Ecuador Dispatches, 2004
Click on map for larger
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]
Dispatch #6, A Re-birth
of Ecologics (30 June, 2004)
Dispatch #5, How a Day
Passes Here (28
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
To cover four seasons the program can be divided
into quarters of three months each.
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
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).
a) Native plants for habitat restoration.
Grow indigenous plant seedlings preferably in local neighborhood
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
d) Begin a consolidated large-scale map of the
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
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
c) Continue First and Second Quarter activities.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
its sagas. The archeological traces of ruins themselves are only partially
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.