Saturday, November 9, 2013

On Skinny Cows and Growing Miracles

Last Saturday I had the chance to go to Pedernales. Pedernales is the closest large town to the Jama-Coaque reserve where I am living, and it has some of the productions of civilization - bulk foods, markets, imports, restaurants, internet, hostels, and construction material, but luckily not much crime. It has around 100.000 people, and is a gateway between the andean highlands and the coast of Ecuador. Normally, tourists don't stop in Pedernales. Those foreigners who actually do are subject to a friendly, though thouroughly intense curiosity. Ecuadorians are very friendly and polite. The reserve where I am staying has made several relationships in town with locals. For example there is the coconut-icecream man who sells tasty treats from his cart, the construction shop people who don't rip us off for our foreignness, the hostel where we sleep and keep our stuff while we're in town, and of course the flete-drivers, who load the back of their pickups with 6 to 12 people (and their wears), and drive us towards our villages as we sit in the back like sardines. The village below the reserve is called Camarones. It has about 30 households, with many children and youth, and by flete truck it is a 35 km journey from Pedernales to the turn off, and another 4km to arrive at the Camarones. It is 3km more to get to the reserve. From the highway, the 7km to the reserve is dirt track: you need to walk if you don't have a motorcycle or a donkey (though many old-timers have donkeys!). The road becomes an impassible mud slip-and-slide in the rainy season (December to April), and almost all transport from the highway is by foot, or horse/donkey. Some 4X4 cars can pass. The clean river fed by the cloud forest rises a lot then, and with all the mud, those 7km can take 2 hours extra. Normally the journey from our bamboo hut to Pedernales, 42km, takes at least 2 hours in the dry season. 

I don't mind the journey- it's interesting to meet the locals, and ask what they're doing. It's also a chance to feel the wind and try to ID plants on the side of the road (a challenging feat for me, since I am not from the tropics). But despite the journey, it's nothing like the sound-filled , fresh-aired, green reserve, with a view of the jungle from a house made of bamboo and tagwa leaves. 

I am here in the rarest of the rare valleys: a single valley of 200 hectares, that was spared from the catastrophic rate of deforestion that has lead coastal Ecuador to lose 98% of its coastal forest cover to make room for the pasture of cattle, intensive monocrops (like miles of bananas or diseased palms), and the shrimp farms. This part of Ecuador is a biological hotspot of the world, where geography, ocean currents, ecuatorial sun and cultural diversity created one of the most diverse areas know to Earth. But it's now nearly a desert. The wet season, which 50 years ago lasted 8 months, now is only 4 months long. The Third Millennium Alliance reserve is an oasis in the middle of a landscape that has carved out the forest for meager economic gains. Strangely, due to complex historical contexts, this has left Ecuador more impoverish than before. It's one of those bizarre human paradoxes that doesn't seem to have a remedy on either side of the false dichotomy of the "nature-versus-economy" debate. And it's one of those intense human dramas that keeps playing on in other parts of the world, leaving few victors. All of it seems to me as one of the saddest socio-ecological realities Ecuador faces.

Cattle do not live well here: they look famished, but this way of farming is what many local people have come to know. 

Another force of deforestation, that I can personally relate to living here, is that while the forest is very bio-diverse and ecologically important, it is hard to make a modern life here. Trees don't grow clothes or useful things - at least not without knowledge about how to make them. To cut down the forest and make money, one can then buy what is needed. Or, Ecuadorians clear the forest to grow crops, which continues degradation of the land. Even while there are alternatives to slash and burn (we are using agroforestry principals at the reserve), it is hard to grow food in the middle of the forest! Leaf cutter ants eat most crops, saw-cutting beetles girdle fruit-trees, and those plants who do make it are often crippled by disease.

But, the agroforestry system does crop, for example with many types of fruits. However, first you need patience (5 to 10 years) and a knowledge of how to live with the forest well. It is a knowledge I am getting in touch with as I spend time with the locals here. They show me medicinal plants, edible treats and how to make a ladder or roof with only bamboo and a machete... but it is also an endangered knowledge, and like this forest, it is almost forgotten, being left to pasture, mining and imports. 

Do you blame the forest for giving so much life, yet being hard to live in? Do you blame the comforts of modernity, and forgetting the centuries old knowledge of how to thrive here?

Do you blame the people for being afraid of the forest, or trying to tame a small income on the back of skinny-cow economics and deforestation?

Do you blame me for thinking reforestation and polycrop agro-eco-forestry is an important development in this area? A way that simultaneously slows cycles of erosion and species loss while providing an long term economic return through poly-crop rotations and succession based forestry? 

Do you blame me that after I saw the magnitude of loss here, and sensed the mass effort it would take to reforest, that I think it is a pipe-dream to reforest the landscape and prevent catastrophic species loss? It will take lifetimes to realize.

Do you blame me for hoping it's not impossible, but a truly viable possibility that can foster ecological and economic prosperity for humans?

Environmental and economic cyclces are deeply related. All economic systems a subset of earth systems. But to shift away from ecological and economic poverty, people need to see examples of viable projects in action : ones that provide for human needs while fully addressing the primary ecological degradation that has been systematically undermining the capacity to meet those same needs in the first place. 

Ecuador is a mainly subsistence country, heavily dependent on a resource economy (as opposed to service economy), and here it is for me more obvious that ecology and economy are the same thing. Where many people literally live hand-to- mouth, environment affects everything about how you can live.

I believe that to work ecology and economy together is key for humanity. And it is not a new thought either- both words come from the root word "Oikos", meaning "house" in Greek.

The way to see it through needs a different kind of thinking and action, and something beyond the monocrops which have led us here.

That all said, I don't yet know how to get the ball moving faster - resources seem very limited here. Though, the organization I have been working with here is moving in this direction, and has been since 2006 when it made several strategic land purchases - one purchase of degraded land, and one of land with primary or secondary forest. They have been showing examples of succession-based agro-forestry reforestation projects. It is inspiring and we are not alone.

From right now though, it still seems a miniscule drop out of the bucket still being filled by the logic of skinny-cow economics. It literally takes time to see the fruits of planned agro-ecoforestry, and not many are jumping in until it's proven for their region. There can
be risks. 

It's why I say that I might not live to see what my work has helpd to change, or how... but it is important that I do start.

I leave with one thought,
after reading a quote from a Shaur man (a tribe in the amazon basin), who was asked by a journalist, "how do you cope with the mosquitos?"
To which the Shaur replied with a grin, "They´re part of our culture".

So, I ask you ¿what is Hell?
¿which is paradise?

After all, mindscapes create landscapes and vice versa.

I choose to foster a different landscape.
and my mind is changing to grow a miracle.

1 comment:

  1. Great report, my loved Cassandra. Thank you for tell how you see and explain your experience. Transmites muy bien tu concienciación y tus experiencias con unas reflexiones fantásticas. Gracias por ello. :-*