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Ecuador Dispatches, 2006

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Peter returned to the Eco-City project in Ecuador in March and later in September, 2006. He sent the following dispatches to report on the project's progress as seen through his eyes.

Index of 2006 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Dispatch #3, The Core of Eco-tourism, September 20, 2006
Dispatch #2, Reality Checks, September 12, 2006

Dispatch #1, Winter's Wet Green Heat, March 10, 2006


Winter's Wet Green Heat

2006 Dispatch #1 (March 10)
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

The rainy season finally began at the end of January this year, late but potent. Only six weeks later the hills have been completely transformed from dust blurred brown-orange to wet vibrant green. Vine tendrils hang like searching snakes from trees and slink across paths.

The ground is in a constant saturated state ranging from clutching mud that weighs down shoes when it's not raining to the most slippery natural substance imaginable during or immediately after arroyo-filling showers. Even when it is possible to walk on flat ground without sliding, the slightest rise on a path causes feet to yield so fast it can result in a face-forward fall. Human and animal tracks turn into skid marks. Steep hillsides are nearly impossible to climb without using a stick to jam deep into the ground in front or grabbing onto trees and bushes. A misstep or broken branch can initiate a quick uncontrollable descent that only stops by a whim of terrain.

The sky is mainly overcast with bright white-gray covering clouds. When the sun burns through it is roasting, raising already hot air another fifteen or twenty degrees. Sweat can break out unpredictably even when sitting. But so can magnificently luxurious breezes that exalt the human gift of a sensuous body. It is an amazing transition after being slowed to a shuffle by the heat to suddenly feel the arousal of cooler air.

Alternating rain and heat have been intensely greenhouse-like for our plantings of native trees. When hand-watered during the dry season in the actual greenhouse where they were grown or in field sites they progressed fairly slowly. Now they seem to be racing each other both indoors and out. Stems and leaves of Guachapelli and Cedro trees poked a foot or more out of the top of netting supported by stakes that protected them from nibbling cows in the dry months. Their protruding heads are the most evocative visual symbol of what rain can do for our work. Longer stakes to heighten the netting and a wider protective enclosure have had to be made for these saplings, and chest-high circles of thorny brush have been placed around some others. How much more will they grow during two more months of rain and water saturated soil? In this site the trees were planted on both sides of a gully alternating in a crisscross pattern for several hundred feet that can be a perfect model for preventing erosion in the future.

Results aren't always this good. In a few places farm tenants and workers have burned fields where trees were planted in their habitual passion to clear ground or to follow the traditional slash and burn technique for enriching nutrient poor former ocean bottom clay soil for growing corn. It was a reasonable technique in former times when growing plots were moved each year to give the land time to heal and not revisited immediately, but now farm land is closed in by property lines. Repeated burning in the same place every year is a major contributor to the surficial erosion that is ruining soil, creating gullies and slides, and compounding siltation of the Rio Chone river.

Cows, horses, and burros were sometimes put into fields where there were tree saplings. Newly planted trees receive regular watering during the dry months and appear to grazing animals as the only green fodder available. Plants vanished into parched hungry mouths if they weren't individually fenced.

It is more time-wasting to locate landowners and gain their cooperation to plant trees in the first place than we would have wished. Most employ tenants to farm and don't live on their property. Once they are found most sites turn out well, but sometimes owners who are willing to participate and sign contracts that trees will not be destroyed or cut don't pass this information on to the workers who actually carry out burning or leave gates open for grazing.

Heather Crawford explained these problems to me and Patrick Wylie, her replacement after this month as Field Projects Manager, while showing some bamboo watering tubes that were missing their plants. We were all disheartened because it was in the Maria Dolores farming barrio where erosion is particularly critical, and the owner had agreed not to disturb the plants.

Patrick has some promising ideas about a different long-term approach. He wants to work from a Revegetation Plan that considers all of the territory and the worst sources of erosion in the large working area we have chosen. He also tentatively envisions a "wild farming" theme for landowners and ourselves. It is based on his impressions at a cornfield in Maria Dolores where our plantings have extended the wild forest at the back edge of the property and linked it up with fingers of saplings along gullies on both sides like a large U. Corn could continue to be grown in the center with much less harm, especially if compost is used for land improvement rather than burning, because trees along the gullies will help retain earth and water that would otherwise end up in the nearby creek.

We have arranged to meet with Mayor Mendoza and Ramon Farias of the Planning Department next week to discuss how the city government can help, using the following statement as a guide.



Planet Drum Foundation (PDF) has a program to revegetate approximately six kilometers of eroded hillsides bordering Rio Chone from Leonidas Plaza to Univeridad Catolica. This program is necessary to reduce loss of soil and landslides, destruction of houses and roads, and siltation of Rio Chone. It will also provide economic benefits from harvests of fruit and animal feed. Eco-tourism will benefit by restoring wildlife habitat of the Dry Tropical Forest. PDF has a convenio with the municipal government of Bahia de Caraquez to carry out this program.

PDF uses native plants grown in a greenhouse at Universidad Catolica. Mainly those hillsides where erosion can be effectively reduced solely with plants are considered. Most of this land is privately owned . PDF obtains written contracts from landowners stating that they will not cut or harm plantings although they are welcome to use fruits and branches.

There are at least ten sites in the program where trees have been or are being planted at present. Many more will be attempted in the next 3-5 years. Some of these sites such as at Universidad Catolica and Jorge Lomas are well established and seem relatively secure.


The community needs to know the importance of revegetation. Landowners have to be encouraged to join the program. There needs to be a way to eliminate destruction of the plants.

This problem is especially serious in the barrio of Maria Dolores at Kilometro Ocho. That area is very badly eroded and has a creek that deposited so much mud during El Nino that it closed the highway and cut off the city for many months. It is especially important to reduce ongoing erosion in this valley because it has the capacity to do the same damage in the future.

At some sites young trees have been destroyed. They are burned when the land is cleared or prepared for planting corn. Cows and other animals are allowed to graze in places were trees are planted and they eat young saplings.

PDF revegetation contracts with owners to plant critical sections of this area are sometimes not being followed. Burning and grazing has destroyed the hard work of planting and watering trees during the dry season. Landowners have been told about this but they sometimes ignore the agreements and continue burning and grazing. There is often miscommunication between landowners, tenants and workers about preserving plants.


The city government should convene a meeting with landowners and the general public to explain the importance and benefits of revegetation. This may require identifying the landowners of eroded hillsides from Leonidas Plaza to Universidad Catolica. Invitations to the meeting could involve public media including television, radio and newspapers. Speakers need to be contacted. Educational workshops could be scheduled. Signs should be made showing where projects are underway or have been completed.

There should be a Revegetation Plan for critical areas in the hillside zone bordering Rio Chone. Landowners in those specific areas should be urged to participate.

If it is possible there should be an agreement between landowners and the city government to avoid activities that destroy plants and encourage activities to assist revegetation.



Reality Checks

2006 Dispatch #2 (September 12)
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

August rain is nearly unheard of during the desert-like dryness of summer and fall in Bahia de Caraquez and the State of Manabi. So when there was a week of it last month with two days of memorable monsoon downpour people were bewildered and out of their confusion sprouted divergent theories. One universally understood truth is that this is Ecuador where practically any natural occurrence is possible.

There had just been an explosive eruption of volcanic Mt. Tungurahua in the Andes directly to the east. At 15,000 feet high with a westward wind blowing ash in a fan-shaped wedge toward the coast, the volcano could have seeded the gray cloudy overcast that normally passes uninterrupted overhead during this time of year. Particles of ash that could be seen in a thin layer here might have attracted droplets of moisture in clouds that then became heavy enough to condense and fall.

From the opposite direction out in the Pacific there is a shift of ocean currents that normally takes place later in the year but has begun early. It is largely responsible for the typical winter rainy season. There has been a prediction of a mild El Nino which means more rain than usual. August’s wet week may just have been the first sign.

Or it could have been a combination of both possibilities. Whatever the cause it was a beneficial surprise for our revegetation saplings that desperately need watering to struggle through the long dry season. There was a sprinkle yesterday afternoon that may indicate even more is coming.

Meg Tibbetts, ecological architect and landscaper, has been exploring the new Planet Drum Foundation land and has found ecologically appropriate sites for various facilities that will be needed by our future sustainability learning institute. Field Projects Manager Patrick Wylie guided her and several volunteers on the initial trip to one end of the hundred and twenty hectares (300 acres) and alone to the other end on a subsequent trip.

Using her photographs and Pat’s confirmation of the property lines with a Geographic Positioning System finder she has developed an illustrated planning map that reminds me of a Tang Dynasty Chinese scroll painting. Along with hills, forests and seasonally wet streambeds there are potential dwellings, garden sites and miradors (viewing platforms). The 3X4” map will probably reside here for reference but photos of it will be in future publications and available on our web site. We have been exceptionally fortunate to be the recipients of her donated talents, and reciprocated by leading her through some of the savorable complexities of Bahia life.

Bahia’s official status for seven years as a ciudad ecologica (ecological city) has only partially penetrated civic policies as yet, and there has been just a small indication of whatever benefits may eventually come from visitors who travel here to see it. Regardless of the standard inertial pull from lack of funds, Mayor Carlos Mendoza, some greenish members of the City Council, and the City Planning Department have developed a vision for connecting the hilltops of the city for hiking, viewing and experiencing nature that includes upgrading our Bosque en Medio de las Ruins “wild park”. They are seeking full City Council approval of a plan to enclose the area with a secure fence, build an entry way and visitor’s center, and improve stairways and paths.

We endorse the plan because it represents an important means to preserve the successful tree plantings for erosion control and habitat restoration made over six years in this previously denuded site. We would also like to have inclusion of neighborhood community members in whatever construction and maintenance employment may be needed. Achieving both points will undoubtedly require ongoing involvements for us starting with a meeting later this afternoon in City Hall.

Privately I wonder if eco-tourism is even real. The best evaluative comment on the scant actual difference between tourism and eco-tourism I’ve seen was a satirical list of comparisons in England’s The Guardian. “Type of Travel” was the same for both, conveyances that are highly polluting. “Accomodations” was the same, over-priced and conspicuously wasteful. There were several more exactly identical items until only the last, “Take Photographs”. Buildings and monuments were cited for regular tourism as opposed to landscapes and animals for eco-tourism. Not much of a difference to justify a whole new hype.



The Core of Eco-tourism

2006 Dispatch #3 (September 20)
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

There is an intriguing cultural paradox mixed in with the conflicted assortment of values and human experience that have evolved from contemporary globalism. How can there be “world” identity and preservation of diverse cultures at the same time? Eating fusion-nationality food, working as an importer of flowers from Ecuador, discussing Saudi Arabian Islamism, wearing running shoes made in China and a shirt from Indonesia, using a Taiwanese cell phone, and driving a Japanese car assembled in Tennessee.

There is still an actual Viet Nam, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, and Tennessee. They have distinct ongoing languages and cultures. The megapolitan Los Angeleno, New Yorker, Londoner, Berliner, and Tokyo resident speaks at least one language but it is increasingly polyglot and transitory. The culture of globalism is synthetic and indefinite, based more on the process of change than on solid content.

World culture mixers aren’t just in major cities. From work-seeking immigrants to “world music” enthusiasts, electronics shoppers to television news viewers, the feel of global participation is spreading everywhere. Émigré communities are found in small towns now, and new artistic undergrounds occur overnight in abandoned villages and remote islands. It isn’t a trend but a thoroughly transforming wave.

The world is subordinating the place. Technology is replacing geography. Authentic place-located cultures are disappearing or changing. This means that any destination where a visitor goes is in rapid transition. What is the central issue of eco-tourism given this accelerated transformation?

The ecologically minded visitor, guest or whatever euphemism suits the tourist industry has a higher quotient of globalist influences than the local people. Usually the visited areas are lower in income and consumption levels as well. They are also more natural or wild than where the eco-seeker lives. These may in fact be the conditions that underlie the need for eco-tourism in the first place.

But the culture of place that the visitor sees is eroding. It is blowing away along with hillside soils stripped of forests and over-grazed by cattle for export. Native social forms of human reciprocity with natural systems and indigenous wildlife are often collapsing in a quest for commodities and lifestyles such as those portrayed on television.

The eco-tourist comes to see natural features and undertake experiences in wilderness areas that are vanishing through misuse and neglect. The eco-visit inevitably becomes part of the force for their disappearance. Regardless of reassurances from tour operators about the greenness or sustainability features of their stay, the guests are helping to destroy the host places that they came to see.

There is only one alternative that can benefit natural places. It is for visitors to join in the restoration, maintenance and protection of ecosystems and other natural features, whether they be forests or tide pools, deserts or coral reefs, elephants or bower birds. Eco-visitors must act as eco-volunteers and participate in the recovery of places that have been damaged or threatened. They can do this by performing needed work while they are touring: tree-planting, water testing, litter removal…anything that needs more hands and spare energy. When they return home they can undertake other supportive activities based on actual experiences and knowledge about what is being lost.

This is an opportunity for some level of authentic identification with a place that may be otherwise absent in globalist culture.

The City Planning Department of Bahia de Caraquez is including our Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas “wild park” in Maria Auxiliadora barrio as part of a planned natural and scenic trail for residents and eco-visitors (along with the hilltop point of La Cruz barrio and the new mirador in Bella Vista barrio). If successful this plan will upgrade the Bosque with an entranceway visitor’s center, improved paths and bamboo stairways, and plant identification markers. It is a good means for preserving the erosion-controlling trees planted over the last five years and sheltering habitat they create for wildlife (there are now more birds and butterflies in the Bosque than any other place in the city). At a meeting with our staff and a representative of Maria Auxiliadora last week they agreed to maintain and expand the native species planted in the park and to hire local barrio residents as builders, guides and maintenance workers. We are conceiving of ways for visitors to contribute to the overall ecosystem restoration effort there.

Because of visa difficulties Patrick Wylie is regretfully leaving as Field Projects Manager later this fall. Much of his previous work has been to set up planting plans for the upcoming winter rainy season. The following is a “bill of work” that needs to be accomplished before his replacement arrives. ________________________________________________________________________ Field Project Manager (FPM)– Special Considerations Before Oct 30, 2006

I. Requirements for relating new planting plans

A. Create trails for all new planting locations

1) Determine locations for new plantings
2) Identify species for each location
3) Create marked metal tags for each plant
4) Place metal tags at locations for plantings

B. Planting maps for each new site

1) Show all trails
2) Number location of each plant
3) Indicate species for each of numbered locations

II. Hire new FPM

A. Contact former volunteers

B. Advertisements

1) PDF email lists
2) PDF web site
3) Previous & new international lists
4) SF Bay Area urban planning, sustainability, etc. lists

III. Create timelines to accomplish tasks before Oct. 30

A. Plant locations

1) Trails
2) Labels
3) Maps

B. Seed gathering and propagation in greenhouse (with growing instructions)

C. Map-making