Four years ago, Bahia de Caroquez, a small town on the coast of Ecuador, was hit by two natural disasters. First came days of torrential rains caused by El Nino, the weather phenomenon that occurs every few years in the Pacific Ocean. Then a couple of months later, an earthquake struck. Bahia is still recovering from both disasters. The people of Bahia are trying to rebuild it as an Eco-City, that is, in harmony with the environment.
The town is in a festive mood. After the disasters of 1998, tourists avoided the area. But now, they are starting to come back to the beautiful town overlooking the Pacific. Although the community is beginning to see results, many roads, houses and bridges destroyed by El Nino have yet to be rebuilt.
"The El Nino came here, and really wiped everything across, and you can see the bridge right over the right hand side about 200 meters," said Patricio Tamariz, the under-secretary of tourism for the coast of Ecuador. "It just washed it away."
He says El Nino turned the streets of Bahia de Caroquez into rivers of mud, and rains caused landslides that crushed houses into splinters. Sixteen people were killed in one landslide alone. Of the 25,000 people in Bahia, about 5,000 of them were made homeless by El Nino.
Mr. Tamariz says the people of Bahia were anxious to rebuild, but wanted to rebuild the town in a way that would make it less vulnerable, more in harmony with nature.
"Everybody decided, well, let's build the city back to the beauty it was. But then many ecologists said, well, really it was beautiful on the outside. But it wasn't in balance with nature," he said. "So, right now, there are many beautiful projects going on, and we want it to become a model of urban sustainability, for Ecuador, and maybe for the world."
In 1999, one year after the El Nino, Bahia declared itself an Eco-City, a city that protects the environment, and conserves the region's wildlife. The mayor of Bahia, Leonardo Viteri, says El Nino set in motion a series of events that have transformed the town of Bahia as well as its people.
He says El Nino brought the citizens of Bahia closer together. They began to relate to each other in a different way and, for the first time, became aware of the need to respect the environment.
Mr. Tamariz says Bahia has embarked on a number of environmental initiatives that a few years ago would have been unthinkable. "We're working on an artificial wetland system to treat the sewage water. We have an alternative energy plan for the whole city, that's solar and wind power for the whole city," he said. "I believe, one day, we'll be seeing electric buses and electric taxis in the city.
At one time, shrimp farming was Ecuador's second biggest income earner, but about three years ago, the industry collapsed. It was then that some people in Bahia went into organic shrimp farming.
Nicola Mears, an expert in organic farming, blames the excessive use of chemical products, among other things, for the collapse of the shrimp industry. She says this trend now is being reversed, and shrimp farming in Bahia is being done in a way that doesn't damage the environment. "The interesting thing is that, in the country where all of these problems have happened, now the solution was born in this country," he said.
A wonderful byproduct from organic shrimp farming is the re-awakening of nature. The farms have been transformed from aquatic deserts into places of abundance, teeming with vegetation and wildlife.
Another project making a difference in the lives of thousands of people who were made homeless by El Nino is the so-called "Eco-kids" club. More than 100 children belong to this after-school club, located in the outskirts of Bahia. They make paper boxes, cards, bags and other artifacts from recycled paper. They sell these goods and use the money for environmental projects, such as planting trees.
Ten-year-old Katie says she joined the club because she wanted to learn how to conserve trees and how to protect her house by using the environment well.
She said that her barrio was called Pedro, and that her house was lost. It was totally covered with mud.
She says the destruction is one reason it is important to learn how to protect the environment because "we need something better, and we wish that this does not happen again."
The Eco-Kids Club is such a success that workshops have been held in other cities in Ecuador, as well as in Peru, about the possibility of starting a network of Eco-Kids clubs modeled after the one in Bahia.
Four years ago, many people were questioning whether Bahia de Caroquez would ever recover from the twin disasters of 1998. Now, that question has been answered. Most people in the city believe its future is brighter than ever.