The geography and climate of Ecuador makes the nation one of the ten most biodiverse countries in the world: with over 5,490 species of mammals, countless birds, and abundantly lush regions that range from tropical to wetland, there is much here to protect. The new Constitution of 2008 grants rights to both humans and the environment — a somewhat unprecedented move for the Ecuadorian government. The rights of indigenous people, montubio, were also recognized, including their right to maintain their languages, customs, and even traditional land. Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, is even given rights by name, such as protection from the endangerment of native species, restriction of invasive species, and a promise to restore damaged land to its original state — a tall order considering Ecuador’s recent past.
Despite Ecuador being the home of the Galápagos Islands and many impressive protected areas, the government is focused on growing the economy — often at a cost to the environment. While local governments in cities like Quito are becoming more environmentally friendly and community-focused, Ecuador’s national government has not yet found a balance between growing the economy and protecting the land.
Failed efforts have included the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which would implement a cap-and-trade policy (a “cap” on how much pollution emissions companies can have, and a “trade” between companies on their allowances, creating incentive to invest in clean technology). The specific plan of the Yasuni-ITT initiative was to leave almost 900 million barrels of oil in the ground, preventing 410 million tons of CO2 emissions. However, to follow through with this promise, the government asked the developed nations of the world to contribute financially to Ecuador’s investment in renewable energy. When the world did not deliver, President Rafael Correa renounced the initiative, and essentially began drilling. Because Ecuador is a country rich in resources yet still riddled with poverty, this decision, while hotly contested, is somewhat understandable.
This is not the first time oil has caused problems in Ecuador. When oil was found here in the 1960s, the economy improved greatly, but now the nation is facing the long-term effects of oil exploitation. The Lago Agrio and Yasuni rainforests, important ecosystems in a country once full of such forests, have been utterly abused by Chevron, who left toxic waste in the forest and crude oil in the Amazon River, to the tune of 16 billion gallons a year. The soil was destroyed from contamination, and the carcinogenic effects included birth defects, a rise in miscarriages, and cancer in the local residents. It was not until 2011 that Ecuador’s court system demanded over $18 billion from Chevron, who fought the suit and won.
Still, progress is happening for Ecuador’s environment, as in the instance of increased protected land in the highlands. Quito and the surrounding areas certainly have benefited from this. The region’s drinking water comes from creeks and rivers in the Andes: that’s 1.5 million people, countless agricultural fields, and local industries relying on the over 4.5 billion gallons of water directly from the mountains each month. These water sources are all within the Condor Bioserve — 5.4 million acres (22 million ha) of protected land, which includes farms, ranches, and indigenous territories, but also cloud forests, rainforests, and páramos, the high-altitude grasslands of the Andes. To protect this land and the highland water supply is, perhaps, the country’s most ambitious conservation effort to date.
Still, forest “conversion” for pastureland on which to raise animals is never sustainable, and even cropland in the Andes has been historically unsustainably managed: Ecuador has long been victim to the “slash-and-burn” style of agriculture, which involves literally burning down the forest and growing food (for people and grazing animals) on the nutrient-rich ashen Earth. Once that land is depleted, another area of forest is razed. Now, the government and conservancy organizations are working together to improve agricultural practices in the region, and thus improve the quantity and quality of water available to the people.
Government interest in environmental protection is a new phenomenon in Ecuador, and not all land preservation is equally supported: the Cofán indigenous peoples have struggled to preserve one million acres (4,046,860 ha) of ancestral land, which lies between the Amazon and the mountains. As many other indigenous people have experienced, the Cofán had no titled “ownership” of their homeland, and thus fell prey to the massive oil exploitation Ecuador suffered from the 1950s–1970s. Deforestation, pipeline leaks, and oil spills were among the damages inflicted on the land and people.
In 2007, the government finally officially granted the Cofán rights to their land. Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and conservation organizations have worked together to protect traditional land by increasing local land management: the Cofán have partnered with the authorities of the Condor Bioserve. The Cofán even have their own park ranger program to halt illegal hunting and decelerate ranching/growing practices.
The national government and local highland communities are working together to promote ecotourism in Ecuador. This seems fitting for an important phrase in Quechua, the most widespread indigenous language of Ecuador: sumak kawkay, or to live in harmony with nature. Ecuador is a country on the verge of real economic growth, and how it manages its environmental concerns alongside economic development will have lasting consequences.