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Ecuador Dispatches, 2004

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Peter returned in early June, 2004, to the Eco-City project in Ecuador. He began sending dispatches soon after.

Index of 2004 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Summer 2004

Dispatch #6, A Re-birth of Ecologics (30 June, 2004)

Dispatch #5, How a Day Passes Here (28 June, 2004)

Dispatch #4, Seeing the Future in the Past, Again (26 June, 2004)

Dispatch #3, Close Call, Solemn Solstice (23 June, 2004)

Dispatch #2, The Next Five Years Begin on a Dry Note (19 June, 2004)

Dispatch #1, Learning to Partner with a Life-Place (12 June, 2004)


Learning to Partner with a  Life-Place

Dispatch #1, June 12, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

On a fog-wet spring morning in San Francisco, our unusual urban group climbed to the top of a rock promontory midway along a canyon trail to   get a clear view of the standout feature in a partially undeveloped park. The expedition of city explorers consisted of a wilderness enthusiast who arrived on a motorcycle with his realtor girl friend riding behind, three environmental students from Minnesota, Connecticut and New Jersey, and myself as guide. This park presents a jarring contrast between native and exotic vegetation, plants that grew there naturally and those brought from another part of the world. Eucalyptus trees originating in Australia were planted over a hundred years ago and subsequently spread invasively over the hillsides along the trail. Then they stopped short as though a border had been drawn as part of a landscaper’s design. It was actually a natural effect, attributable to a flat spot where water from a creek spread out to nourish a wide swath of yellow willows and dozens of other native plants. Willows thrive where their roots are constantly wet, and here they had become too large and dense to be crowded out by past or present intruders. The same group of indigenous species had probably occupied this identical place starting some time after the Ice Age, perhaps as long as ten thousand years. It didn’t take specialized knowledge to see how the tall, straight, shaggy trunks of the sparsely leafed non-natives differed from low, impenetrably dense willows that had prospered so well they had grown to medium-size trees. An inescapable trace of the difference appeared when the sharp cough drop scent of eucalyptus nuts that we had all noticed along the trail suddenly yielded to an inviting humus perfume of dark brown decaying willow leaves. It was as complete a transition as when a chapter ends and a new one begins.

We sat on outcrops of what had once been the compacted floor of the Pacific Ocean. The edge of the sea bottom was twisted and thrust upward millions of years ago by the force of the North American and Pacific Tectonic Plates colliding during Continental Drift. As ancient as the foundations for natural life here might be, the stand of willows that we had just walked through looked narrow and vulnerable from above. Newly built houses looped ominously around the rim of the canyon like an encircling noose. What we were seeing was only a miniscule refuge. A sense of thoughtful sadness came over the group.

One of the college students had been quiet until our stop. Now her low voice broke the silence. “This isn’t the way they taught me botany.”

What an off-center remark! She had our complete surprised attention and quickly obliged with an explanation. She had taken the course because of an impulse toward Nature as a relief from conflicting social and personal directions. She even planned a trip to Ecuador soon to volunteer working with forest revegetation projects. The botany class had been a way to get a little background. “From the beginning we just learned about uses for plants and making them as productive as possible. The professor said it definitely wasn’t an ecology class and that they liked poisons, herbicides, fertilizers, and so forth. I got put off and didn’t get much out of it ”

The rest of us looked at each other and nodded affirmation with the relieved understanding that comes from solving a puzzle together. “Well, at least he was honest for a change,” blurted out the wilderness loving biker, speaking what the rest of us felt. “Things may actually be changing for the better if they feel it’s necessary to make that distinction,” someone else asserted wryly.

We had taken the walk to see some broad aspects of northern California as a unique natural place. Having been left in its original condition, this small section of the park retained some of the classic essentials. Just walking through brought the unique experience of a coastal canyon watershed. Chert stones in several shades of red crunching beneath our feet proclaimed the soil underpinnings. Native plants grew in their chosen natural habitats: watercress in the creek, piggyback plants in the shade, yellow blue-eyed grass in a sunny patch of marsh. A red-tailed hawk’s nest darkened the crotch of some tree branches.

We even had a view of the built-up, paved over city stretching out beyond the park. The same native elements in this refuge persisted there in some form as well, traveling in the air or lying dormant beneath the sidewalks and streets. The creek might disappear down a storm drain and into an underground sewer at a point farther on but it still ran free here. How many of these things could be seen in other places of the city outside the park? How much could be restored?  Our conversation until the walk ended was occupied with similar atypical urban observations, seemingly coaxed by the living generosity of the creek.

But the student’s dissatisfaction implied a different kind of question.

Meaningful Ecological Learning, Fast

The present planet-wide ecological crisis is foremost in the minds of an ever-widening circle that encompasses groups as different as scientists and business planners, academics and construction workers, and even some politicians. Our concern has moved beyond self-serving quibbling to identify this calamity as a primary problem in urgent need of solutions. Denial of crucial indications such as global warming is deluded and dangerous. It only contributes to public unease through increased frustration and suspicion.

More and more of the national and international issues of the 21st century can be directly traced to ecologically rooted causes. Struggles over energy availability and use, limitations on water and other essential resources, food shortages, and increasing population have already become the basis for wars that jeopardize reasonable approaches to ecological imbalances.

We can’t delay in reversing our rampant destruction and learning to live integrally with the rest of life. Ecological sustainability can’t continue to be viewed as a luxury that only the richest countries can afford. It is an essential goal for every human society regardless of economic level, geographic location, or culture. It can no longer be compartmentalized as just an environmental concern either. We have to learn to live within the limits of the biosphere, and this is such a serious problem that it requires a thorough going redirection of the central course of society.

We desperately need to gain knowledge that enables individuals and communities to make ecologically beneficial decisions about what to do and how to do it. This has to become a primary function of contemporary information media and education at all levels. At present in even the best institutions of learning, general access to useful information about sustainability is as remote as Antarctica. It needs to become as close as a radio, a television set, or a neighbor’s conversation. It definitely needs to be taught at every level of schooling. If classes in specific natural sciences such as botany aren’t required to teach these things, where can a student learn?

A Personal, Local Start

Learning how to develop solutions at the level of the whole biosphere may be too far a reach for most people, but at least they can find out what needs to be done in the particular place where they live. Work to become compatible with local life systems in a home place. These are both comprehensible and realistic goals. Each person lives in a specific bioregion, a life-place that is an essential part of the planetary web of life. Even small outlays of effort locally can genuinely benefit some aspect of the mutuality of life. They result in tangible outcomes that are there to live with and watch while their impact on other natural features grows. There is no question that this kind of involvement will stimulate the expansion of personal ecological consciousness. Salutarily, it is a genuine and necessary remedy that will aid more wide-ranging cures such as decreasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or reducing global warming.

We need to gain knowledge about regional ecology with an emphasis on social and cultural implications. How do we identify the basic starting points for maintaining and restoring life where we live?

Active Projects Have a Priority

Because rapid action is required to harmonize with local natural systems and to remedy damage already done, there have to be to hands-on projects: learning by doing essential work to achieve natural health in our life-places.

Choosing these projects can follow simple guidelines.  Because the educational core is lit by an ecological imperative, there are three clear sources for activities. These are primary colors that will make up all the shades and blends of a full spectrum of possible projects.

The first is restoration and maintenance of natural features to whatever extent is immediately possible.  These rehabilitory efforts to restore life-place health must be undertaken with a sensibility for continuous improvement. They are the cornerstones for more projects aimed to eventually regain the highest possible level of original vitality. For example, planting native trees on an eroded hillside can be the first step toward restoring habitats for native plants and animals, and might eventually lead to creating a wild corridor.

Next is developing sustainable means to satisfy basic human needs. Food, water, energy, shelter, materials, and information are essential, and they can be elaborated in numerous variations. Some possibilities: growing indigenous plant species for food, reusing wastewater, using renewable energy to power households, building with recycled or regenerated native materials, creating new products from indigenous resources, and heightening bioregional awareness through public media. And those are only single entries from long “to do” lists in each area.

Finally there needs to be support for living in place in the widest possible range of ways from economics and culture to politics and philosophy. This involves both proactive undertakings that create positive alternatives as well as protests against ecological devastation and disruption.

What Else is Different About Life-Place Education?

The main focus for life-place learning is on the ecologically bounded place itself. It isn’t difficult to locate this spot. Identify the climate, weather, landforms, watershed, predominant geological and soil conditions, native plants and animals, and sustainable aspects of the traditional culture along with ecological practices of present day inhabitants. Your life-place is the geographic area where those things converge. Lessons, workshops, and exercises need to be directed toward identifying and harmonizing with the specific features of that place, and they should do this while assisting to carry out public projects that foster ecological sustainability.

If participants include children, young adults and seniors, all the better because that will mean the whole range of generations within the community is involved. Each age group brings essential ingredients for the ultimate success of the educational program.

Another new feature for life-place schooling is that it operates to some extent throughout the year. This is important because it is the only way everyone can witness the effect of each season on what is being learned and the work that’s done. Students need to observe the movement that takes place within life processes over time, and responses to different seasonal conditions. Otherwise they won’t perceive characteristics that are indispensable; cycles of change and how forces of life vary from month to month.

A First Year’s Worth of Learning/Doing

The first year needs to be as basic as possible because of its foundational role for future studies and projects. A valuable starting place is the fact that every life-place has lost some of the original trees and plants that provided habitats and were essential members of ecosystems. Revegetation projects to replant native plants are undoubtedly needed. Due to the massive displacement of these species by timber cutting, farming and land development, it is likely that their identities and inter-workings will be relatively unknown. In fact, the overall ecological life patterns of the place will need to be rediscovered.  To address these problems set two practical objectives: 1) propagate indigenous plants in local neighborhoods, and 2) create a map and guide that shows characteristics of local natural systems.

To cover four seasons the program can be divided into quarters of three months each.

First Quarter

a)   Native plant species. Locate and identify, obtain seeds through gathering and other sources, plant seeds.

b)   Watershed. Begin to identify natural landforms and water bodies from available charts and direct outdoors observation.

c)   Arts and handicrafts. Research existing examples of arts and products created from local materials. Create planters for seeds from recycled containers.

d)   Mapping. Create individual maps showing landforms, watersheds, water bodies, soils, native plants and animals, and major human interactions with them (Discovering Your Life-Place: A First Bioregional Workbook contains this exercise).

Second Quarter

a)  Native plants for habitat restoration. Grow indigenous plant seedlings preferably in local neighborhood greenhouses.

b)  Soil exploration. Hike through different locations to observe landforms, geological characteristics, and soils. Test for soil types, study erosion, and learn stages of compost cycle.

c)  Food consciousness. Learn what native foods are presently available and how they are prepared. Grow vegetable seedlings.

d)  Begin a consolidated large-scale map of the bioregion.

e)  Determine revegetation sites and begin planting native trees (at that time or in a more appropriate season).

f)   Continue First Quarter identification of native species and watershed, and arts and handicrafts research.

Third Quarter 

a)  Climate and weather characteristics. Identify seasonal variations and effects. Emphasize annual periods of rain or snow for water availability, create means for collecting rain or snow melt water, relate water availability to growth and development of plants, learn water sources and human utilization.

b)  Energy sources and uses. Identify and contrast renewable and non-renewable forms of energy, relate human energy needs to climate and weather, build model solar rooftop water-heating system.

c)  Continue First and Second Quarter activities.

Fourth Quarter

a)  Indigenous culture. Research archeological sources for information and explore sites. Create awareness about indigenous people (speakers, visits, interviews, oral histories, etc.) Assist museums and indigenous peoples’ service agencies or groups.

b)  Literature. Read works by past and present local writers. Write stories, poems and journals using life-place themes. Explore at least one other language that is used besides the dominant tongue of the place.

c)  Continue First, Second and Third Quarter activities.

d)  Plan next year’s work to continue present projects and initiate new ones.

To accommodate conventional school and job schedules of students, it may be necessary to hold classes (whatever number of sessions per week proves most workable) for only two hours in the late afternoon, and two hours in the early evening. (Perhaps with a dinner break in between.) The first session should be spent working on outdoor projects to take advantage of daylight, while the second can be indoors for lessons, study, writing, and workshops.

The teacher is primarily a guide to the work/learning process. A background in ecology and the natural sciences is essential, but this can be from practical experience or personal study as well as formal instruction. The teacher-guide should also have a working experience with previous restoration and sustainability projects. Because potential candidates for teachers may come from many fields, and life-paces themselves vary so widely, it would be inappropriate to advise a universal work plan. Let the subjects be chosen to follow a direction that is organic in the specific place, and determine their order, amount of study, and seasonal duration by the needs of projects at hand.

The one imperative for a teacher is to avoid the trap of determining student results through evaluations such as examinations or tests. Rebuilding a role for human beings in the natural flows of the place where they live will not be achieved by a grade at the end of the term. This goal can only be measured by the degree of a student’s involvement in the accomplishment of direct, practical results. With class subjects ranging from restoring a habitat or a watershed, producing food and energy through renewable means, utilizing native and recycled materials in making products, and creating life-place culture, each member has started on a life-long exploration. What is learned can even transfer to benefit other places where a student may visit or live in the future.

This is a constructive way to begin learning to identify with and actually become part of a place in the biosphere. It is overdue.  And needs to start immediately.



The Next Five Years Begin on a Dry Note

Dispatch #2, June 19, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
by Peter Berg

Yellow squares of rice drying in front yards seen from the bus window on the six-hour ride out to Bahia from Guayaquil seemed a little early. It was the most sparse & peculiar rainy season since the Eco-city Declaration five years ago. Starting late in January, it gave up February and stayed truant another two months after that. Rain came again in May and lasted until the first week of June. Only sporadic, fast-drying showers have been seen since.

The Planet Drum crew surveyed the Bosque and found a minimum of 15 steps in need of replacement or repair, two or three handrails collapsed, many path-lining bricks off center & two full rice bags worth of trash. Dryness for this time of year is worse than I’ve seen. Foliage sparse, dust everywhere, new plantings dead or dying. There needs to be a rescue party with water soon.

The Maria Auxiliadora barrio community is acting half-heartedly about helping with needed work & I believe the Amigos group that was formed there for only one meeting has become moribund. Probably no one feels that he/she is receiving enough in return for their effort, and I don’t blame them. There aren’t many visitors & the municipality hasn’t followed through with assistance. We’ll keep working at upkeep & solutions. I’m glad we got the survey work done at least.

The Jorge Lomas barrio site near threatened houses is a good revegetation job with several hundred mixed species of trees. It’s extremely steep so Renee Portanova, our new Field Projects Manager, has built cribbing steps so that transiting the slope won’t add so greatly to causing even more erosion. In order to get a picture through one of our plants into the ruined houses & past to the threatened houses I laid on my back but had a difficult time keeping either of my shoes or crotch out of the foto! 

The other site above the new canal (to drain away rainwater) has the purpose of retaining soil & reducing the runoff by increasing absorption through roots. There are two parts, one of which is on a slump above an extremely sharp & deep drop at the beginning of the canal & offers a superb example of why revegetation is needed & how it should be done. The other part is less obviously effective because it is now mainly an extension of existing trees & brush well away from the precipice above the Canal. When it gets the next phase of planting that will bring new saplings up to the edge, the curative properties will be clearer. This section has the benefit of a barbed wire fence to prevent roaming domestic animals such as burros, horses, cows, or goats from eating the plantings later in the year when they will be the only green, tender & moist vegetation available. The more classic site still needs to be similarly fenced which is scheduled for the beginning of next week.

All of these new plantings put in so carefully & with great difficulty by Renee and steadfast & hard working assistant volunteer Bevan Mitchell are especially vulnerable to dryness & will require water at least twice a week. I just learned that a water truck carrying two thousand liters (over five hundred gallons) costs $14. As the summer dryness wears on it may go higher.

The greenhouse has been maintained in excellent condition & holds at least 200 well developed saplings with another hundred or so coming up in seedbeds. The hillside directly above it that served as our first revegetation site (now with Jorge Lomas at the opposite end of the six kilometer stretch we hope to eventually cover with native plants) has grown spectacularly. Some algorrobo trees there are six feet high already. Survival rate of about 500 plantings is estimated at over 75%. It was reassuring to see that one area where trees were placed strategically on both sides of a fissure to help suture the crack with roots has prospered well enough to allow us to watch the next phase of this experiment.

Bevan carried off a TV interview well & we both explained the large revegetation project on a radio program where the announcer said, “Now that Planet Drum has become an acknowledged part of the Bahia community….” I don’t remember feeling as justified about our work here.



Close Call, Solemn Solstice

Dispatch #3, June 23, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

Burro droppings and a partially gnawed algarrobo sapling. These powerful auguries must have been left just after we left the day before. They were in a planting site that although begun during the rainy season we had only now started to dig the first postholes for a protective fence. Renee and Bevan saw these signs of potential disaster when they luckily returned the next day and with the help of two volunteers from another project finished setting posts and stringing three strands of wire to complete the enclosure.

This revegetation site occupies part of a bluff above the new flood control drainage canal in the Jorge Lomas barrio of Leonidas Plaza suburb that adjoins Bahia de Caraquez, and it is a classic. A mixture of dry tropical forest trees were used: durable algarrobo (a fast-growing relative of Southwest Desert mesquite), soil-improving guachapeli, and a local favorite but more slow-growing hardwood, black guayacan. They were meticulously placed at the bottom of several slumps on this denuded area in such a way as to bolster the two to four feet high faces of potential slides that might otherwise progress to the edge and slide over the bluff if they weren’t held back in this way. The young trees are over a meter apart so that when fully grown there won’t be severe crowding of the canopies. Sides of the site were outlined with plants as well, and when both parts of the design mature they will join the surrounding stand of intact trees to form a complete forest up to the lip of the bluff.

What a maddening waste of both Brian’s and Renee’s creative expertise and all of the volunteer time it would have been to lose this site to burros, horses, cattle, or native animals desperate for wet green succulence during the upcoming bone-dry months! It was as close as I ever want to come to dealing with that particular variety of disappointed frustration. Instead, we glow with the delicious pridefulness of having been right about installing the fence in this spot, and choosing barbed wire in spite of its expense, even when the tightly compacted clay soil proved nearly as hard as digging into bricks.

Working remote sites such as this has built-in challenges that seriously contend with revegetating the most effective places along a six kilometers long strip that will dissolve in mud slides unless trees are planted. Our transportation usually starts with a bus ride carrying tools, water, compost, and saplings. The cost of only eighteen cents each is a break but the trip can be as long as twenty-five minutes both ways to devour about an hour of the workday. Then comes an inevitable hike to the site. Because erosion is often worst near the steepest points of a watercourse, the walk in carrying everything we’ll need is usually as long or longer than to the furthest house along the road or trail. As a final trek, there’s most likely a climb up a slope that might be a fifty per cent grade or greater to a place chosen as most suitable for plantings. After achieving this high point there will be trips back and forth to the bottom to carry up whatever materials are called for in the stages of digging holes, filling them with compost, placing plants, and watering.

Despite the effort or because of succeeding at it, this work can be satisfying at a level shared by few other direct involvements with growing things. There are as frequent natural encounters that are usually associated with wilderness expeditions: outrageously colored butterflies, rarely seen birds, animal signs of all kinds, strangely shaped trees, unusual leaves, unexpected footfalls, and too many other first-time events to recount. Simultaneously, you know with unequivocal certitude how hard it is to complete each job. It is a physical truth absorbed while overcoming obstructions and disregarding fatigue as though mountaineering instead of planting a kind of garden in a natural setting. You surprise yourself with the thought that although people would generally agree that this effort is needed, few of them would actually do it, or could even understand how difficult it is to do.

The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the winter solstice in the Southern, but at the equator has a little of both without resembling either. Bahia is only a few minutes of latitude below the planet-dividing line. When the solstice moment came at 14:57 in the afternoon on June 20th, a sunny, hot day suddenly clouded over and an unlikely cold wind began to blow. Our days have been like this sometimes without a special planetary event, so it wasn’t too unexpected even if a little eerie about the timing. Sunset seemed to be coming neither later nor earlier than usual, and .the tide was headed out at about the normal rate. I walked on the beach seeing black and white aquatic birds with red feet that I had never noticed, perfectly camouflaged crabs that only gave themselves away when they moved and therefore evolved contrary to their bright red, skittish cousins and stand calmly motionless only inches away, spiny clams who stick into the mud as the tide recedes, and frigate birds in steadily increasing numbers performing the exquisite play of riding thermals and breezes from the ocean-facing cliffs upward in the highest spiraling columns possible.  

When I returned the sun showed partially below the cloudbank for only a few seconds before leaving our small group of would-be celebrants in growing darkness and cold. The still-wet surfer in the group began shivering and his skin turned blue-white resembling marble in a shadow. The wind grew too high for a planned fire on the beach. Summer/winter solstice 2004 at the equator turned out to be a time for melancholy, almost a visit to pay respects in a cemetery for passed on years.



Seeing the Future in the Past, Again

Dispatch #4, June 26, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

The chronological record for Greece that exists in Herodotus’ History beginning with the Trojan War is missing for coastal Ecuador. There was a similarly rich culture here in the same era but we don’t know its sagas. The archeological traces of ruins themselves are only partially explored here. 

It was a complex world but in a different way from the Greeks judging from handsomely carved and highly symbolic metal, stone and clay objects found so far. Animal references abound in the form of tigers on the legs of stone thrones, monkeys on drinking vessels, and whistles in the shapes of birds. A high degree of regard for celestial influences is evident in multiple representations of the sun, moon and stars. Personal ornamentation seems to go beyond anything in the traditional Western Civilization accessories kit. Figurines show tiered headdresses, heavy disk nose rings that must have needed to be held in at least one hand to be worn, huge ear rings, neckbands and necklaces several inches wide. Decoration is dense in general with few of the clean lines and open areas associated with classic Western art. Known by the archeological name Valdivians, their mode of thought must have operated on several levels at once if it resembled this overlaid, compact graphic style. 

Only the most durable materials remain so the historical record as well as metaphysics, social forms, speech, and other core aspects of these tropical people are open to conjecture. Voracious equatorial biota devoured the more ephemeral remains. But clay and stone objects seem to be everywhere. They are common on beaches, washed out from banks by flooded creeks that sometimes change directions and in so doing excavate a new site. Many houses have a few that were found by farmers digging in fields. Robbers have brought them up by the basketful from ordinary gravesites and tolas, huge mounds that probably have funerary significance. Two weeks ago a man waiting for a bus described himself as a restorer of artifacts and led me to a ramada-covered workshop on the side of his house just behind the bus stop. He had ten or so worn cardboard boxes full of intact and broken objects from various archeological periods along with nondescript pieces taken from the same sites that were used to make repairs.

There are too many objects for the limited national museum resources to collect and store. However, the town of San Jacinto in the same county as Bahia de Caraquez (Canton Sucre) has notable tolas in an area nearby where excavations have just begun for an ancient city named Japoto that dates from fifteen hundred years ago and was abandoned at about the time of the Spanish Conquest. This promising dig will undoubtedly fill in volumes from the lost history of the immediate predecessors of today’s inhabitants. 

There was a preceding culture here as well that stretched back before the time of the earliest pyramid builders in Egypt. Even less is known about their cosmology but one feature marks the people of coastal Ecuador and Colombia from 7,000 years ago as original and influential. They were the first to develop agriculture in South or North America. It is felt that the enormous biodiversity in this region led to information exchanges between people about a larger number of possibilities for getting food. The result was the earliest signs of plant cultivation in the Western Hemisphere. The first ceramics in the New World also arose here within a thousand years after that. 

Among all of the techniques and methods developed by local farmers since agriculture began, the management of water may be the most intriguing. A rainy season followed by months of dryness creates the paradox of overflowing amounts of water at one time contrasted with dusty unavailability of it in another. How can the surplus be retained for the scorched days of need? The present system of dam-building and water diversion that is so common throughout the world (and disastrous in the long run) requires huge amounts of materials, numerous pieces of heavy machinery, and a high level of operating technology for the purpose of moving water from faraway places to wherever it is wanted. The earliest farmers differed in that both the surplus and subsequent shortage of water they experienced occurred in the same place.  

Their ingenious solution from at least 5000 years ago is so apt that it is still in use in many places. Generally know as jagueys, these are modifications in flat earth surfaces that temporarily collect and concentrate rainwater, holding some in pools but allowing the greatest part to seep into the subsoil for storage and later use.

In coastal Ecuador they are called albarrados and worked so well that numerous dots that can be seen on satellite photographs were left scattered on the prehistoric landscape . The enthusiastic explorer and interpreter of this phenomenon is Dr. Jorge Marcos who has cataloged two hundred and fifty two albarrados around the city of Santa Elena south of Bahia de Caraquez alone that date as far back as 3800 years, with the majority falling between 2800-2150 years old. Remarkably, one hundred and ninety-two of those, an overwhelming majority, have been functioning continuously since they were first created.

According to Marcos, albarrados actually aim water underground. The most common result is to simply raise the water table beneath the surface so that roots of plants have shorter access to a more abundant supply of nourishment than was otherwise available. An outcrop of land on a hillside was all that was needed to create a collecting area. A shallow basin was scooped out and the removed dirt was made into a semicircle on the outward side to act as a barrier to hold some rainwater from immediately escaping to a creek or river downhill below. After rain soaks in, the whole hill becomes a kind of water bank that can be drawn on by plants all summer and fall until the next rainy season.

Sometimes albarrados may have been positioned more strategically. They could have collected water above places where agriculture was carried out in a pattern on the side of a hill. The most drought tolerant species of plants would be at the top with descending rows for more thirsty plants. The ones that require the most water occur at the bottom. This order was common along sloping riverbanks used by ancient farmers.

Examining the still-functioning Santa Elena albarrados closely, Marcos has found a biotic treasure trove of over one hundred families and two hundred and twenty genera of plants. The catchments are an abundant reserve for wild vegetation and many of them are valuable in some form as food. Open albarrados are designated for use by men as cattle watering holes, while fenced pools are controlled by women to draw water for cooking and other uses.

It’s an astounding prehistoric cultural practice, but there is an even more striking quality about this elegantly simple and reasonable approach. It provides timely answers to several pressing questions that confront most human communities today. The availability of water is already at a crisis level in some parts of the world and will be everywhere else in a few years. The reason is that a greater human population means a greater number of people needing it, and at the same time, more uses for water are being employed. Energy to move water through the present long distance systems is also becoming scarce. Jagueys such as albarrados can be adapted in places where they have never been previously used to produce a genuinely sustainable benefit. They can be a future life-assuring tool while reiterating the wild heritage from our species’ past.



How a Day Passes Here

Dispatch #5, June 28, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

It is tempting to dwell on the difficulties of pioneering dry tropical forest revegetation because the obstacles and challenges are a kind of earth news. Reporting them is a way to spread the whys and hows of carrying out work that is urgently necessary but involves truly arduous effort. There is a high spirit of creativity that goes along with it that also needs to be told. This élan comes from the inventive way a day unfolds as the requisite problems of practicing a craft in a unique way are countered. From the moment we walk out the door to become engaged with one of the field sites, we begin responding to conditions as they are found, and the process of discovery and spontaneous interaction that comes into play occupies and rewards our consciousness completely.

At the vivero (greenhouse) this morning Renée and I first emptied a twenty-five liter can of organic garbage that we had carried out on the bus from our office/apartment onto the ample compost pile. This sounds funkier than it is because no one minds (live chickens and pails of shrimp sometimes accompany other passengers) and there is even a space for this behind the driver. Besides, the fare collector automatically helps put the container on and off in spite of the odor. In six months or so using only our household can and kitchen waste from the University Catholica cafeteria, this pile produced enough finished compost to half-way fill the trench that stretches the length of the greenhouse, about eight large rice sacks worth. While Renée turned on the faucet for the watering hose, I discovered a cow pile just two meters from the greenhouse door and retrieved a shovel to toss the cause of concern about another group of animals getting at our plants onto the compost pile as well.

Once inside we were alarmed at how much the vigorous and luxuriant leaved native Fernan Sanchez tree seedlings had outgrown their shallow seedbed. The depth of their roots into the solid clay soil underlying a few inches of compost on top of the bed was unknown since growing this species is a new experience.

I used a trowel to make an experimental circle three or four inches from the largest of the overgrown seedlings while Renée was occupied with watering the rest of several hundred plants growing in beds or already in maturing sacks on their way to becoming plantable saplings. (Watering had been the ostensible reason for the trip before overgrown Fernan Sanchez upstaged the morning’s original purpose.) The trowel blade was completely buried before gentle prying back and forth finally caused the stem to move, a bad sign since it meant the root was at least as deep as the length of the trowel. When the whole plant finally responded to steady pressure and swayed with each prying movement, it was levered out of the ground.

That was the first time I saw how Fernan Sanchez grew by producing a deep taproot that for this particular individual was at least half a foot long. The dry orange clay it had aggressively bored through fell away, leaving the surprisingly lengthy main root with its whiskers of surrounding root hairs completely bare. Fortunately, there is a sack of large size bags kept close to the beds and I rushed to get one for placing the plant safely back into soil, but this time in a container that would be filled with a rich growing mixture. Renée helped hold the sides of the bag apart and smooth the dirt to cover the root. We added water before carrying the plant in its new maturing medium over to a vacant space on the greenhouse floor to start a section for these transplants.

Although quick work was obviously needed to resolve the problem before roots of twenty-five or so remaining plants would continue to grow at who knew what speed and ultimately require some kind of major earth removal, I felt there needed to be more tests with various techniques before getting the rest of them out of the ground less perilously. For the second attempt I dug deeper until the trowel handle was partially buried. This permitted a clump of soil to remain around part of the root system. The third trial was without the small trowel but instead using a broad-bladed shovel that could actually bring up more soil than was needed. Deep watering the plants before digging also seemed a good idea. Now we were ready to make a production line to set up bags half-filled with soil in advance and became deeply absorbed in removing the rest of the seedlings. We didn’t stop until all but a few of the smallest plants were left, feeling something like paramedics who had just saved accident victims.

Greenhouse interiors are about twice as humid as the outside air and breezes don’t enter. Even though the sky remained fortuitously overcast throughout the morning, our bodies heated up very quickly. Sweat was dripping from m y nose and I hung my cap on a rafter so that moisture could evaporate from my soaked hair. We were in a kind of trance. Renée fell completely silent but jazz riffs of half-century old tunes like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Time After Time” came unsummoned out of my mouth. It was time to stop when I tried to replicate Coltrane’s first solo on “My Favorite Things” !  The intensity of problem solving, the single-minded concentration on each step of the process, the muscle tension of bending over to perform delicate movements without stopping, and the exertion of will to break away when necessary from one phase of activity like filling a bag meticulously to then haul it carefully to the steadily increasing storage rows has a strange effect on the sense of time. Rather than progressing second by second as for example in a race, it is more like the time that elapses when one racer moves up on the lead runner, steadily compresses the gap, and then passes. Time that oozes out like a thick liquid and slides away. We were unaware as it was happening but at least three hours passed while transplanting.

To finish up the chores at the University site we slacked the thirst of some more recent plantings above the greenhouse from water bottles carried with us and examined bamboo water feeders that Renée is installing beside each plant. Using sections about a foot long left over from a construction site and removing the internal separating walls, she pounds them into the ground either straight up or at an angle a few inches away from new plants. The pointed ends have small holes drilled to release water from inside the tubes underground directly into the root systems without losing moisture to a larger surface area and evaporation. Like almost everything else we did this morning, it is a previously unknown procedure guided by intuitively felt reasonableness. It will be watched and refined in nearly the same way a finished painting or sculpture is gradually created.

Renée said, “I’m getting really hungry. We missed lunch.” “It can’t be too late for restaurant almuerzo. They serve until two,” I said referring to a cheap two-course midday meal with hopefulness. “It’s too late for that,” she replied casually but definitely. That couldn’t be right. I pulled the wristwatch I had taken off in the greenhouse out of my pocket and at first thought it read only twelve fifteen until I rotated the face to see with disbelief that it was actually three. Five hours passed since we left our place as though there had only been two.



A Re-birth of Ecologics

Dispatch #6, June 30, 2004
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

Although economic thought is largely devoted to a seemingly unlimited array of activities and events surrounding production, distribution and consumption of goods, these are rarely seen as being nested in an ecological context. Most rational people concede that our well-being and ultimate survival as a species depends on sustaining interdependence and harmony with natural forces of life. Older environmental problems of pollution and population growth have been recognized, even if it is questionable whether they are truly being met. The present human perils to the biosphere such as global warming, over-fishing of the oceans, and the unprecedented loss of wild habitat and species go more to the actual heart of our way of life. World affairs and global stability are increasingly dominated by factors having to do directly with ecological balance in the form of availability and use of energy sources, supplies of food and water, and materials for producing goods. Nevertheless there remains a neglectful and dangerous lack of consideration for the earth-related foundations of human economic interactions.  

Our sense of economics (with its entire range of inferences from forecasting investments to valuations of the worth of goods and trade) should be reformulated with examples of different ways that people relate to those activities. This information needs to be unearthed from the area of cultural anthropology rather than limited to what can be found in statistical records of various economic conditions. 

The Pacific coastal city of Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador reacted to several simultaneous natural catastrophes (a significant earthquake in the midst of flooding and mud slides during El Nino in 1998) by declaring the intention to re-build as an ecological city through a by-law enacted in February, 1999. It was an inspired approach to adopt a more sustainable urban identity and undertake appropriate ecological practices.


These are some highlights of the declaration:

“Evolution within a new order of shared responsibility for development towards the third millennium.”

“Create an Environmental Affairs Municipal Department to coordinate all management, including continuous environmental learning for all personnel and allocate budget allowances to allow this work in the long term.”

“Strengthen citizen awareness with a campaign of public and private participation, in order to create an environmental culture.”

“Declare a reserve zone for the native dry tropical forest, within the urban area in order to regulate its use and thus preserve its already existing biodiversity.”

“Implement a new social process, assigning technical people and budget allowances for land zoning, sewage waters, solid refuse and construction projects.”

In the past five years numerous actions on many levels have aimed in the general direction of creating an ecological. Neighborhood and county-wide recycling, revegetation of hillsides to assist in preventing erosion, youth eco-clubs in disadvantaged barrios, restoration of mangroves in the river estuary, public ecology information programs and classes on sustainability themes in public and private schools, development of businesses that use recycled materials, investigation of biological means for human waste disposal, celebrations relating to natural features, and many others. New developments such as recognizing Ecological City Day with a parade of groups including school children in animal and plant costumes during this year’s Carnaval revelries are continual and expected. The city has become proud of its identity and reputation as an ecological city, and the high level of reconstruction and improvements is dazzling to someone who has been away for only a year.

The economic situation during the same period was monumentally stressful. Perhaps as many as five thousand families, at least a third of the population, were made homeless and lived in makeshift shacks on the sidewalks using still-standing structures for one wall. Or fled to the outskirts to build temporary shacks on stilts. Sewage and water lines were broken contributing to already serious health problems from flooding and falling debris. The only large road was blocked in some places by up to two meters (six feet) of mud and the principal bridge on it was in ruins.

The Ecuadorian government response was in keeping with the capabilities of a borderline impoverished country. It did little. What response eventually came was late and weak. Some shacks for homeless victims were built that were less than one-tenth of what was needed. It took a year to clear the road and over two years to rebuild its bridge. Even reconstruction of the rehabilitation center prison destroyed by raging mud slides allowing all of the convicts to escape had to wait until four years after the event.

Gradually people left for the large cities such as Quito and Guayaquil by any means of transportation they could devise to find income-producing work. The population dropped by thousands. Those who remained were desperate and worked for as little as three or four dollars a day, when they could find someone able to pay them.

Then a catastrophe struck that cut across all economic levels. The huge Ecuadorian shrimp farming industry experienced white spot disease and the penned animals past a certain small size died from this virus. Gone with the giant prawns were the fortunes for a few in former days. So were less remunerative jobs for netters, security guards, boatmen, pump mechanics, biologists, freezer and packaging workers, and indirectly everyone else without the former tourists and other transportation-stymied supports. Always an ecological hazard because of removal of biologically rich mangroves and pumping ten per cent of each farm’s massive volume of polluted water into the river each day, the lucrative flat expanses of diked water lining rivers and bays of Bahia de Caraquez’s Rio Chone River fell victim to the same get-rich-quick global economy that had once made them profitable.

Into this harsh mix of economic horrors came even more bad news. The sitting president accepted dollarization, putting USA currency into use as the country’s own and thereby raising prices. The opponent who unseated him was elected with unanimous indigenous support to confront the International Monetary Fund’s advocacy of price increases for subsidized commodities such as cooking oil and bottled gas. After a year or so he went back on his pledge, raised prices that affected the poor more than anyone else, and even promised to send troops to prevent Amazonian indigenous people from blocking a new oil pipeline through their ecologically endangered homeland. Then he put a double-digit tax into place, the first in the nation’s history.

How has Bahia dealt with all of these economic calamities and survived, even prospering to a small extent? The answer may be startling to devotees of monetary and proprietary economics. The basis of this culture for thousands of years has been natural provision. Direct interaction with natural systems is still a surprisingly large part of their functioning economics. City dwellers are the most removed from the phenomenon, but even they might have an average thirty per cent direct dependency on the healthy functioning of nearby ocean, river, forests, and geological features. For people on the fringe of the city this could well be seventy-five to ninety per cent.

Here’s how it works. Fishermen using dugout canoes are everywhere on the river catching wild fish and shrimp. Their boats come from the forest and the nets are handmade from twine (although nylon thread woven in the traditional way is sometimes used). They also catch langostino and several varieties of crabs. Some dig the beaches for famous Ecuadorian black clams with their inky fluid. Ocean-going boats that are constructed locally from native timber use gasoline motors but the value of each day’s catch far exceeds the cost of fuel. All of these aquatic gatherers and the general population eat an astonishing variety of fresh seafood.

In front of the main market there are always many people selling fruits from wild native trees like hobo or limes that grow in their backyards. They also raise papayas for sale, and peddle chickens that largely feed themselves on food scraps and ground insects. Their crowing is the four AM alarm clock for the city.  

It is extremely common for urbanites to operate country farms. They often obtain a good portion of their own food there. Cheese, honey, oranges, plantains, and green peppers are examples of a few to show the range. Surpluses are often sold in the local market.

Construction is done nearly completely with local materials. Bricks are made from native clay. Earthen fill is collected near the construction site. River sand is readily available when needed. Cement is bagged nearby. Bamboo is used rather than heavy machinery to hold up second floors (or higher) during building, and preferred as scaffolding. It is also pounded flat into boards for siding. Branches of local trees are designed into airy patterns for porch enclosures.

There are at least four times as many human powered “triciclos” (cargo and passenger carrying tricycles) than gasoline consuming taxi automobiles. They carry anything from fifty-liter water containers to construction materials to groceries for shoppers at the market. It is an indescribable luxury to ride in one along the riverfront malecon, and the price is only fifty cents.

The list could go on for pages but the point is made. These things don’t have the costs associated with them that so-called developed countries pile on, and they aren’t obtained solely through pricey distributors. They come out of the ecological processes of the place. Bahia de Caraquez was already an ecological city in these respects when the official declaration was made.

Is this ecologics viable into the future? On the first day of the Eco-city Declaration, a public-spirited citizen approached triciclo drivers with an offer to paint their vehicles green and hang small signs on them that read “Bienvenidos a Eco-Bahia”. They stayed that way for a few weeks but then reverted back to the previous colors and the signs came off. But two years ago a new company of triciclo drivers named “Bahia Ecologico” using green-painted conveyances and wearing green caps and shirts started up. It was a success and now there are two more new companies with some variation of this idea in their names.

When the declaration was made there were no certified organic shrimp farms. Now there are at least two large ones. There was only one company making stationery and decorated objects from recycled paper. There are at least four now. An island where mangrove restoration and education is featured can only be reached in a dugout canoe paddled by a resident guide who lives across the river in a bamboo house on stilts. The newest eco-tour company is exclusively involved with showing native wildlife. Those are some of the unique businesses that have evolved so far, and with increased public education there are sure to be more. As an example, renewable energy sources have barely been utilized and nearly the whole gamut including solar, biomass, wind, river current, tide, and ocean waves is available.

The traditional involvements with natural systems exist unchanged five years after the Ecological City Declaration and will do so as long as they are practiced sustainably. This society didn’t need to be as conserving in the past as it does now. The forest just grew. Now it needs to be grown through revegetation projects. The river just flourished. Now it needs to be kept clean of agricultural pollution and sewage, The ocean just stored seafood for the taking. Now it needs to be watched and managed to prevent exhausting the supply. The countryside was just burned for the fertilizing benefit of released minerals in the ash. Now soil needs to be restored and the ruinous erosion of burning eliminated through use of compost because people can’t move around and leave plots of ground to rest for several years in between use as they did before.

In the long run, the greatest benefit from preserving and enhancing ecologics in Bahia de Caraquez may not just be what it means here but what it can mean to the rest of both the developed and undeveloped worlds. We will all have to learn how to live a making.