Survival on the Line

Armed with a dual degree in sociology and Latin American studies from Brown University, Clay Plager-Unger answered an ad posted in 2007 by Planet Drum Foundation. The San Francisco-based nonprofit, started in 1973 by performer Judy Goldhaft and the late ecological visionary Peter Berg, sought a leader for a bold environmental project in Ecuador.


“Three weeks later I was down here,” says Mr. Plager-Unger. Nine years on, now married and the father of two small children, he sees added urgency in environmental preservation under the NGO banner of Eco Ecuador.


Recent headlines underscore pressing need for environmental initiatives. Air pollution in Ecuador exposes more than 80 percent of its urban population to high risk of strokes and chronic respiratory disease, reported in May 2016. Meanwhile, deforestation proceeds at an alarming pace, stripping the country of natural environmental defense. Between 1990 and 2010, Ecuador lost 29 percent of its forest cover, according to the Forest and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO).


“Sustainability? You could just call it survival,” says Mr. Plager-Unger. “Earth is a small planet. If we are doing something unsustainable, it’s equivalent to killing ourselves.”


Planet Drum and Eco Ecuador chart a distinctive environmental path. Traditional groups tend to favor preservation by restricting access to protected areas. Eco Ecuador stresses bioregionalism, a marriage of daily human activity and the environment.


Boundaries in the natural world are different from political boundaries that humans draw. Bioregional strategies span both. They support sustainable access to five fundamental human needs: food, fresh water, shelter, transport and energy.


“You can’t just separate humans from nature and hope that everything will work out,” says Mr. Plager-Unger. Multiple efforts bridge the gap between environmental issues and humanitarian consequences.


The Eco-Ecuador project puts bioregional principles into action through habitat restoration and environmental education initiatives. The primary focus of the project is the native tree greenhouse, which produces plants that are used for the recovery of the highly damaged and fragile Dry Tropical Forest ecosystem. The project includes revegetation workshops that engage local people in the entire process of tree production/planting and provide the opportunity to educate them about the importance of their local forests and environment.

Bioregional solutions start with simple questions. Where does water come from? Where does food come from? Where does garbage go? A popular local program invites school students to draw bioregional maps with roads, buildings, soil quality and watersheds.


Maps spur thinking about ways that bioregional characteristics govern human activity and vice versa. A next layer might map the impact of composting strategies, urban gardens, recycling practices and weather patterns.


“In nature,” says Mr. Plager-Unger, “everything is a cycle.” Eco Ecuador strives against daunting challenges to restore the cycle that humans dislodge. One program rescues plastic bottles and containers from waste streams, cuts holes and reassigns them as containers for growing new trees.


Even tiny little movements in the direction of being more ecological or more environmentally sustainable or self-reliant go in the win column.


“We should be shaping and defining our lives based on the capacities and the available natural resources in the different bioregions we inhabit,” says Mr. Plager-Unger.


Bioregionalism attaches a high priority to permaculture, meaning sustainable agriculture where biodiversity wards off pests and crop diseases. Permaculture, says Mr. Plager-Unger, is the opposite of monoculture agriculture, which plants only one crop and relies on chemicals, and also the opposite of genetically engineered crops that manipulate genes.


“The soil is really important,” says Mr. Plager-Unger. “You feed the soil and the soil grows healthy crops.”


Hurdles always hamper the path, starting with a political system that fails to make sustainability a priority. Then, too, sustainability isn’t free. Nor does it bestow wealth commensurate with the time and energy invested.


Nevertheless, Eco Ecuador delivers ample returns. “I get to wake up and feel good about what I’m doing,” says Mr. Plager-Unger. “I feel blessed.”

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