May 13th, 2009

Have a banana

By KENNEDY WARNE

Two days ago I looked across a river and saw Peru. Today I was on an estuary near the border with Colombia. Between these two ends of Ecuador lay the delights of a 12-hour trip on the night bus from Huaquillas to Esmeraldas. I’m getting used to these interminable journeys. Freezing air conditioning or no air conditioning—those are the only options. Beverly Hills Ninja in Spanish, if you should be so lucky. A 4 a.m. stop at some soulless terminal where bleary-eyed passengers stagger past bleary-eyed vendors selling trinkets, fizzy drinks and coconut toffee.

From Esmeraldas (which means “emeralds”) we travelled the rest of the way to the border town of San Lorenzo with Edgar Lemos, who, like Pedro in the south, spends his life working for the protection of mangroves. Besides a love of mangroves, we found something else in common: we are fructophiles. We both have home orchards—though whereas mine is a quarter of a hectare in suburbia, he has a three-hectare spread on the banks of the Rio Esmeraldas, planted in citrus, coconut, banana, cacao, and many other fruits whose names defied easy translation.

Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.

KENNEDY WARNE
Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.


It turns out that Edgar can spot a rare variety of banana from 100 yards, so the journey was punctuated by stops at roadside fruit stalls. That Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas is well known—and confirmed by the fact that in the south of the country you can travel for tens of kilometres and see nothing but banana palms to left and right. “On either side the highway lie long fields of palms but not of rye,” to mangle Tennyson. Indeed, one region is called El Oro, the gold, named not for the metal but the fruit.

But Ecuador also has many artisanal bananas, varieties that never see the hold of a ship. Small, plump, thin-skinned and bursting with fragrance, these yellow bombshells are a revelation in flavour, showing up supermarket bananas for the taste-deprived specimens they are.

Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.

KENNEDY WARNE
Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.


Edgar has been involved in mangrove advocacy for eight years. The issues he deals with are the same as elsewhere in the country: illicit logging, shrimp-farm expansion, transfer of public land into private hands, overfishing, pollution from Ecuador’s new agricultural boom crop, the African oil palm. But here there is the added twist of Colombia’s narcotics war, which is being waged on the mangrove coast.

Edgar tells us stories of cocaine kitchens discovered in the depths of the mangroves, of drug shipments being moved across mangrove channels by fibreglass submarine, and of the refugee problem. When the fighting intensifies, up to 3000 men, women and children flee across the border and take refuge among the Ecuadorians. Some stay. Over lunch of fried plantains and cockle cerviche, I met UNHCR staff working to help integrate the Colombian refugees into the local economy.

Edgar thinks it would be unwise for us gringos to stay in San Lorenzo. The town has an itchy-trigger-finger feeling about it, and our presence will not go unnoticed, he says. San Lorenzo has muchos oidos, many ears. We retreat to Olmedo, a town which has a community tourism project. Why would tourists come to a 187-person community living in stilt houses among mangroves? Among other things, because the mangroves here are reputed to be the tallest in the world. Tomorrow I will visit these monsters.

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