Ecuador Dispatches, August/September 2001
Click on map for larger version.
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)
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for an Environmental Planner was withdrawn in the last six months and that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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.