“It is so important that students know about our environment. We give them a different education than they would get in a classroom, doing activities that allow them to love and understand nature. We work in nurseries, grow plants, and do projects that minimize the global environmental problem. These students are the perfect people to spread the word about every one of the actions they’ve implemented to mitigate environmental issues locally and around the globe.” – Ramón Cedeno Loor (“Moncho”), Teacher in Bahia de Caraquez and Director of Global Student Embassy in Ecuador
Bahía de Caraquez, a small resort town 220 miles west of Ecuador’s capital of Quito, is the idyllic image of a tourist’s paradise. One of the cleanest and safest cities in Ecuador, this town of 30,000 people boasts beautiful sandy beaches, trips to nearby islands, wildlife refuges with a variety of different species, thriving rainforests, and even an archaeological site. But Bahía also has a very unique characteristic: it is officially designated as an “Eco City”. Ramon Cedeno Loor, a local teacher affectionately known as “Moncho”, describes an Eco City as “an urban area where there is a harmonic relationship with nature, and where there are projects to promote recuperation, use renewable resources, and live sustainably within the local bioregion.” Mr. Loor knows that achieving this goal requires the entire community to buy into the effort and participate in environmental projects.
And there is certainly a lot of that happening in Bahía. Right now there are projects to plant trees in the local State Forest, use more sustainable forms of transportation, restore mangrove areas, clean up chemical residues, and increase conservation on private land, as well as ongoing educational, social, and legal efforts to involve the local community.
But it wasn’t always this way. Bahía was one of the cities that was hit hardest by the 1997-98 El Niño event, which caused two earthquakes and resulted in many lost lives, material destruction, and damaged ecological areas. Bahía became an “Eco City” in 1999 in order to catalyze restoration efforts in the State Forest and promote a lasting culture of environmental sustainability.
Even before the earthquakes, Mr. Loor remembers a history of environmental degradation in Bahía. He grew up in the city, but as a child he used to visit his family’s estate, which was four miles to the south. Seven other families worked on the land, tending cattle, chopping down trees to make coal, and growing bananas, yucca, and corn. Sometimes Mr. Loor would see huge columns of coal smoke come within 200 yards of their donkeys grazing in the fields. However, the times were good, and plentiful rains brought lots of profit to his family.
But inevitably, the situation changed – the rains lessened, and many families moved to the city to start a new life. Mr. Loor’s family, however, stayed on the farm and continued to raise cattle. Because of his years on his family’s land, Mr. Loor grew up loving animals and nature, and was deeply saddened by what he saw around him – the loss of flora and fauna, natural disasters, extreme temperature changes, deforestation, erosion – and so when he was offered a job at the local high school teaching a class about the environment, he took it.
Mr. Loor has now been teaching biology and chemistry for over a decade, inspiring a love of nature in his students and contributing greatly to a broader forest restoration movement in Ecuador. In 2010, he became the director of Ecuador’s chapter of the Global Student Embassy (GSE) program, an organization that fosters a sense of global community by running “Eco-Action” projects in three countries. The first few groups of students in the Ecuador program built 3 garden beds for growing peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and many other vegetables. The following year, they started forest restoration projects, and the trees that those students planted are now nearly ten feet tall. GSE Ecuador has now planted 44,000 trees, and plans to plant 25,000 more this year.
GSE Ecuador has since expanded to a wide variety of environmental restoration projects, including water management, urban agriculture, and waste disposal. 125 students between ages 12 and 16 from seven educational institutions participate in the program, gaining leadership experience, hands-on skills, and ecological knowledge. Mr. Loor and his students are now becoming trusted resources in the community, since they know so much about the health of the local environment, including the life cycle of the trees in the nearby State Forest. Mr. Loor attends many meetings with environmental organizations and government officials, collaborates with local and international groups, and does a lot of communication and education work within the Bahía community. GSE Ecuador benefits from these relationships too; as Mr. Loor said, “We are the liaison for researchers because the State Forest is something we study and we need to know what’s happening there.”
Even with all of its great work, GSE Ecuador faces challenges every day. “Finding enough resources to maintain the projects is my hardest task,” Mr. Loor remarked. This sentiment is echoed throughout all of Bahía de Caraquez. This tiny city is doing a lot of things right, and can definitely be considered a “wild city” due to its local estuaries, mountains, and forests. But to truly realize its full potential and become a leader in the urban wilderness movement, it needs more resources. Current projects are making a small difference, but with more money Bahía would be able to sustain its current work and see it through to the finish line.
The one thing even more important than money, though, is people power. Here at WILD Cities, we understand the importance of movement building, and how much potential can be unlocked when everyone in a community participates. Mr. Loor commented that people in Bahía understand the designation, but there’s a lot of work left to do before it is truly an Eco City: “Since 1999 we’ve been doing environmental projects that have created environmental leaders in our community. We need to keep working so that everyone in Bahía wants to participate in environmental actions to benefit the community and reach our goal.”
Writer: Emma Hutchinson is a communications specialist for the WILD Cities Project and a Stanford University student.