Rice is a staple in Ecuadorian meals. It is generally served with your main meal regardless of what the entree is. A typical meal might include soup, chicken, rice, green salad, potato salad, and juice. The other side dishes vary but rice is always included. On separate occasions, I have served chili and spaghetti to guests and been asked if there was any rice (I had not made any). When eating out, I have been served a side of rice with my spaghetti so I suppose I should have known.
Since so much rice is eaten, a lot is grown. People in rice growing areas sell huge bags on the side of the road so you do not have travel to a market to make a purchase, just pull over for a few moments.
|Rice for sale along the side of the road – prices in US dollars|
Rice fields north of Guayaquil
The weather and soil conditions northeast of Guayaquil are ideal for growing rice. When driving between the mountain city of Cuenca and the coastal city of Puerto Lopez, we pass through a beautiful stretch of rice country.
|The shaded area is the portion of rice country that we see|
The dry season (June-December) is peak rice production time. A system of aqueducts is used to deliver water to and control water levels in fields. Cattle will walk through aqueducts even when water levels are higher than their legs are long.
|Steer walking through an aqueduct|
Once each field is filled with just the correct level of water, the soil is prepared then rice planted.
|Plowing a rice field|
Fields next to each other are planted at different times to allow for varying harvest times. This system is called stepped rice and the result for the casual viewer is a landscape rich in various levels of growth.
|Stepped rice fields (easier to see the individual fields if you click on the photo to enlarge)|
Driving through on a cloudy day, the fields are mood brighteners. Next to a bright green mid-growth field is a newly planted field, full of green sprouts. Everything looks so peaceful and tranquil.
|Newly planted field in front of mid-growth field|
Ecuador rice ecosystem threatened
Inside the fields, a predator lurks, unseen by travelers. In 2005, apple snail damage was first detected in Ecuadorian rice fields, threatening the rice ecosystem. Apple snails are the size of – you guessed it – apples and do major damage as they eat rice stalks. They have a natural predator in the area, the snail kite bird.
|Male Snail Kite, 36 to 48 cm (14 to 19 in) long
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Snail kites were a threatened species in 2005 when apple snails began their damage. With the arrival of natural food for them, the snail kite numbers increased rapidly. They did not increase fast enough, though, to eliminate the snails.
Rice production was taking a beating as the snails took over fields. Desperate farmers first poisoned the snails through the insecticide endosulfan but soon discovered that also killed their ally, the snail kite bird. Millions were spent in search of a better solution. In 2011, the government banned endosulfan and recommended the molluscicide, methaldehyde instead.
The snail kite population is doing better and apple snail populations are down but still doing severe damage. The rice sector lost more than an estimated $56 million from apple snails in 2013 alone. It is an ongoing battle for farmers and scientists to find the best long term solution.
If you drive through, you are not likely to see the apple snail but will see the snail kite bird as well as many egrets.
|Egrets and snail kite birds in rice fields
Most of the dark snail kite birds are on the far right side of the photo
Stilted homes are built on berms between fields, protecting them from floods.
|Stilted home in rice fields
See the bamboo bridge on the right side of the photo? It is the walkway to the house
It is a beautiful drive made interesting by understanding a little of what is happening on the surface of the fields. While passing through, I watch for snail kite birds and root them on as they work on apple snail population control. I admire the farmers, who as the folk song says, can’t even stand still and can’t even sit down.
|Farmer working in a rice field|
Do you battle predators in your gardens or fields?