As Ecuador’s Spanish colonial name ‘El Ecuador’ (in English, ‘The Equator’) eludes, this place is quite literally in the middle of the world. Located along the equator, Ecuador is situated at the meeting places of atmospheric forces colliding from North to South. Many people here say that because of this, Ecuador has a geo-magnetic pull that propels immense geo-biologic diversity as well as intense spiritual energy across human and more-than-human worlds. The bio-geographic and socio-political diversity that comprises the small country of Ecuador – coastal fishing towns in the West, lush Amazonian rain forests in the East and the interior’s expansive Sierra mountains – are starkly unique regions, yet relentlessly inter-dependent.
With intensifying capitalist social framings, ecological extraction, and increasing gendered violence in Ecuador, Indigenous groups have a strong political presence in maintaining the social and ecological livelihoods of its regions. In particular, around the high altitude lands of Rio Blanco in mountain ranges very near to our research site in the small Andean city of Cuenca, Indigenous groups are persisting in a longstanding battle against illegal mining which threatens the water sources that sustain surrounding ecologies, human and more-than-human. Recently, much of the community discourse in Cuenca has been of the political position to ‘choose water or gold’. As we have written elsewhere, these Andean waters are also becoming increasingly polluted by plastics. When met with intense high-mountain sunlight, plastic waste materials in the Andes engage in processes of photo-degradation, activating greenhouse gases which are then carried through to the arteries of Cuenca’s infamous river systems. Yet, Andean relations with plastics are not asymmetrical. Paradoxically, as an effect of deforestation, networks of plastic excess are now replacing tree roots that once reinforced riverbanks and are becoming toxic cradles that sustain the flow of these waterways.
As part of the Climate Action Network (CAN) projects, our research with children and educators at Santana school in Cuenca is interested in generating pedagogies that respond these contradictory plastic relations.
Noticing beyond the human in El Cajas Andean mountain range
It is often said in Cuenca that people of the Andes are ‘sky people’, as there are numerous awe-inspiring places across these high-altitude regions where land meets the
clouds in such a way that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other
begins. In places such as El Cajas National Park, the divisions between above and below are not so clear. In Quechua, the language of the original Cañari peoples who have tended these lands for millennia, there is no direct translation for the
English word ‘sky’. ‘Hawapacha’ translates to English as, ‘the world above’ – a
reminder of the ways in which language is so much more than only communicative in
the Andes. Plastics are intimately woven throughout these Andean lands and communities. Forming roots that hold together hillsides sides, bottling milk for young children, weaving the nests of small birds, soothing gums of teething infants and framing lattices for new forest saplings – plastics are forging contrary relations with others who share these high-altitude worlds. Yet, with educators at Santana, we have not entered into our inquiry thinking directly to plastic.
In our initial dialogues with educators at Santana, we were met with many propositions for recycling initiatives such a ‘clean up the forest day’, hand puppet crafts using plastic bottles and other child-centered activities that sought to remove plastic materials from the forest and put them to inventive new uses for children. Through these conversations, it became visible that in order to create different ethical accountabilities with plastics, beyond the individual child’s use of them, we needed to first notice the complex co-dependencies of plastic relations here in Cuenca.
It is my first week in Ecuador and educators Estefania Crusellas and Marieli Castro have invited me to join them for a hike through Cuenca’s expansive Andean mountain range at El Cajas. We intend to talk about ‘common worlds’, and what might come into view if the child is not the sole focus of our encounters here. Walking through the narrow trails of the Cajas with Estefania and Marieli feels like stumbling through the sky. It comes with an effervescent, almost nauseating, feeling that my head may actually have left my body to join clouds. Estefania is excited to bring along a kite which she had recently made with her son. It is carefully designed with thick, black garbage bags, white string, and local cabuya grass. The ‘bones’ of the kite are of Carrizo, a typical dried reed that, despite its difficulty to be worked with, has been used by Andean women in traditional basketry arts for centuries. Many women have now replaced Carrizo for plastics, as synthetic materials are cheaper and do not cause cuts or splinters.
Decorated with colourful plastic tassels – the contradictory presence of this kite along the tops of the towering Cajas orients us in this in-between space. Stumbling through the tall grasses of the steep hillside, struggling to follow the lead of multiple others (plastic-string-wind-land-rock-grass) and the felt thinness of air propose to us a real vulnerability to the power of El Cajas. There are many players here who dance alongside as we are flown by the kite. Refiguring bodies and responses as we move about the windy mountain side, kite strings activate attention and conversation between shifting parts and to lively, ‘sympoetic’ correspondences.
Borrowing from Donna Haraway (2016), sympoiesis means ‘making-with’, a co-composing within collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined boundaries. Mediated by unpredictable kite movements and choreographies, the will of El Cajas provokes a visibility to the relations of plastics and place that happen with, and beyond, ourselves. Along the steep, winding road back down to the city, Estefania, Marieli and I are spirited in dialogue about what they name, ‘kite’s pedagogies’. We question the propositions kite’s pedagogies have for Santana: What conditions might we create at the school that enable us to notice and sustain the vibrancies of plastic relations in this place?
Sympoetic choreographies: listening to kite rhythm
Her bones are of Carrizo
The body of a dancer, strength and flexibility
Repetition and improvisation
Ancestral choreographies play out in the movements of a human-kite-wind waltz
The perfect synergistic relation of reed grass and polymeric material
The logics of plastic in convivial spaces
Simultaneously sealing-off, and thrusting-with
Configuring ourselves among string constellations
Ravelling and unravelling with the insatiable demands of wind
Mapping string figures and getting lost in the tangle
Running to catch up with her speed, pulling/pushing
Seeking those spaces of calm where she’ll agree to hold us, but only for a moment –
Then we are back again – in her dance, she is the lead, we try to keep up with her
To hold her for a moment,
But she taunts us with only a glimpse of what it feels like to pause, to be held, to be soothed –
To be in the palm of her hand as she watches us and laughs at our naive attempts to follow her steps
She pulls us down the mountain side, stumbling through tall grass,
Hidden are the compositions of earth-moss-rock and hole –
The perfect way the catch a gringitta who tries to follow her steps
We rely on the intersections between land, hand, string, plastic and wind
The collective movements between each part frame a desire to hold a connection –
One hand in polymorphic rhythm with multiple others
With a slight shift, the entire assemblage is reconfigured
Our fingers burn as she pulls our strings
Sometimes, unpredictable movements bring us closer to the suspension we yearn for,
Where all of a sudden our footwork is of hers, and we’re dancing
In tiny moments of weightlessness,
she lets us glide
she dips us –
yet, caught up in her romance we lose our place
And she drops up sharply to the ground
We plummet, with no apologies to follow
Kite pedagogies do not abide by human reason
Rather, they call on us to take seriously the agency of worlds that exist beyond a human eye
To listen and respond to their urgencies
Repetition and improvisation
Aspects of this piece is also shared with the Early Childhood Pedagogies Collaboratory and is part of an ongoing and collective conversation with educators Estefania Crusellas and Marieli Castro at Santana school in Cuenca, Ecuador, who have shared this dance with me.
With gratitude to Cristina Delgado-Vintimilla who provokes us to consider what choreographies sympoetics might put into motion. My deep thanks to Veronica Duran for showing me the generosity of the Quechua language in Andean world-making. Thank you to Veronica-Pacini-Ketchabaw for inviting me into dialogues that have enabled these ideas and situations to emerge.