Monday, March 17, 2008

Building on the Banks of Sour Lake

Our last visit to Lago was colored with the knowledge that Ecuador had just been invaded by Colombia. The Colombian military was pursuing FARC guerillas and decided that they would follow them across the border and bomb them on Ecuadorian soil. Naturally, the Ecuadorian government viewed this incursion as a violation of their national sovereignty and sent troops to the border. The Colombian government claims it is absolved of wrongdoing because it considers the FARC to be a drug-dealing terrorist organization. The Ecuadorian-Colombian border is only about an hours drive from Lago Agrio, so the situation was on everyone’s mind as we set about gathering materials for our new structures and next round of mushroom trials. Interestingly, no one we spoke with considered the FARC to be a terrorist organization at all and repeatedly insisted that it was the Colombian paramilitary organizations that were terrorizing people.

We expected to spend about five days in Lago putting everything together, but in both construction and travel, everything takes longer than you expect. The structures we came to build were to be located on Donald’s land, so we needed to rendezvous with him before we did anything. A taxi brought us out to Donald’s little house out in the jungle and met Lorena, Donald’s wife. Lorena showed us around the land as we surveyed the area for an adequate place to build. They have several hectares of land for growing cacao, with a small mountain they have left intentionally uncultivated as a jungle reserve. The electric company had already cut down all the trees on a swath of land below their wires and so we selected that area to avoid clearing more land. To the left is a photo of the area we chose before we began work.

Donald and Lorena have 1,800 cacao trees on their land. At only three and a half years old, they already produce several hundred pounds of raw cacao annually. The catch is that raw cacao goes for about 70 cents a pound. Back in Portland, I remember quite clearly that bulk raw cacao at natural food stores goes for $15 a pound. Jess and I wanted to help do the harvest because we wanted to learn about the process required to produce chocolate and, being stuck in Lago on a Sunday, we didn’t have anything better to do. We began early that morning, machetes in hand. We set out with Donald, Lorena and their son Jesus to cull the ripe cacao pods from trees overgrown with nettles. It was an all day affair. The Amazonian countryside seems to have two kinds of weather: hot as hell, more humid than the inside of your mouth or raining buckets. Our day in the cacao fields was the first of the two options.

The cacao fruit is mucilaginous, sour-sweet and tangy. The fruit surrounds the cacao bean. We ate the juicy fruit with relish in the heat and spit the seeds into a bucket, happy with the knowledge that one day, the contents of our spittoon would somewhere become fine dessert.

Aside from the ubiquitous stinging nettles, there were also some of our fungal friends out in the fields, proving that chocolate is truly loved by all...

Control is an essential component of any scientific enterprise. The upside of using controls is that you can take them for granted as known quantities and thus focus on other unknown aspects of your system. The downside to increasing control is often reflected in decreasing realism. As we were finishing up our site walk, dark clouds rolled in and the afternoon rapidly morphed into a stormy-twilight. The sheets of rains that flowed helped explain what happened to the mushrooms at our original site. The heavy rains are a given in our location and constructing a roof certainly creates a somewhat unnatural situation. However, our main goal is to get our system humming along as it is supposed to, with healthy oil-digesting fungi. Next we figure out how best to expand our procedure to apply it to broader contamination sites.

A main goal of this round of trials is to match the ideal substrate to the growing conditions in the jungle. We will be using sawdust salvaged from the waste stream of the nearby broomstick factory, inoculated wooden dowels from the same source, locally collected elephant grass and human hair. On our journey to Ecuador, we brought along 40 lbs of human hair left over from the oil spill mycoremediation effort in the San Francisco Bay. TSA loved that. Presently, all that hair has been woven into mats and rolled up into two gigantic dreadlocks in our living room. In a week or so, they will become science. Throughout our design process, we have carefully weighed our substrates in terms of availability, sustainability and, of course, utility.

On the day we were ready to begin building, Donald informed us that he wouldn’t be there and asked if we could start the next day. Donald is a friendly ex-Ecuadorian Army Sergeant who works closely with the Frente de Defensa la Amazonia (i.e. Amazon Defense Coalition), a community led organization whose mission is to hold Texaco-Chevron responsible for the vast contamination of their land. Donald helps make the ecological disaster more real for visitors to Lago Agrio by leading them on a Toxic Tour of the many contaminated sites around Lago. Tours include opportunities for visitors to talk to the people who live on these poisoned lands. Instead of building that day, Donald invited us to come along to Frente’s annual retreat and be flies on the wall. Here’s their website:

Frente works closely with afflicted communities, has recently obtained funding from Sting’s wife, Trudi Styler, to install 50 rainwater filtration systems to supply drinking water to families unable to drink the water below their feet. It is no coincidence that Lago Agrio means 'sour lake'... Eventually the communities surrounding Lago Agrio won't have to rely on foriegn philanthropy to obtain clean drinking water and the means to live a normal life once again. There is currently a six billion dollar lawsuit in progress in Ecuadorian courts that could easily fund the kind of cleanup that is required for this area to begin it's recovery. For a great account of this lawsuit and other details about the history of oil contamination in Ecuador, follow the link below:

Jungle Law:Politics & Power.

I'll be updating this blog twice a month. Since my schedule is often dictated by the stage of our work, it may be somewhat irregular, but always twice a month. Thanks to everyone out there checking in!