This guest post is authored by Emmanuela Mujica, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program. Emmanuela is working toward a Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in sustainability at University of Texas-Arlington, where she is currently a laboratory technician. A native of Puerto Rico, she hopes to return there to save a small piece of the natural world, alongside her family and friends. Emmanuela writes at Wordsprout.
Travel to the future for a moment. Imagine a post-industrial America. Abandoned cars grow like weeds out of sun-cracked sidewalks in the parking lots of the forsaken strip malls. With no fuel to speak of, the one-eyed-one-goaled-giant-American-petroleum-eater unhinges on its political neighbors for one last hurrah; the ugly thing breaks through its political chains and incites the first true domestic war since 1861. The hind-signs of the great economic collapse of the US empire are clear: political mayhem, hunger, rampant violence, and general chaos. It’s not a pretty picture, and I’ve only painted a few potential pixels. A post-carbon apocalyptic United States of America is certainly not a place to which people would willingly travel (not on a direct flight, anyway). This place is not one that easily crosses the minds of those living in mildly industrial parts of the world. Developing nations look toward the US with a hopeful glint in their eyes, seeing only the power of progress and, like many Americans, blind to the actual costs of advancement.
Now, travel back in history. Imagine pre-industrial America, a pre-petroleum America. Communities bound by their familiar relations and their religion, a simple set of beliefs. Hay-fueled mules and horse-fueled carriages, friendly were these beasts that traveled cleanly on unpaved roads. Children were to the family as workhorses were to the farm. Back then, the one-eyed-one-goaled-giant-American-petroleum-eater was a mere zygote of a thought, and the United States was a sweetly naïve country brimming with hard working hopefuls. I recently traveled to a place that’s largely analogous to this rendering of pre-industrial America. Living in Manabí, Ecuador this summer was my personal back-to-the future experience, a snapshot of young, crying industrialism in motion. Sometimes it was difficult to decipher whether the industrial baby in this part of the world was crawling forward or backwards. The community is not perfect in terms of its impact, and the influence from modern industrial society is great. But for now I’ll paint the positive picture.
Imagine the last true rainforest in Ecuador, a lush landscape filled with the symphony of insects and birds. You trek along a wide dirt path connecting the community of Camarones to the main paved road. Few people here own cars, so motorcycles, horses and feet are the main form of transportation into and out of the community. You walk across a meandering river, El Rio Camarones, named after the native fresh-water shrimp that gave the community its first taste of economic livelihood. You see a group of girls walking across the river in the other direction to catch a bus to the nearby city of Pedernales. You do a double take when you notice their bright skimpy clothes and nice sandals; it’s a funny sight in a place like this. On your way up to the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, you pass houses nestled against a backdrop of cloud-whipped mountains that blend all-too-well into their scenery. Their hand-harvested timber floors and bamboo walls invite lingering glances in their simplicity. You stop at Don Colon Vaca’s home to rest, just as all the other outsiders have done before you. This is the patriarchal home of the community, a center of generous activity. Colon’s family greets you with ever-extending kindness, and Doña Bernadina makes sure you’re well fed before you head out in your rubber boots. It’s an hour of steep and muddy hiking to the reserve from there. You wave to the locals before you reach the remote edge of the community. Not one person you stop to chat with is too busy to send you off with wishes for a good day. You see a group of glassy-eyed women shucking lima beans from fresh pods; they poke their heads from glassless windows. You wave and greet them warmly, their faces relax into soothing toothy smiles and they giggle, expressing wonder at the life of a gringo. And you express wonder right back. How could it be fulfilling, the ostensibly simple life of the Latin American farmer?
Mutual astonishment is well warranted: the life of the average US citizen is utterly different from the life of the rural Latin American, just as the life of the modern-day American is different from the pre-industrial American. Many people in the community of Camarones work directly for what they need (i.e., shelter and food). But sadly, this way of life is morphing into the grotesque modernization we find almost everywhere. People purchase imported goods from China, they ride buses fueled by toxic combustibles (mixed with lead and other heavy metals), and they graze cattle that eventually pollute and destroy the native landscape. Someone in the community introduced a profusely invasive snail species that’s reeking havoc on the native forests and creating tremendous setbacks for reforestation efforts. The community has overfished its native freshwater shrimp populations and women are sent to work exorbitant hours in industrial shrimp factories for little pay. Because of the lack of contraception, these women have multitudes of children. These younger generations have fallen out of touch with their agricultural heritage and have, unfortunately, fallen into narcotics. And to a great extent, many people are convinced that globalization and industrialization are good things, but simply out of their reach. But for every negative impact, there is a positive effort.
There are several organizations in the area, such as the Third Millennium Alliance, that are slowing the effects of industrialization by educating and conserving the natural area in which the community is nested. The reserve is an experiment in reforestation, and theirs has been a tremendous influence in the community. I was fortunate to be around those rural Latin Americans (campesinos) who still construct their own shelter and grow their own food, on their family’s land, with the resources they have (or those they can barter for). I was sent in, among other things, to make this kind of seemingly archaic life look attractive and desirable.
Within the community, manual labor is necessary and, to a lesser extent, valued. The story of Angel Paz (literally, Angel of Peace) is a great example of a rebirthing of respect for manual artisanship. The community calls him El Maestro, The Master, for his aptitude in wood and bamboo carpentry. He designed and directed a crew, composed of young volunteers and a handful of community members, to build the Third Millennium Alliance’s bamboo house. The house is a stunning structure with a floor made of diagonally arranged bamboo slats and wooden pillars soaring up to meet a loft of colorful hammocks. The bamboo was naturally grown and harvested by hand, according to the lunar calendar. It’s a magical place I like to call the bambúngalow. After he constructed the glorious house, Angel Paz became a legend; he is practically famous among the gringos and both respected and envied within the community. I was lucky enough to watch his swift mastery first-hand as he constructed an addition to the bamboo volunteer house in the community, the mini bambúngalow, my humble home for two months.
The first week in the community, I helped the matriarch of the house, Doña Bernadina, kill a rooster for our inaugural supper. Because I’ve had this experience before, I was the only willing volunteer; I was excited to hone my poultry-harvesting techniques with a pro. Let’s just say, I have 48 years of poultry harvesting to go. This type of small-scale, “backyard” agriculture is still a big part of the Latin American culture. But just as most good things wash away with the rising tide of the Western world, so too have familial agricultural practices in the region. Sustainable agriculture has been slowly phased out since the 90s with the introduction of shrimp farms and factories and the devastation of the native freshwater shrimp populations. Despite the recent move from family-style agriculture to industrial production, most people in Camarones have not moved away from farming completely just yet. It was common to pass by roosters, ducks, turkeys, pigs and chickens just as often as it was to pass by people on the pathway up to the reserve. It was not so nice to wake up to the out-of-tune tabernacle rooster choir at 4 a.m., but I got used to it quickly. Familial banana tree orchards, small cornfields, and sparse coffee groves take up much of the green space. It’s hard work to maintain and harvest the land. Rural life is difficult, but appealing in its tranquil hospitability. Because of this appeal, there’s been a recent movement of young Ecuadorian environmentalists to set up permaculture reserves in the area. In cities such as Quito, the air is heavily polluted and the people are not very congenial, all together a harsh life to take in. I was pleased to meet like-minded young Ecuadorians who are seizing the opportunity to remind people of what they’ve got before they lose it.
Initially, I was in the community to set up an organic farmers’ market, to create an economic market niche to promote regional small-scale agriculture and sustainable reforestation. The idea was that the widening of the principal avenue would increase tourist traffic, which would heighten the demand for local products. The idea is a good one, but not one that was feasible for me to complete within the 2-month period I was to be working there. There were many political and logistical hoops for me to jump through before I could even consider organizing the farmers, who only encompassed a portion of the community members. There’s a history of failed municipality and volunteer projects in the area, and the community-folk have become largely disillusioned and wary of promises. I could not guarantee to the farmers that the tourists would arrive with a demand for their products, and they could not guarantee to me that they would take the initiative to make the market work. I decided in my first week to exchange the project for a new one. I chose something none of the community members could refuse: to get rid of their trash. I would get their trash picked up, educate them on waste management, and, hopefully, help them gain a stronger sense of pride about their natural environment.
I noticed the trash problem almost immediately when I moved into the mini bamboo house in the community. Plastic wrappers and old tires are an eyesore against a native green landscape. There was trash along the path, in people’s yards, and, to my dismay, in the river. If the trash was not thrown into the river, it was burned haphazardly into harmful off-gases. I spoke with my mentor, the patriarch of the community, Don Colon Vaca, to better understand the waste management issues. The community is located 7 kilometers from the main road. It is more difficult for the dump truck to reach than the neighboring communities, which lie directly on the main avenue. Other communities were getting their trash picked up regularly. Don Colon told me that he had been trying to get the municipality to redirect the truck to pick up their trash for years, but that the promises made by the mayor never came to fruition. He explained, and I later learned first-hand, that Camarones is a legally recognized community, but that it gets ignored because of its small size (big surprise there). I immediately jumped into action.
I wrote a tenacious letter to the mayor. I explained to him that waste management was a basic right, and that the community was prepared to take whatever action necessary to be recognized by the municipality with this and other services. At first, my letter struck Don Colon and his family as too harsh and far too risky (and I was just using words!). I wasn’t surprised that they were scared to confront their political officials. The history of colonial Latin America and its politics created a submissive population, particularly among the campesinos. I urged the Vaca family and community to make a stronger stink.
Don Colon, his son, and I had a hearing with the mayor about the trash and other pressing issues in the community. The mayor told me they were in support of the trash collection and added, with a smirk an old saying, “one who doesn’t cry, doesn’t suckle!” I wasn’t impressed by the words from this political horse. But he agreed to provide a cart and a mule to collect the trash and employ a person from the community as the trash collector. On our end, we would have to construct a dumpster, a basurero. I was skeptical about his agreement. I kept my side of the deal, but the mayor “flip-flopped” a few times. I recruited people from the community to donate bamboo and their time, and together we built a biodegradable dumpster. The mayor decided the mule idea was less cost effective, so he trashed that plan, and redirected the dump truck into the community to pick up trash from each house. I was a bit disappointed because the new plan didn’t seem to be very economical or environmental in the long-term, but at least the truck showed up on time. The people of the community were very receptive to the change, and they revered it as an important accomplishment. My brief stint in Latin American politics was satisfying, but I wasn’t prepared to become a Latin American politician.
Instead, I became the trash girl. I organized a trash festival with the school children. I actually got the kids excited about picking up trash. I admit I bribed them with prizes and healthy snacks, but I taught them the difference between organic and inorganic wastes. I even influenced some to become little trash police in the community. I educated the community members about creatively recycling inorganic wastes. I made flytraps from old plastic bottles as an example. At each community meeting, I reminded them of the usefulness of organic waste, and encouraged them to compost. I explained that the point of the trash program wasn’t to generate more trash, but to clean up their act, and get municipal recognition by generating a smaller volume of trash than their neighbors. I painted anti-trash signs and hung them along the river as a friendly reminder. If I had stayed longer, I would have continued the project with communal compost and a comprehensive recycling program.
The trash program was certainly my main focus, but it wasn’t the only thing I did in small-village Ecuador. I collaborated on a fellow volunteer’s coffee cooperative project by designing the label for coffee bags. I helped other volunteers at the reserve tend their reforestation plots and harvest bamboo, bananas, and peanuts. I spent time in the vegetable garden planting cucumbers and carrots. I spent a lot of time with the family and with kids. I played futbol and ecua-volley, I gave sporadic English lessons, and I helped Doña Berna with daily chores. I helped out in the Vaca family’s little store, which they run from their dining area. If I was in the house during the day, store duty was unavoidable. I smile now thinking of the children who poked their little heads up to the open-air window to ask me for a lollipop or frozen treat (I only took their 5-cent coin when they said please). I organized a raffle to accumulate funds for the community’s bank cooperative. I donated a live chicken to raffle off, along with the first-place prize of $50. I sold tickets to anyone I could, and interestingly, people were more excited about the chicken than the money. But that’s campesino mentality at its best.
I explored the forests and surrounding natural area. I did a few hikes up to the cloud forest from the reserve and a solo hike that was absolutely incredible. I saw howler monkeys and capuchins, a childhood dream of mine. I was flabbergasted the first time I sat at the base of a palm tree listening to the demoniacal calls of the howlers in the canopy just above me. But they, just as the myriad tropical snakes, frogs, and birds became a regularity. When I was at the reserve, I was living in an enchanted forest experiencing the complex beauty of true biodiversity. When I was in the community, I was living in a true community experiencing a strong sense of familial encouragement and the complex task of organizing people for a cause.
I travel to the present. Since Ecuador, I’ve been continuing my path toward environmental enlightenment. It’s a steep hike ahead of me. (I still have a hard time remembering to flush … the composting toilet taught me well.) But for now, I won’t think about the past or the future, the good or the bad. Because in Ecuador I learned that there is nothing that cannot be enjoyed and that it is almost absurd (and futile) to distinguish between my happy and unhappy experiences. I accept all news and experiences as they come; I welcome and cultivate them, whether or not they are facilitating my enlightenment. I keep a list of my unfulfilled wishes for an ideal world stuffed away in a drawer somewhere and take each day as it comes because I might as well be personally fulfilled if and when the unrelenting giant industrial-economic monster comes crashing down.