Ben and I arrived on the coast of Ecuador about 6 weeks ago. Before coming here we’d spent a few months at home in Sarasota, reconnecting with family and friends. Our intention was to stay in the States for a while and had our sights set on making a home out West somewhere. We were just a couple weeks shy of packing up our car and hitting the road before deciding to come to Ecuador instead.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the coast of Ecuador on April 16. Hundreds of towns in the provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabi were devastated and over 20,000 people were left homeless.
All Hands, the disaster relief organization we volunteered with in Nepal and Malawi, quickly set up a base in the town of Canoa and began accepting volunteers to help those who were affected. We had both been wanting to return to Ecuador ever since we left 4 years ago, so the decision to join All Hands in Canoa was an easy one.
Since we arrived 6 weeks ago, we’ve been living out of a tent, on a patch of sand along the beach, where a hotel used to reside before the earthquake. There are about 40 volunteers here, mostly from the US and Europe. We’ve made the best of our limited space and resources on base.
It is estimated that 80% of Canoa was destroyed during the earthquake. When we first arrived the town felt deserted, but lately it seems like more families are moving back. Now the town square is full of families who, without any other options, are living out of tarps and tents.
We can’t actually work in the town of Canoa. The government has taken strict control over its reconstruction, so we work mainly in the town of San Miguel, about 20 minutes away. Our primary focus is bamboo home reconstruction, demolition, and IDP camp improvements.
This project has some differences and similarities to disaster relief work we’ve done in the past. One difference is that Canoa is a small, relaxed town and the work feels somewhat less time-sensitive. In Nepal, right after the earthquake, we where fighting against the onset of monsoon season and had to work as fast as possible to help families secure shelter. In Malawi we were trying to dig and brick 48 wells quickly before their rainy season began.
But since we are heading into the dry season here in Ecuador, the work seems to be at a less grueling pace. We can always finish tomorrow what we don’t get to today.
Ben and I have mainly been working on home demolition. So many families along the coast were left with homes that were only partially destroyed in the earthquake. Homes that were still standing but were left so unstable and unsafe that they needed be knocked down. Unable to pay for the demolition, removal, and rebuild of a new home, many families have continued living in their unsafe homes or have constructed a temporary one right next to it.
We both like demolition and rubble removal because it is the most grueling and exhaustive work that most people try to avoid. It is also the opportunity to give a family a fresh start. For many, there is a period of stagnation after a disaster which can breed depression and hopelessness. It is truly a wonderful thing to be a part of something that can provide a positive outlook for a family’s future.
One very memorable experience for me was to help deconstruct and clear land for a family in San Miguel. They’d lost a loved one in the earthquake and, two months later, the property looked as if the quake had just happened. With nowhere to go, the family was still living in part of their damaged house. They had recently been donated a tent to live in temporarily and asked All Hands for help taking the house down.
As we progressed each day, it seemed to empower them to take action and make other improvements on their land. They began taking down trees and made plans to plant more corn in their fields. After a couple days you could really sense the relief they were feeling. On our last day, as we were eating lunch, the mother of the household told us that she had made every meal for us with love and expressed how much she appreciated what we had done for her and her family.
We’ve also spent a lot of time in a nearby IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, called Campamento Saman. Working in the IDP camp is really satisfying because every day is a different challenge and we can form a sense of community with the people in the camp.
Campamento Saman very different than IDP camps we’ve seen in other disaster zones. A private NGO called Madre Tierra runs the camp and uses All Hands volunteers to build up the facility. The camp is located about 5 miles inland and is set up to house 50 families. The families are given a lot of space and amenities. In comparison, the camps in Nepal had thousands of families with very few amenities, some even lacking basic sanitation.
The day before we started working there, the camp received a massive delivery of donated products that included canned foods, personal hygiene products, dog food, clothes, and bedding. Most items had been donated and shipped from the US.
Myself and three other volunteers spent about 3 days sorting and organizing all the items. Sorting through the massive amount of canned goods seemed never ending. We had to check every item carefully as some of the food had already expired. Some goods expired as far back as 2009.
As we tediously checked the expiration dates and took inventory, can by can, I couldn’t help but think about all the effort going into this. Specifically, all the money involved in shipping the items from the US and the man hours needed to process and deliver them to the camp. It all seemed kind of ridiculous. Although the thoughtfulness of sending food to those who’ve suffered a natural disaster is a beautiful thing, I really don’t think it’s the best way to help people.
I couldn’t help but compare this method of giving to making a monetary donation. If people who wanted to help donated a few dollars instead of their old canned food, we could do this much more efficiently. We could buy food locally, and in turn, support the local economy here. We could purchase exactly the items the camp needed and in bulk. The effort to deliver the items to the camp would be minimal. Families living in the camp could then cook meals they are familiar with.
After staring at a huge pile of expired food to be thrown away, I was a bit frustrated to think about the cost involved in getting it here. And of all the volunteer hours spent sorting out the old food, which could have been spent on necessary camp improvements.
The clothing was also an issue. Many people had donated heavy coats and other warm clothing items. This type of clothing is completely useless for people living on the tropical coast of Ecuador, where it gets to 90 degrees during the day and down to a mild 75 degrees at night. These items again had to be sorted out and taken away. The money spent to ship boxes upon boxes of petticoats to this camp was essentially wasted.
After this experience I feel that it is better to donate money than tangible goods. It seems less personal to give money rather than goods, but in most cases it really is the best way to effectively help those in need after a natural disaster.
The future for All Hands in Ecuador will be building bamboo homes. We have a goal of building 30 permanent bamboo homes in San Miguel by the end of December. All Hands will manage the entire process from employing locals to harvest the bamboo pieces, to treating them, storing them, cutting them, and finally using the volunteer base to turn them into permanent structures that culturally reflect the homes here on the coast of Ecuador.
If you would like to support our home building program, please visit our fundraising page: https://give.hands.org/fundraise?fcid=681944. I’ll will be posting more info on the cost of each home as well as our progress throughout the coming weeks.
Thank you so much to all who’ve donated thus far and to those who’ve sent us your kind words of support and encouragement!