Three Years On—After the 2016 Ecuador Earthquake

Soon after a massive earthquake struck Ecuador in April 2016, Tzu Chi volunteers arrived in the country to provide support. Their presence has been constant there over the last three years. Along the way, volunteers have witnessed how survivors regained their footing with dignity after the disaster. This is a tale of people of different religions working together with mutual trust to rebuild.

Ecuador is located in northwestern South America, bordered by Colombia to the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. It’s aptly named: Ecuador means “equator” in Spanish, and it received its name because the equator runs through it.

On April 16, 2016, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake pummeled Ecuador’s Manabi Province, on the Pacific coast. It caused widespread damage in cities including Manta, Portoviejo, Pedernales, Canoa, and Jama. More than 600 people were killed and more than 10,000 injured in the disaster.

Tzu Chi volunteer Martin Kuo (葛濟覺), of the United States, led a nine-member disaster assessment team to Ecuador soon after the temblor struck. “The disaster area covered a long stretch,” he recalled. “We spent an average of seven to eight hours per day travelling by car. We had no time to be tired. Sleep was a distant second priority to helping the earthquake victims.”

Chaos reigned after the disaster, making contact with government officials extremely difficult. Thankfully, tremendous support came from Florencia Hsie (謝妙宏), then Taiwan’s representative at the Taipei Commercial Office in Ecuador, and Armando Cheng (鄭正勇), then political counselor at the office. With their help, a meeting was arranged with Jorge Zambrano, the mayor of Manta at the time. However, the Tzu Chi team was granted only five minutes for the meeting!

In life, everything is due to karmic affinities, and karmic affinities can be unexpected and surprising. “When I started talking with the mayor,” Kuo recalled, “I immediately felt a strong affinity with him. What was to be a five-minute meeting stretched to more than an hour.” Kuo was able to fully convey to the mayor what Tzu Chi hoped to do in Ecuador and what governmental support they would need. “The meeting not only allowed us to share Tzu Chi’s philosophy with the mayor,” Kuo continued, “but also marked the first step of Tzu Chi’s disaster relief mission in Ecuador.”

At the opening ceremony of the new church in Canoa, Ecuador, Martin Kuo introduces attendees to a commemorative marble plaque that records how Tzu Chi came to undertake the church reconstruction project. Tina Tuan

Eyes devoid of hope

The Tzu Chi team found during their site visits that there were two types of temporary shelters for earthquake victims: large government-run ones offering an adequate supply of necessities, and private ones scattered across the cities that had been affected by the quake. Compassionate residents from Quito, the national capital, and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city—areas that were not impacted by the temblor—drove all the way from their cities to donate needed items to the shelters.

The government later closed the private shelters and transferred residents there to the government shelters to better manage earthquake relief resources. As a result, each shelter had to accommodate huge populations of several thousand people. Shelter residents had tents to live in and were sufficiently provided with daily subsistence, but their eyes looked vacant and devoid of hope. They did not seem to have any motivation to rebuild their homes.

When Master Cheng Yen was briefed about the situation, she immediately instructed the Tzu Chi team to start a work-relief program in quake-affected zones. The foundation had first launched such a program in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, and it became a successful disaster relief model for Tzu Chi. In such a program, money that is meant to be given to disaster victims is turned into wages for them to clean up their own communities. As residents work, they regain a sense of purpose. They realize that they need not wait passively in their shelters for help to come but can instead rely on their own strength to put their communities back in order. An added and appreciated benefit is that they get paid at the same time.

The cash-for-work program is based on the principle of empathy. It addresses disaster victims’ needs by turning relief hand-outs into pay, thus instilling in them a sense of dignity and hope. This model of disaster relief was used again in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan hit the nation in November 2013. It was so successful that it won the attention of and was reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Martin Kuo had been on a relief team to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan and had helped out in the cash-for-work clean-up program Tzu Chi had organized there. Relying on that hands-on experience, he set out to organize such a program in Ecuador as soon as he received the Master’s instructions. A work-relief program was launched on May 6, 2016, starting in the city of Portoviejo.

A beautiful coastal area in Pedernales, Ecuador, strewn with rubble and debris left by a powerful earthquake that hit Ecuador in April 2016 Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hualien Headquarters

First income since the disaster

“Everyone was suspicious of us at first,” Kuo said. “They wondered why a group of foreigners would come all the way to Ecuador to offer them such a work opportunity.” As a result of their suspicions, only 120 Portoviejo residents turned up on the first day of the program. Tzu Chi volunteers divided them into teams of ten to clean up areas designated by the city government—mainly streets near collapsed buildings.

At the end of that day, Tzu Chi volunteers, true to their word, paid each participant US$15 for their work. These were good wages, considering the average daily wage in Ecuador was US$12. Word of mouth quickly spread that the foreigners were really living up to their word. After that, the number of people signing up for the program increased dramatically, spiking to over a thousand each day.

After Portoviejo, Tzu Chi volunteers moved north along the coast to Manta, Canoa, and then to Pedernales to implement the program. Eventually, the local media took notice and reported on the project. People all over the country learned of the program this way. In the last few days in Pedernales, the daily number of participants was pushing 3,000!

Each day, before participants set out to work, volunteers shared with them the early history of Tzu Chi, about how the foundation had started in Taiwan in 1966 with 30 housewives each saving a little money a day in bamboo coin banks to help the needy. From such humble beginnings, Tzu Chi grew to a global charity organization that has provided aid to nearly a hundred countries around the world. By sharing this story, the volunteers hoped to encourage everyone not to underestimate themselves. When everyone harbors good thoughts and performs good deeds every day, the power created will be limitless.

Jenyffer Ruiz, an Ecuadorian, translated the volunteers’ messages into Spanish during the sharing sessions, and added her rally cry to motivate the cleaning teams: “Let’s fight together for our city [Luchemos juntos pornuestra ciudad]! Go! Go! Go!”

“Volunteering for Tzu Chi can stimulate your potential,” Kuo declared. “Although working onsite in the disaster zones is exhausting, your mind is so focused on helping the victims that instead of wanting to rest, you want to be transformed into the Thousand-Hand Guan Yin Bodhisattva so that you can do more.” Kuo was greatly comforted when he saw smiles returning to quake survivors’ faces and hope lighting up their eyes after they participated in the program. “Tzu Chi helped them realize that although they were receiving help now, they would eventually be back on their feet.” Many participants even donated to Tzu Chi. Though the amounts they could give were not much, they felt proud of themselves for being able to contribute what they could.

Participants broke into bright smiles when they received their pay after a day’s work. For many, this was their first income since the quake. Their spirits lifted when they saw the streets, once strewn with debris, become clean again. They regained hope when they saw the possibility of rebuilding their communities and homes. Many indicated that they would use the money they had received from the cash-for-work program to repair their houses, so that they could leave the temporary shelters sooner and move back to their own homes.

Cash-for-work program participants in Pedernales donate money into a Tzu Chi coin bank to help support the foundation’s charity work. Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hualien headquarters
Participants of a Tzu Chi cash-for-work clean-up program in Pedernales pose with Tzu Chi volunteers. Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hualien headquarters

Repaying kindness with kindness

Jama, one of the coastal cities hit hard by the earthquake, is located between Canoa and Pedernales. When its mayor, Angel Rojas Cevallos, learned about Tzu Chi’s work-relief program from the media, he felt certain that the group would eventually reach his town. After several weeks of anxious waiting, however, there was still no sign of the Tzu Chi volunteers. When he learned that the Tzu Chi team had reached Pedernales, farther north than Jama, he hurried over there to meet the team and asked if Jama could be included in the program too.

Volunteers explained to the mayor that they were wrapping up the program and that the relief funds they had at their disposal were almost depleted. Disappointed, the mayor broke into tears. Seeing how sad he was, the volunteers teared up too. Not wanting to let him down, Martin Kuo eventually worked out a way and scraped together US$15,000 to help Jama residents. But that amount was only enough to pay for 1,000 shifts—what if more people showed up? Mayor Cevallos responded, much to everyone’s surprise: “Don’t worry. I will pay the extra costs.”

So, just like that, the Tzu Chi team expanded their program to include Jama. In the end, 1,280 people turned up, 280 people over what Tzu Chi could pay. Keeping his promise, the mayor used US$4,200 from his own pocket and defrayed the extra costs. However, when the team reported what had happened to Master Cheng Yen, she asked Kuo to immediately reimburse the money to the mayor.

By then, the team was already in Canoa, a five-hour drive from Jama, but Kuo and Jenyffer Ruiz immediately decided to head back to Jama to return the money. Night had fallen and road conditions were not good. On their way, the bottom of their car scraped against some rocks and the chassis caught fire. Neither Kuo nor Ruiz was aware of it until a driver from the opposite lane shouted for them to stop. They were at a sharp bend in the road at the time, which was a dangerous place to stop, but they had no choice. Fortunately, a driver of a big vehicle parked at the bend to temporarily stop the flow of traffic and even used his fire extinguisher to help douse the fire. People in another car also came out and helped push their car to a safer spot for it to be towed away.

“It must have been the bodhisattvas keeping an eye on us,” Kuo said. “At the most critical moment, a group of kind-hearted Ecuadorians came forward to help us. But just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. We didn’t even have the time to ask their names. It was truly incredible!”

Within a month, Tzu Chi had completed 34 work-relief sessions and paid out 34,000 daily wages. Volunteers from the United States, Taiwan, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Argentina worked in relay teams to provide their support. When some volunteers had to go home, others came to take their places, so that there was always enough manpower on the frontline to pull off this mission. In addition to the cash-for-work project, volunteers also organized free clinics and distributions of food for babies and young children, hygiene items, and emergency cash.

Gradually, with everyone working together, the disaster areas were cleaned up and returned to normalcy.

Boris Garcia (middle) explains the progress of the church reconstruction project in Canoa to Tzu Chi volunteers. Ye Jin-hong

A super team that never said no

A year after the earthquake, another disaster hit Ecuador. Heavy rains in April 2017 caused severe flooding in three provinces in the country, affecting 120,000 residents.

The earthquake a year before had connected a group of local people with Tzu Chi. Jenyffer Ruiz was one of them. She was a victim of the April 2017 flooding too. Despite her own situation, she was more concerned about the plight of other victims than she was with herself. She assessed damage in disaster areas and sent the information she had gathered to the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, and to Martin Kuo, who happened to be in Hualien attending a board of directors meeting.

The Tzu Chi headquarters decided to launch flood relief work in Ecuador. Volunteers from Argentina, Paraguay, the United States, Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic traveled to Ecuador and joined local volunteers in initiating another cash-for-work clean-up project in Santa Ana and Portoviejo. Participants put in a total of 18,000 shifts to clear away mud and debris left behind by the floods. Tzu Chi also distributed emergency cash to flood victims in the two places, benefiting nearly 2,100 households.

U.S. Tzu Chi volunteers including Martin Kuo, George Chang (張濟舵), Debbie Chen (林慮瑢), and Simon Shyong (熊士民) had accumulated a lot of international disaster relief experience by participating in Tzu Chi work. After the April 16, 2016, earthquake and the April 2017 flooding, they traveled frequently between the U.S.A. and Ecuador to help with the foundation’s relief operations there.

In the meantime, they had to tend to other Tzu Chi work too. Though their average age is over 60, at a simple request from the Master, they will drop everything at hand and travel to a disaster area to support Tzu Chi work. Exchanging plane tickets, losing their luggage, and failing to bring enough changes of clothes are all common occurrences for them. They are fully dedicated to their volunteer work, their hearts and minds focused on relieving the suffering of other people. It was because of the selfless service of this super team that Tzu Chi’s spirit of Great Love could grow in Ecuador.

From a successful businessman to a volunteer

The region that is now Ecuador was part of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquered the area in the 16th century and established a colony. Ecuador gained independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The Spaniards left, but the Catholic faith they had brought to Ecuador remained and flourished. Now, more than 80 percent of Ecuadorians are Catholics.

When Tzu Chi volunteers were assessing damage in Canoa after the April 2016 temblor, they learned that the quake had destroyed a Catholic church in the town. The church was an important spiritual center for the townspeople. When Master Cheng Yen learned about it, she instructed Tzu Chi volunteers to rebuild this religious center for the town.

Canoa means “canoe” in Spanish. The new church, built on the same site as the old one, is shaped like a boat. Men in the town were hired as workers during construction, and women were employed to cook vegetarian food for the workers. Townspeople gained employment and the dignity of bringing in money for their families while the religious center of their town was being rebuilt.

At the new church’s opening ceremony, which drew roughly 700 people, Bishop Eduardo José Castillo Pino, other members of the clergy, and local representatives came up on stage one after another to express their gratitude to Tzu Chi. Some residents brought hand-made gifts for the Tzu Chi volunteers attending the ceremony and others performed songs and dances to celebrate the occasion. Everyone sang the Spanish version of the Tzu Chi song “One family” for the finale.

Attendees of the inauguration ceremony of the new church in Canoa sing the Spanish version of the Tzu Chi song “One Family.” Tina Tuan
The church reconstruction project in Canoa included not just a church, but living quarters for priests and nuns and classrooms for children’s Bible studies and vocational training. Jamie Puerta

Boris Garcia, the contractor of the church reconstruction project, was filled with emotion at the happy celebration. He was once away from his home country for seven years while working as a fireman for the U.S. Special Forces. He served on the frontline with the U.S. military, putting out fires caused by shootings and bomb blasts. He was in Afghanistan for three years, where he saw much death. After that, he decided to return to his hometown to be with his family. He wanted to spend as much time as he could with them.

Garcia learned about Tzu Chi through a relative who worked in the Manta city government. Garcia’s relative had provided assistance to Tzu Chi volunteers when they were carrying out a cash-for-work project in the city. Garcia began helping maintain order at work-relief sites after he came to know Tzu Chi. “I learned everything I knew about the Tzu Chi philosophy and values from Martin [Kuo],” Garcia said. “In every activity, he was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. He took every instruction of Master Cheng Yen to heart and made sure he fulfilled them. And he took good care of every volunteer. Jenyffer and I were the first persons in Ecuador to join Tzu Chi, and Martin practically lavished care on us.” He added that Kuo was really trying his very best to help people in his country. He saw him shedding tears many times in the disaster areas—he was feeling sad because he could not help every person in need.

After ground was broken for Tzu Chi’s church reconstruction project in Canoa, almost no progress was made for a year. Some local residents sarcastically remarked that Tzu Chi was all talk and no action. Garcia was saddened by their response. He was also upset to see Kuo experiencing health issues due to the immense pressure he was under.

In November 2017, Garcia made a trip to the Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan and personally learned how much the Master cared about the church project. When he returned to Ecuador, he decided to take over from the original contractor and carried the project through. “I took over the project not for the money, but because I saw how much the Master cared about the project and how many Tzu Chi volunteers were working for my country. I also wanted to help Martin and ease his heavy burden.”

Martin Kuo graduated from Taiwan’s Fu Jen University with a major in German. He later went to the United States and built a business from scratch. A self-made man, he had only US$200 on him at his most difficult time during that period. Still, he managed to make it in the end, and he became a successful entrepreneur with a happy family.

After he had built a successful business, Kuo started frequenting casinos in Las Vegas. He gambled large sums of money in their VIP rooms. His company’s general manager, Chen Ci Jiang (陳慈江), was a Tzu Chi volunteer who always wanted to bring him into Tzu Chi. Kuo started donating regularly to Tzu Chi after a major earthquake hit Taiwan on September 21, 1999, but he was still reluctant to become a volunteer. It wasn’t until a massive wildfire in San Diego in 2003 burned down many luxurious mansions that he decided to join Tzu Chi as a volunteer. The wildfire made him realize that everyone stands equal before a disaster and that he shouldn’t wait any longer to give of himself. He received his volunteer certification in 2007.

Kuo put in a lot of effort cultivating local volunteers in the wake of the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador. His years of experience in international relief work had taught him that only when local people commit themselves to carrying out Tzu Chi missions in their country can the Great Love of Tzu Chi really take root in that country.

Clad in their volunteer uniforms and holding their volunteer ID cards, eight Ecuadorians who have joined Tzu Chi pose with Jenyffer Ruiz (first from right). Ruiz was the first Tzu Chi volunteer in Ecuador. Cai Hui-jing

Jenyffer Ruiz said, “If not for Martin, I would not have become a Tzu Chi volunteer.” She had lived and worked in the United States for 24 years, and it was there she had first come into contact with Buddhism and Zen meditation. In 2015, she took an early retirement and returned to Ecuador with the aim of contributing to her country with her specialties in education and speech therapy. When the earthquake struck Ecuador in 2016, a friend introduced her to Tzu Chi. She volunteered by interpreting for the Tzu Chi relief team. She thus became the first Tzu Chi volunteer in Ecuador.

“Every time I encountered difficulties,” said Ruiz, “Martin would be there within minutes to help me and give me a hug. I have no brothers. Martin and Boris have become like brothers to me.” The three of them worked closely together for almost three years to bring the church reconstruction project to fruition. They had their differences in opinion during the process, but it was by working through their differences that they became closer than biological siblings.

When Kuo was asked if he ever thought of quitting when the going got tough, he responded, “Of course I did!” However, if he had quit, how could he have continued on the Tzu Chi path? Therefore, giving up was never really an option to him.

When the going got tough, he didn’t give up, but instead persisted all the more. A devoted disciple of the Master’s, he traveled repeatedly between the United States and Ecuador to handle the Tzu Chi work there and inspire more people to join the foundation and serve their own people. In addition to Ruiz and Garcia, eight other residents have become trainee volunteers, and many more have stepped forward to support Tzu Chi activities. These volunteers are like bodhi seeds. With time they will grow and multiply and lead to the formation of a large forest of bodhi trees.

“Many locals attended the inauguration ceremony of the new church, and more and more people are joining Tzu Chi,” Kuo commented happily. “In the future, various vocational training courses will even be launched in the church complex. Everything is falling into place.”

He felt that all that he had been through was worth it.

Martin Kuo says that the church reconstruction project in Canoa was a combined effort of people from two different religions who pulled off the project with mutual trust and a spirit of unity. Tina Tuan


November 2019