsel to watch for ideas that grew from within the community itself. 

The day after we arrived I called Mayor Leo and he excitedly insisted that I come to his house right away. Ed and Scott might be introduced at this time but they had set off toward the Malecon beach walkway at the other end of the city. I looked for them there without success. With a little time left before the meeting, I took a chance and walked all the way back to Jacob Santos' Bed & Breakfast Inn where I had originally telephoned Leo. Fortunately, in the serendipitous way of strangers in a new place, they were also headed there looking for me. Our good luck proved to be an omen for the meeting with the mayor and his wife Michelle.

When previous assistant Amy Jewel was here five months ago, Michelle asked her to help develop two proposals for the British government's "Small Grant Scheme". One was for a large native planting project on hillsides entering Bahia (see www.planetdrum.org for Report on Bahia de Caraquez Hillside Erosion Suitable for Revegetation Using Plantings Without Physical Alteration of the Landscape, under "Ecuador Dispatches Jan/Feb 2001 — Survey"). The other was to initiate a city-wide recycling program (Preliminary Waste Management and Recycling Plan, under "Reciclaje/Recycle") by gathering compost materials for a low-income women's vegetable garden. The compost/garden grant had just come through! The idea is to collect everything from kitchen scraps to tree trimmings, compost them into fertilizing soil, and raise food plants to a transportable size. They can then be sold, replanted at home, or donated to the immediate community. As a result, the neighborhood will become tangibly more self-reliant while the women learn and practice self-sufficient skills. Planet Drum Foundation and the municipal government are partner recipients of the grant, and Leo wanted me to go to Quito with him the next night to finish arrangements. The new assistant Ed is British and speaks fluent Spanish, and since I was already scheduled to do other things, it was decided that he would travel with the mayor instead and deliver my letter of gratitude. It will be instant immersion in Ecuadorian politics for Ed who already demonstrated his diplomatic skills by negotiating terms with the landlady at our new office/apartment. 

The roshi's insight seems to have coincided with some plain good luck. Michelle found the grant source and helped develop the idea of a compost/garden project, which marks it as an activity that comes from within the community. This will be the first step for households to participate in recycling, and it fits with the aspirations of some economically struggling Bahians.



Now and Future Water

Report #2, August 30, 2001 
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

The home for most life on our planet is in water. It is a soupy, form-shifting medium where food can be chased, nibbled, or just plucked as it floats by. Plants and animals that don't actually live in water require it anyway. All plants need to absorb moisture. Terrestrial animals manage their days around water holes, ponds, lakes, creeks, and rivers. Mammals come regularly along familiar trails to drink. Snakes carve the surface with rhythmic sensuousness. In fresh water and the ocean alike, turtles waddle in and out, birds dive under.

Water is essential to our lives as well, but it's not at the center of our consciousness. Whatever the reason, this disregard is beginning to change. With six billion thirsty people now in the world, continually expanded use of water as a means to dissolve and carry wastes, and changing rainfall patterns due to global weather changes, the fundamental liquid of life is getting in shorter supply. Potable drinking water is disappearing fastest. It has become a crisis and even catastrophe in areas such as east Africa. In more prosperous regions people are shifting to purifiers and bottled water. (Recognizing a greater demand from impending scarcity, major French water companies recently bought up dozens of spring and mineral water brands throughout the world.) We will witness an increasing number of territorial conflicts over possession and rights to water sources.

Bahia has been obsessed with water for generations. The piped variety is a luxury. In rare cases it is pumped up from wells. Many buildings have cisterns to catch rain. This is the dry season so those are starting to see the year's lowest level. Most running water is from connections to the mains which means it is sporadically unavailable and needs to be boiled before drinking. A few dwellings have all three kinds - a well, cistern and hook up - but still occasionally run out.

Many people don't have tap water. They have it brought to houses by trucks, three-wheeled carts, burros, or hand-carried. Everyone is entitled to pull up slightly brackish water from the city's riverside wells.

This makes for high water consciousness. I don't see many faucets running while people go to another room. Fire hydrants aren't allowed to spill out endlessly into the street. Showers are short. It may seem implausible, but local people don't seem to drink as much water as norteamericanos when we are doing sweaty field work together.

Where I live now, there is no running water. It comes from a waist-high tank in the kitchen that is filled from a hose once a week. Bodies are washed and the toilet flushed by dipping a pail into the tank. Teeth are brushed with only a cup of pure water from a plastic jug bought at a store. Fifty liter jugs of agua pura are common in houses here. Jacob Santos graciously permits me to shower at his B & B where I acknowledge the low cistern problem by turning the water off to soap up and using it only to rinse.

Bahia's situation is no different than most parts of the world. In fact, it's superior to many of them. With this understood, having pure water coming from the faucet of every home someday is still a dream worth pursuing, especially if this can be done in a sustainable way befitting an ecological city. That would mean no major dams or river diversions to seriously threaten native ecosystems which have adapted to the natural flux of wet and dry seasons.

Meanwhile, the present experience here is instructive about the future prospect of scarcer water planet-wide. Pure water will always be a precious commodity. Because of population pressure and pollution, it has become less abundant naturally. Making it clean by boiling or electrolysis involves energy costs. Pure water should be measured by the cupful. Drinking and cooking are reasonable uses. So are washing dishes, clothes and ourselves. Absolutely clean water is too extravagant for purposes like flushing toilets. That's like upending a bottle of Evian into the toilet! It isn't needed for watering a lawn either. Or washing down the sidewalk. Or a hundred other inappropriate and wasteful uses.

What could be the source for less perfect water? Lightly used bath and shower water is a close-at-hand starting point. There should be dual water systems such as in ships where one set of pipes carries sea water and another fresh water. In the case of buildings and homes, once-used gray water can be in separate pipes. This isn't really difficult for most residences, requiring only a filter, tank, pump, and some additional plumbing. Municipalities should also use water twice, but they will be slower in making the city-wide changes that are required. Planners will eventually be forced to meet growing demands and should start making plans for re-using water in as many ways as possible.

Rapid changes are impacting humankind's relationship with the biosphere, and water needs to become part of the social response for recycling and re-use.



How to Biosphere 

Report #3, September 7, 2001
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 
By Peter Berg 

Coastal Ecuador seems to breed imaginative future scenarios. It could be the sheer biological richness of the country, mixed with hard-pressed economic necessity, but something definitely inspires a sense of starting over in new and different ways. People aren’t generally inhibited about having large visions.

One Bahia friend enunciates new ideas as a constant aspect of our conversations. Here’s one that flashed out while I was describing how the houses ruined by mudslides were incorporated into the design of paths for the revegetation park in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. “Why don’t we have a museum there with displays about El Nino and the earthquake in 1998,” he said. “There are plenty of photos for an entire panorama. And not just the damage. All of the weather conditions that produced the rains, and the geology underlying the earthquake. With descriptions of dry tropical forest plants and animals that people could see right outside. A big map with bioregional features of all kinds: Rio Chone, Nino and Humboldt ocean currents meeting offshore, rainy and dry seasons, soil types. You know those circular depressions that are the remains of water catch basins from the ancient times? Well, they’re being viewed from space by archeologists and other scientists who are trying to find patterns for water availability. We could follow all kinds of satellite information like that.” “ Why not?” I said. 

I was talking to someone else who owns a reserva (natural preserve) about the differences in accessibility for visitors to public land versus private land. “My land will be public,” he declared with earnest certainty. When I replied with a confused look, he described a future corridor made up of wild and reforested parcels that would be joined together as a chain of dry forest along most of the coast. It would be an enormous preserve given something like park status and assigned interpretive centers and guides every so often. As far as I know, this is a personal dream that only people he has spoken with share. Now I share it as well. 

Both of those visions have a common root in a distinctly Ecuadorian sensibility. I don't think they are mere fantasies but achievable in the 21st Century the way dreams of mass produced automobiles were in the 20th. This place doesn’t have to follow the same course of development as elsewhere. 

It’s time to start thinking like parts of a whole. The unified biosphere of our planet is a fact, and we should be acting accordingly. Each of us may live in just one place, or a few places at most, but it is obvious that we absolutely depend on the whole for basics of life like air and rainfall. Less noticeable but hugely important are the world-wide physical systems that support us such as ocean currents with their role in nurturing sea life, or the earth-girdling zones of life from the polar caps to the equator that temper major aspects of how we eat, build, dress, and countless other adaptations. 

Of all the shared interactions with planet-wide phenomena, the most compelling and mysterious are relations with other living things. We are involved with plants and animals at every moment, from bacteria in our stomachs to the food that fills them. It may often seem that living entities relate most strongly to conditions found in their immediate area, but exchanges with distant species and forces are also essential. Bird migrations from Africa to Europe and the Arctic to the Amazon point out those faraway links. Food chains joining krill to shrimp to fish to bears and humans extend across oceans and far up river estuaries to mountain streams. All biological activity is open-ended in this way to some degree. We don’t know all of the ways and certainly can’t see them, but everything alive is interdependent with everything else. 

So, how to biosphere? It’s not just something between all of the people on earth, difficult as that is. How do we consciously involve ourselves with the inter-relatedness of all life? These aren’t useless questions. In a relatively short time our species has increased in numbers and impact to the point that we can cause serious alterations of the biosphere such as global climate change. We need to know how to share the earth so that we don’t destroy the foundation of our species in other life forms and natural systems. 

Coastal Ecuador could help establish a valuable path toward planethood. Rather than seek heavy industrialization, it could pioneer sustainability through green cities, enlightened agriculture, and restoration along with preservation of natural areas.

This area is particularly suited for a foundational biospheric role. Features that are intentionally built into a greenhouse in other places are found naturally. A daily mid-heaven arc of the sun that doesn’t vary for more than a few degrees all year. Abundant water during the rainy season. High humidity. No frost; sixty degrees Fahrenheit would be considered extremely cold. Storms are generally mild. 

Wild fruits such as hobo and pechiche abound and are consumed by nearly everyone to some degree. Papayas, plaintain, limes, and many other staples require no more attention than occasional water. There is an astounding range of other crops that need a little more care, ranging from potatoes to rice and cabbages to passion fruit. 

It is a primarily agricultural society now, and this is a desirable and practical direction for the future. The greatest ecological benefits would be realized through a large scale shift toward organic food production that is sustainable in terms of soil and water. As world food standards move away from pesticides and artificial fertilizer, this would also be the most profitable route. 

Another major direction is in restoring and maintaining unique biodiversity. The coast is mainly in a part-wild condition although there are still intact wilderness places. For these singular species to survive, they require reforestation, re-introduction of both plants and animals, and greatly increased protection of habitats including the shore and ocean. Future economic benefits will come not so much in exploitation of resources but in generating information about them. Natural sciences research centers in every bioregion, of course, but also a multitude of unique education facilities, and visitor sites expanded to include working restoration projects. 

Cities still have manageable populations in terms of sustainability. Bahia de Caraquez (like Cotacachi in the mountains) can show the way toward making model ecological urban areas. 

With the whole biosphere critically requiring a respite from devastation, coastal Eco-Ecuador will benefit everyone.



Transforming Trash to Fruit Trees 

Report #4, September 10, 2001
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 
By Peter Berg 

We closed the first community meeting to initiate the women’s compost/garden project in Fanca feeling as though it was the last hundred yards of a mile long race. Here’s a field spotter’s view of how the whole event developed and finished. 

Nicola Mears met with me to discuss being hired as a consultant for demonstrating, training, and assisting people in composting and gardening techniques. She’s a pioneer in tropical permaculture who demonstrates her considerable skills at the remarkable Rio Muchacho farm and ecological education center (see descriptions in previous reports). We expect half of the three hundred families in Fanca’s four sections to participate. Two days later we visited the site for composting donated by the city in Fanca’s fenced municipal vehicle yard. It’s in a spot behind a parking shed with abundant space but needed to be cleared of ground covering plants and a few large rusty vehicle parts. 

Experimented at gathering leaves for compost from someone’s yard debris left at the curb to see what’s involved and how long it takes. Amused several boys who were kicking around a soccer ball in the street. It’s a tediously slow prospect for getting organic material that in an hour netted Ed, Scott and myself only seven pounds worth. 

The mayor’s new appointee to the Department of the Environment, biologist Johnny Delgado, met with Nicola Mears, Ed, Scott, and myself to start planning the project with an eye toward the first public gathering a week later. Saw looming problems with details about home receptacles for compost, pick-ups, how many of 150 participants in home separation of kitchen wastes can realistically fit into the yard for turning the compost pile, which trees to plant for growing into seedlings for planting around houses, and watering. 

New volunteer Sierra Hill from Shasta Bioregion arrives in time to join our next meeting. We make progress on the details from before and schedule writing up an announcement for the community gathering and other publicity. All of us plus Dario Proano meet at the mayor’s house to discuss the range of possibilities for recycling that might be related to this project and the structure of responsibilities. 

The project principals meet with a Fanca church assistant who maintains a children’s daily free lunch service at the comedor community center for advice about getting attendance at the first gathering. He suggests handing out an announcement at lunch to take to parents and posting it at stores and the school. We think an announcement by him at church beforehand will also be invaluable.

Another meeting of the six principals to decide how much can actually be stated about still-undecided details at the public meeting, and to compose the final announcement from Ed and Sierra’s notes around a laptop computer on a small table in the lobby of Jacob Santos’ B & B (unquestionably a first-time event). Ed is going to coordinate when I leave so he has devised a list of responsibilities: Sierra – publicity and education, Scott – budget & finance, Nicola – composting/planting & workshops consultant, Johnny – tool shed construction, yard supervision, water, municipal representation & outreach to local leaders. 

Distribute the flyer to children at Fanca’s comedor during lunch the next day. It says the mayor will join members of Planet Drum Foundation to present a new fruit tree growing and recycling program.

Assemble at the mayor’s house the night before to give him our thoughts about the announcement he will make. In answering his questions, I admit the considerable limitations on what we can decide about the project process and details without knowing how many participants will show up. We also need to research other community experiences with various recycling methods. I tell Judy in an e-mail how up to this point it is all unknown territory and that we are in anticipatory suspension to know a) whether our publicity worked and/or people are interested, b) if Leo can fire up the crowd for such a potentially transformative community enterprise, and c) whether we can field questions about details that will inevitably include urgent issues such as poverty and sick children.

There are only two Fanca women waiting at the comedor the next day a half-hour before the meeting. Six planners and the church assistant outnumber them by over three to one. I have an apprehensive feeling and walk to the municipal garage lot to fill blank time, and bring back a tree seedling in a bag of compost as a demonstration. It adorns the meeting table, and I sit behind it for the next half-hour watching the mostly empty room where Ed and Scott have placed some chairs (but not too many in case we’re disappointed and their presence would highlight that fact). A few more people drift in and more chairs go out. Then some more. An hour after starting time there is a solid row of waiting residents along the opposite wall, one group of ten clustered tightly in a far corner. When the mayor arrives some minutes later, there are already two rows with more people streaming in including some men and two nuns. Scott is eventually able to count sixty-five people. First hurdle cleared, the publicity worked. 

Mayor Leo talks about the need to think ecologically and have an eco-ciudad. He says there are two problems he wants to work on through this project, to begin city-wide recycling and to help Fanca’s disadvantaged population. Gathering organic kitchen wastes in each house to make compost answers the first problem, and growing fruit trees for planting around houses in the community contributes to their sustenance. Homegrown papayas, bananas, and other fruit will be bigger, more nutritious, and more healthy for their children because of the fertilizing compost. They can sell fruit trees and other seedlings after the first house plantings, and produce enough compost for other purposes. In doing these things, Fanca residents will be accomplishing a first for the city and justify the faith of British government grant givers who may help more in the future. He’s counting on them.

There is applause, Leo exits, and then a minute’s pregnant silence. I turn to the mayor’s wife Michelle who whispers, “He didn’t say much about how it works.” My Spanish is still negligible for this purpose. We hadn’t thought out the next step but Nicola gets up from behind our table and improvises so well that it might have been scripted. When people begin shouting back names of trees they want to grow, it’s clear that we’re rolling. She introduces Johnny Delgado who describes how residents can participate and what will take place in two weeks at the next meeting/working session for learning about separating garbage. (Audience members are shouting, “Can we use banana peels?” “How about pineapple leaves?”) We pass around sign-up sheets that move slowly because of the large number who want to join. Unexpectedly but perfectly, Michelle stands up to close the gathering and urges people to spread the word and bring two or three of their neighbors next time. Second hurdle cleared, the crowd is fired up. 

One woman asked why she should participate when she lacks running water, but other members of the group listed suggestions about getting it. Over the third hurdle, questions adequately fielded. The project is started running. I carried the plant like a friend back to the municipal lot where a city bulldozer was already clearing the compost area. 

A woman from the meeting urged us to come and see what she had accomplished over three years at her place. There were ten fully developed and half-grown banana trees and one papaya along with a dozen flowering plants in a margin of barely three feet around the one-room bamboo house. She re-used lightly soapy dish washing and bath water on all of them, and simply threw fruit skins and egg shells at the base of their trunks to break down into fertilizing nutrients. It was an amazing display and proof of what the project can accomplish for the whole neighborhood, and hopefully over time, the entire city. 

Update on Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas revegetation park in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. Ed & Scott upgraded trails tremendously by macheteing out overgrowth, raking them, and placing markers of rubble cones spaced along the sides. Our sign stating the bioregional purpose of the park had blown down and been in the safe-keeping of the resident invasion (squatter) family on the ridgetop. It was rewelded onto its metal pole, reinforced with lengths of rebar, set in concrete at a better viewing angle, and painted to cover welding marks. Then they built two rubble cones to mark the stairway entrance and a fence of found lumber. Up until then the entrance had been practically invisible. 

They rushed to finish in time for radical educationist Keibo Oiwa to show up for a tour with twenty of his eco-activist Japanese students from Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. Three wasp nests had been removed just the afternoon before because they could explode with hundreds of stinging insects if a tree was accidentally shaken by the students (the wasps will rebuild soon enough but hopefully away from the trails). Two fearless local teenagers took on the task. 

Sierra & Scott did a credible job of leading their own sections of curious students through, showing native plants, describing erosion control problems, and pointing out what had been done to reduce them. A confidence building experience for them, and made me feel fully justified about the value of the park.