Field Trips: Plantains, Bamboo, Palm Oil

We awoke early and were off to inspect a plantain (sometimes mistaken for bananas) plantation. This farm exports most of their product to the U.S.via Bonita. It was interesting to find out that banana plants grow young plants (sort of the way orchids sometimes produce sports) around their base as they get older. The workers select the best new plants and cut down the rest, so it is unneccesary to replant. They recycle the cut materials. As the plant matures, a purple flower will appear, which is the biginning of a stalk of bananas. As the stalk forms bananas, a plastic bag with holes in it is placed over the whole stalk to protect it against insects. We were able to see how the banana tree is cut and the bananas are removed, treated and boxed up for markets in the U.S., Europe and Canada. After a great lunch of swordfish steak, we were off to visit a group of los Colorados Indians.

The los Colorados, more properly called the Tsachilas, are one of the most interesting indigenous groups in Ecuador. There are about 3,000 individuals left, living in 8 communities around Santo Domingo. They are well known for their healers and shamans. Most are farmers and they raise cattle. The men use a thick paste made from the achiote seed to mat down and color their hair. The men wear a knee-length wrap-around skirt, with black and white horizontal stripes, tied at the waist with a red belt. For ceremonies and healings, men and women paint their bodies with horizontal black lines, said to be indicative of the snake or serpent spirit.

We were told of the use of halucinogens to help the healers communicate with their ancestors and to better understand nature. We were allowed to view a mock-up ceremony to bring a young man into adulthood. It takes him 10 years to prepare for this, as he will be drumming and chanting for days to communicate with the spirit world.

Afterward we practiced spear-throwing and dancing. I placed a spear dead center in the target. These were really beautiful people, and it was moving to see how tight the family unit was. It was also very sad, as probably by the time our children are our age, the Tsachilas will probably be no more, their way of life giving over to an ever-expanding world population and more and more “progress”.

The next day we headed to a bamboo forest. It is owned by Carlos Penaherra. Carlos was born in Ecuador, but later moved to Ohio, where he graduated from Ohio State, later getting his post-grad from Harvard. He served in Viet Nam. He was an old hippie who developed a passion for bamboo. He returned to Ecuador, where he teaches at the University of San Francisco. He bought a farm in Santo Domingo and converted several thousand acres to bamboo production. He planted many varieties and harvests constantly. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world, growing several feet in a week. His main variety grows in clumps, with the oldest plants, the ones which can be harvested, in the center. This makes the harvest difficult. Hiking though this forest is like taking a trip back in time. It is dead quiet except for the wind and birds singing. One feels very close to nature in a beautiful preserve such as this. Of course, paradise always has serpents, and a bamboo forest is not exempt. There are many bushmasters (fer-de-lance), an extremely poisonous snake here. It is most advisable to wear knee boots and carry machetes, something which we were somehow not told earlier.

Bamboo has many practical uses, including furniture, flooring, and is even sold in 6-foot sections, which is used for exterior house walls, as well as interior paneling. It is very easy on the environment, as once it is planted, no heavy equipment is neccesary as this land will never have to be plowed under again. Every place bamboo grows, it causes springs of water to form  and much water is stored inside the plant itself. Even clothing can be made from bamboo. It is said that bamboo will completely overtake the cotton market, as cotton ultimately depletes the land, and bamboo does not. A company in California is already marketing bamboo clothing. The Skinner clan found this to be the most exciting farming possiblity of all the different operations we visited. Wow!!  We´re land greedy.Ruthi wants to be a bamboo farmer!

We then visited the fruit, vegetable, fish, meat—-oh, what the heck—-the Everything market in the small town of Concordia, very near the bamboo farm. The students were put off by the seafood and beef sections as they are accustomed to having their food processed, packaged and brightly displayed at their local Kroger. (These were mostly Agriculture students. How far we have veered from mother nature. We seem to have forgotten as a culture from where food actually comes).

Ruthi and I were blown away with the fresh crabs, still alive, huge swordfish where you had your steaks cut to order. There were many varieties of fresh fish, including red snapper. Also could be found every kind of fruits and vegetables known to man, plus fresh herbs by the armload, and fresh bread which was baked daily. If you lived near here, you would be able to eat like a king for very little money.

The market also had all the other things a person would need for his daily life, including that dang machete we weren´t warned to buy! Boots, too, for that matter.

The next day we toured a plam oil factory. There are thousands of acres in Santo Domingo which are planted in African Palms. It takes about three years for the trees to bear fruit. The palm nuts are then taken to the processing plant where they are graded, cooked, then the nut in the center is separated from the husk. The husk is then pressed and the red oil that is used for cooking is expressed and separated from any water. Most of this product goes to Brazil. The nut is then pressed and this second oil is used in cosmetics, granola bars, etc. What is left of the husk is used to fire the ovens for the cooking phase. The remnant of the nut process is bagged and is used as an igredient in feed for cattle. There is no product left which needs disposal. 

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