Causes and consequences of deforestation in Ecuador
by Jefferson Mecham
Centro de Investigacion de los Bosques Tropicales - CIBT
Ecuador - May 2001
Place and diversity
Ecuador is a relatively small country (283,560 sq. km.) located on the equator in the tropical Andes of South America. Its territory includes four principal regions: the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific Coast, and the Galapagos Islands; and is home to at least 14 indigenous nationalities. The eastern half of the country makes up part of the headwaters of the Amazon basin, Earth’s largest and most biodiverse watershed and tropical rainforest. Northwest Ecuador contains the southern part of the Choco phytogeographic region (*1) which, in an area much smaller than the Amazon, has a similar number of species. The Galapagos Islands, where Darwin conceived his most famous theory, are renowned for their beauty and unique biology. The Humboldt Current off Ecuador’s Pacific Coast generates one of the planet’s most biologically productive marine ecosystems, and the mangroves on the coastal edge are among the most bio-productive on land. The Earth’s highest active volcanoes (Cotopaxi, Sangay) are located in the Andes mountain range (the highest after the Himalaya) in Ecuador.
The north-south orientation of the Ecuadorian Andes’ two parallel ranges bisect the neotropics creating a wide spectrum of climates which vary by altitude and aspect, ranging from tropical and subtropical to temperate and arctic alpine. This results in a mosaic of habitats which explains the extraordinary concentration of species endemic to this region. The two edges where the Andes mountains physically separate the Amazon and Choco floristic regions (the Andes-Amazon and Andes-Choco) are considered by many scientists as the two most biodiverse areas on the planet. Ecuador occupies only 0.2% of the Earth’s land surface, yet contains 10% of known plant species, which is the greatest number per unit area of any country in the world. Despite its small size, Ecuador also ranks third in the number of amphibian species, fourth in birds, fourth in reptiles, fifth in monkeys, and sixth in the number of mammal species.
While blessed with one of the highest biodiversity indices, Ecuador also has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation estimated at over 300,000 hectares (3%) per year (*2). In the interandean basin native vegetation has been practically eliminated since colonial times, replaced by crops, pasture, towns and cities, and exotic tree (eucalyptus and pine) plantations. This region suffers serious soil erosion problems and today only about 1 - 2% of its original forest cover remains, mainly at inaccessible high-altitude locations above 3400 meters elevation. Only about 5% remain (mainly within the Aw‡ and Cotacachi-Cayapas reserves) of the rich forests of the coastal region, most of which have been destroyed in the last 50 years by logging, agroindustrial monocultures (banana, cacao, coffee, African palm) and colonization. In the province of Esmeraldas (in northwest Ecuador), the last unprotected old-growth forests on the coast are now being liquidated by the timber industry and cleared for huge plantations (thousands of hectares) of African palm which are currently responsible for the fastest deforestation rate in South America.
Over 70% of the coastal mangroves have been eliminated by the shrimp industry, which have also moved into Esmeraldas threatening the Earth’s tallest and best conserved mangrove ecosystem and the traditional fishing communities which depend upon it for their subsistence. Since the early 1970’s about 30% of the Ecuadorian Amazon has been deforested and/or polluted and entire indigenous cultures, such as the Cofan and Huaorani, have been placed in danger of extinction as a result of the oil industry and accelerated colonization facilitated by the oil roads. In addition to all this, land traffickers and colonists are steadily removing the megadiverse forests of the Andean outer slopes and the menace of large-scale mining currently looms on the horizon. As a result, the Andes-Amazon and Andes-Choco of Ecuador are among the most threatened pristine forest ecosystems on the planet .
The interandean region was the first to undergo widespread deforestation, to a limited extent with the expansion of the Inca domain during the 1400’s, and much moreso after the arrival of the Spaniards beginning in the 1530’s. Within the first century of the Spanish landing, approximately three quarters of the Andean indigenous population had been eliminated by European diseases, the wars of conquest, the expropriation of lands, labor and production, and the brutal conditions of slavery. The conquistadores dedicated their first years to sacking the impressive wealth of the Inca Empire, whose precious metals were to subsidize the rapid expansion of the newly-emerging capitalist economy in Europe. The Spanish colonial economy was organized around the large estates, mines and textile mills worked by the indigenous and African slave populations which produced the wealth for the Crown and colonial elites.
Although the ruling class changed as independence was won from Spain in the early 1800s, the fundamental socio-economic structure did not. Some historians assert that during the period of the Republic, labor conditions under the hacienda - huasipungo (large estate/bonded labor) system became even worse. The hacienda system continued up until the introduction of the Agrarian Reform laws of the 1960-70’s which began to dismantle feudalism in Ecuador. By this time most interandean forests had been cut and were unable to regenerate due to annual burning and the hords of sheep and cattle brought by the Spanish, which had also devastated the soil over large areas. The ancient and highly productive native irrigation, terrace, chinampa and agroforestry systems had been abandoned early in the colonial period as the indigenous population was decimated and placed under various forms of bondage.
Andean agricultural context
After over 35 years of land reform most of the land suited to agriculture is still in relatively few hands. Over half of the landowners in the interandean basin (mostly Kichwa) have less than 1 hectare of cultivable land. These "minifundios" are located on mountain slopes where cultivation occurs on gradients up to 70%. As the population grows these small farms are parcelized into even smaller holdings. Due to deforestation, overgrazing, burning and intensive grain cultivation, the soil is exposed to the unchecked forces of rain and wind erosion. The average rate of soil loss is estimated at 20 times the acceptable maximum level as defined by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Thus both the quality and quantity of land available to the majority of people in the Andes is rapidly diminishing.
Nevertheless, these small mountain farms still provide most of Ecuador's food. While the largeholdings in the valleys produce mainly cattle or export crops (e.g. flower plantations), the minifundios supply the staple crops (corn, beans, potatoes, quinua, barley, etc.) for the nation’s internal consumption. The use of agro-chemicals has grown exponentially in an attempt to offset declining soil fertility and the increasing incidence of crop pests and disease. Though this props up production in the short run, it also accelerates soil erosion and fertility loss, disrupts natural balances in the ecosystem, and degrades the productive capacity of the land. As prices of artificial inputs rise, the costs of production often exceed the value of the harvest. The inviability of agriculture as such, and the lack of local livelihood alternatives are the principal reasons for outmigration and rural decline. Most migrants go to a marginal existence in the cities, to work in the flower plantations, or to colonize virgin forest.
Mass extinction on the Coast
Although extensive deforestation in the interandean basin has been a process over centuries, it is a much more recent and rapid phenomenon in the Coastal (mainly since the 1950’s) and Amazon regions (since the 1970’s). Due to the high rate of endemism, the mass elimination of forest habitat in the Coastal region over the last half-century represents one of the greatest species extinction events in history. Since it has happened so fast before adequate studies could be carried out, we’ll never know exactly what and how much was lost. But from the “Rapid Assessment” studies (Conservation International/ Missouri Botanical Gardens) conducted during the early 1990’s in western Ecuador and led by renowned tropical biologist Alwyn Gentry, we have an idea. In a series of whirlwind inventories, traveling by airplane and racing ahead of the bulldozers and chainsaws to gather as much data as possible before last critical habitats were destroyed, they found many species new to science confined to their own small geographical niches. This loss of natural patrimony eliminates possibilities for the future which are impossible to calculate in economic terms.
Watershed degradation by soil erosion and stream sedimentation, desertification and flooding are other easier measured consequences of deforestation which are taking their disastrous toll. Seasonal flooding on the Coast, attributed to the phenomenon of “El Nino”, has increased drastically in frequency and intensity over the last 30 years as climate changes, river courses are choked with sediment from erosion, and as the buffer capacity of coastal forests has been removed. Life and property losses from damage to roads, bridges & other infrastructure, homes, businesses, as well as the dengue, cholera, malaria and other epidemics typical after the floods, are calculated in the tens of millions of dollars.
In the Andes the projected life-span and capacity of Ecuador’s largest dam and hydroelectric generator (Paute) has been reduced by half due to sedimentation caused by deforestation in its watershed. During dry years electricity shortages in Ecuador’s major cities are a result. Climatic extremes are more common, planting times have become unpredictable, and alternating floods and drought wreak havoc on farmers. The impacts of climate change and desertification, although felt nationwide, have been most marked in the provinces of Loja and Manab’ where thousands of families have been forced to migrate due to prolonged droughts. Increased deforestation follows their arrival in other provinces where they practice the same forms of land-use that have created deserts in their places of origin.
Although colonization by poor landless settlers is often cited as the major cause of deforestation, this is merely a consequence resulting from the dominant economic model and the political system which supports it. Perhaps the single largest contributor to deforestation in Ecuador were the Agrarian Reform Laws (1964, 1972) which promoted the colonization of “vacant” (forest) land as the solution to relieve social pressures caused by inequitable (feudal) land distribution, while expanding the agricultural frontier and subsidizing the growth of export-oriented industrial agriculture. The “Green Revolution” (GR) was included in the Agrarian Reform package which the U.S. government sponsored throughout Latin America as part of the “Alliance for Progress” in the 1960’s. The introduction of the GR technological packet (hybrid seed grown in monocultures, mechanization, chemical fertilizers & pesticides, etc.) has been disastrous in terms of forest removal, soil degradation, contamination from agrotoxics, loss of biodiversity (including native crop varieties and farming knowledge), and growing dependence on external inputs.
The Agrarian Reform laws also considered forestland as “unproductive” and thus available for occupation or expropriation. It obliged both property owners (to avoid invasion or expropriation of their land) and colonists (to demonstrate that they were “using” the land as required for claiming title) to clear 50-80% of the forest existing on their holdings. This resulted in the elimination of huge areas of forest to “prove” the land was being utilized. By the time this clause was changed in the early 1990’s most of the Coast has been deforested and unnecessary forest clearing had become (and still is) standard procedure for colonists.
Logging, charcoal burning, “slash & burn” farming, and cattle ranching are the typical deforestation activities of colonists. But for colonization to have a mass destructive impact, the opening of roads into previously inaccessible areas is an essential precondition. In the Amazon the opening of seismic lines, highways and pipelines by the oil industry, in addition to being direct causes of deforestation, have a far greater impact by providing easy access for colonization. The timber industry, which is directly responsible for roughly a third of annual deforestation, is also a major road builder and promoter of clearcutting among colonist and indigenous communities from whom they buy timber cheaply to reduce their extraction costs. Land traffickers and government-sponsored highway projects have also greatly augmented the road network, thereby contributing to colonization and fragmentation of plant & animal habitats. In such situations endemic species eventually go extinct when left with inviably low reproductive populations in isolated forest fragments.
Indigenous “slash & burn” cultivation methods which were sustainable under low population densities and using long rotations (2-3 years cropping/ 20-30+ years fallow) are no longer so as population growth has brought fallow times to under half. Habitat degradation is further aggravated by colonists with origins from other ecosystems who are unfamiliar with their new environment and how to manage it sustainably. In the Amazon colonists invariably invade indigenous territories which result in conflicts, destruction of subsistence resources (forests, wildlife) and acculturation. This places at risk the continuity of Ecuador’s most ancient cultures and their encyclopaedic forest-based wisdom. Since most of the best lands for agriculture are expensive or occupied by large plantations and haciendas, colonists have little choice but to occupy such lands unsuited for farming or to migrate to the overcrowded cities.
With the growing recognition of the national and global importance of Ecuador’s biodiversity and the threats to its integrity, the government established a system of protected areas during the 1970’s. With additions since then, there are currently 19 protected areas (7 national parks, 6 ecological reserves, 2 wildlife reserves, 2 national recreation areas, 1 biological reserve and 1 geobotanic reserve) totaling over 4 million hectares and representing over 10% of the national territory. Although this is one of the highest percentages in Latin America, government policies and programs have failed to effectively protect and, in some cases, are a direct menace to these areas. Oil, mining and road-building activities permitted in or near protected areas have had devastating impacts (e.g. Yasun’, Podocarpus, Sangay National Parks). Contradictory laws and policies and lack of coordination between the different ministries (environment, energy & mines, agriculture/agrarian reform, etc.) in charge of implementing them hamper the development of a coherent national conservation strategy.
In addition, the nations’ protected areas are chronically underfunded, plagued with administrative deficiencies, and lack strategies to involve local communities who live in or near the reserves. To help overcome these problems private foundations began to play an increasingly important role in conservation since the 1980’s. Several NGOs have agreements with the government to administer public reserves (e.g. Antisana, Machalilla), others work in direct conservation through land acquisition and the formation of private reserves (e.g. Los Cedros, Maquipucuna). Since local residents usually depend upon forest-destructive activities for their livelihoods, NGOs generally focus their work with local communities in the long-term process of environmental education and the development of economic alternatives compatible with forest conservation.
Ecuador has recently created (1996) its Ministry of Environment which is responsible for implementing the nation’s environmental legislation and regulations, which are among the most advanced in Latin America. Unfortunately it is underfinanced and has a weak capacity for implementation and enforcement. At the same time, conflicting policies and practices within the government which promote, subsidize and/or fail to regulate colonization, extractive industries (timber, oil, mining) and export-crop monocultures (shrimp, banana, African palm, flower plantations, etc.) contribute to deforestation, resource degradation and pollution. Land trafficking is a serious problem which is uncontrolled and, in its worst form, presents itself as institutionalized corruption within the government land adjudication agency (INDA - Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Agrario). Recently, illegal adjudications of large tracts of land within public and private protected areas (e.g. the Cotacachi-Cayapas and Los Cedros Reserves) have been acquired by influential citizens in collusion with INDA officials.
The oil industry is permitted to operate not only in national parks and reserves, but also in indigenous territories. (The current government recently passed a law to allow the same for mining.) Texaco spilled over 18 billion gallons of oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon during it’s twenty-year tenure and is responsible for a multibillion dollar toxic cleanup bill that affected communities and indigenous nationalities have had to pursue in U.S. courts since the Ecuadorian government was not interested in resolving this issue. The timber industry is notorious for non-compliance with management plans and failure to reforest, but do so with impunity as the laws are seldom enforced. Despite laws for protection of the mangroves, the shrimp industry continues to raze them unchecked. The heavy use of pesticides in all variety of crop plantations and its cancerous effects on the environment and human health are well documented and unregulated. Several of these chemicals prohibited in their countries of origin continue to be imported for use in Ecuador.
Meanwhile, national investment in health and education is chronically underfunded, and there is an immense lack of support for sustainable economic alternatives that could capitalize on Ecuador’s outstanding natural wealth of geo-climatic, biological and cultural diversity, e.g. organic food production (including numerous indigenous crops), ecological forestry based on value-added native forest products, solar/hydro/renewable energy development, and ecotourism, to name a few.
With the exception of some notable NGO-sponsored and community-based sustainable forestry and native species reforestation projects, contemporary forestry practice continues clearcutting of native forests and “reforestation” -when it occurs- consists of monoculture plantations of exotic tree species. Timber interests have even proposed forestry legislation that would subsidize them with “Joint Implementation”/CO2 absorption funds to log native forests to replace with tree plantations. These plantations (mainly eucalyptus or pine) are also promoted by utility industry-sponsored atmospheric carbon absorption schemes to “compensate” for the CO2 greenhouse gas pollution generated by utilities in the northern industrial countries and the deforestation of native forests (*3).
Most such plantations are clearcut on short rotations to serve as an export crop to supply pulp for the international paper industry. However such exotic-species monocultures are essentially biological deserts as they provide no habitat for the vast majority of native plant & animal species, are inferior to native species for watershed protection and aquifer recharge, and cause soil degradation resulting in sterility after a few rotations (well documented in countries long experienced with such plantations). Moreover in a country such as Ecuador with a rich diversity of valuable native species, many with unexplored potential, it is an absurd waste to concentrate reforestation efforts on a few foreign species of lesser value (*4).
Economic and political crisis
The rapid exploitation of Ecuador’s natural resources could perhaps be justified if the income gained thereby were used to invest in the future and to improve the quality of life for the the country’s majority. But after three decades of development based upon resource extraction and export crops, the per capita debt is over twenty (20) times higher than when the oil rush began in the early 1970’s (*5). At present, over 50% of the national budget is spent only on the interest (with no principal reduction) of the external debt. The amounts received in “foreign aid” are insignificant by comparison. Real personal incomes and national investment in social services (health, education, etc.) have declined due to inflation and monetary devaluation, while taxes have gone up to cover the increasing debt burden and the growing costs of corruption and an inefficient bureaucracy. The nation’s elites which have benefitted most from government policies and subsidies are also characterized by their concentration of political power and habitual avoidance of assuming their share of the tax burden.
The bank crisis of 1999-2000 is an example of the corruption within Ecuador’s ruling class. After granting huge sums of public funds to rescue the country’s largest banks (bankrupt by making illegal loans to their own off-shore corporations), the Mahuad government froze half of bank deposits to “prevent a banking crisis”, causing chaos for businesses, families, retirees, etc. who depend upon access to their savings. This was a big step toward his own downfall. Indeed the civil unrest that deposed Ecuador’s last two elected presidents (Abdal‡ Bucaram on 6 February 1997 and Jamil Mahuad on 21 January 2000) was due to public outrage with the blatant corruption and impunity of the decadent political class which these men represent. (The presidents have changed but the system has not.)
Economic crisis in Ecuador has become chronic; poverty and unemployment have increased with the application of neoliberal policies over the last decade. This was further intensified by the multi-million dollar losses of depositor and taxpayers’ funds siphoned out of the country by corrupt bankers. Despite the experience of our last president, the government just approved another US$ 300 million bailout for Ecuador’s largest bank. Presumably this is to cure where previous injections totalling over US$ one billion have not. Meanwhile last month legislation was vetoed which sought to raise the monthly pensions of retirees above the indigency level (from $40 to $80). Unemployment and underemployment affects at least half the population. In the last year over 400,000 Ecuadorians (3% of the population) have migrated to other countries (most to the U.S., Spain, and Italy) in search of employment. This brings the total to over one million (8% of the population) forced to seek a better life on foreign soil.
The solution provided for the high inflation rate (>90%, the highest in the hemisphere during the year 2000) was to replace the national currency (the sucre) with the U.S. dollar. Although this measure was unpopular and unconstitutional, it was among the “structural adjustment” policies applied by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for debt renegotiation. To meet higher payments on the new IMF loans, considered as “fresh capital” to relieve the economic crisis, Ecuador’s rulers propose to accelerate extraction and export of our natural resources.
Oil pipelines and policies
Concessions have been granted by the government to an international oil consortium to build another pipeline to pump yet more Amazon crude over the Andes to the Coast, across one of the most seismic and volcanically active areas on Earth. Instead of following the route of the existing pipeline, the new route proposes to cut through seven protected areas including the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve in the Andes-Choc—. This is Ecuador’s first and largest (19,000 ha.) community-protected forest and holds the world record for avian biodiversity (*6). In the last three years (since February 1998), fourteen oil spills resulting from ruptures in the existing pipeline have dumped over one hundred thousand barrels of oil in headwater rivers on both sides of the Andes. Most affected communities and property owners have not been compensated and cleanup will take decades. Rather than deciding the route according to the national interest of least environmental impact, the Noboa government has allowed the pipeline consortium to choose the route most convenient (profitable) for them.
The new pipeline is planned to transport a minimum of 350,000 barrels of crude per day. This rhythm of intensive exploitation will exhaust the nation’s oil reserves in ten years and implies oil development in remaining pristine ecosystems including protected areas and indigenous territories in the Amazon headwaters. With the multiple tax exemptions, inflated construction costs, and surrender of price and production quotas, the benefits to the national treasury are minimal. A cursory inspection of the miserable conditions in any of Ecuador’s existing oil towns (e.g. Coca, Lago Agrio) doesn’t support any of the government’s contentions that all this sought after foreign investment brings development and prosperity to the people. In reality the pressure to rapidly exploit Ecuador’s oil does not serve the national interest, but rather those of corrupt politicians, industry and the great consumer nations still addicted to cheap oil after wasting the opportunity to invest in a gradual transition toward clean energy alternatives in the years since the Arab Oil Embargos of the 1970’s.
In the 1970’s oil replaced bananas as Ecuador’s leading source of export earnings. With the end already in sight of the nation’s oil reserves, the current government has pushed through a “modernization” law (Ley Trole II ) to attract foreign investment in large-scale mining. This law includes the repeal of environmental regulations which prohibit mining within the national system of protected areas and, as with oil development, eliminates royalties to the Ecuadorian treasury and grants mining exploration and exploitation exemption from export, income and value added taxes. (For normal citizens the value added tax was raised again in May 2001 from 12 to 14%). This legislation was signed into law in December 2000 without public participation or congressional debate and was one of the outcomes of the Mining Development and Environmental Control Technical Assistance Project (PRODEMINCA) sponsored by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy & Mines and funded by the World Bank (WB) with technical assistance from the British Geological Survey. The US$14 million funding for this project is a WB loan which accrues to Ecuador’s national debt.
The PRODEMINCA project has conducted geochemical river sediment prospecting throughout the watersheds of the western range of the Andes, including within highly endangered protected areas such as the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. The results of this prospection are being made available for sale on CD with detailed maps to transnational mining companies. Requests made to the World Bank Inspection Panel by concerned citizens that this information not be released for those areas corresponding to protected areas have been denied. Concessions are already underway. For example, in the province of Bolivar near 70% of the provincial territory has been concessioned to mining interests. Awareness is growing about the devastatingly toxic effects mining has had on the ecosystems where it already occurs (e.g. Podocarpus National Park in the southern provinces of Loja and Zamora Chinchipe). Local communities, indigenous and environmental organizations are now left with the task of defending their forests, water supplies, lands and livelihoods from the ravages of mining. Furthermore, Ecuador’s citizens are obliged to subsidize this industry without their consent in exchange for dubious promises of “progress and development”.
Rethinking progress and development
The plunder of Ecuador’s natural wealth, national treasury and the multiplication of the foreign debt are among the outcomes of current development policies. The great majority derive no benefit from the destruction of the nation’s forests which hurts the quality of life today while mortgaging possibilities for the future. Yet precisely such outcomes result from an economy based on a “free market” which recognizes only commodity values (crops, timber, oil, minerals, etc.) while failing to place value on essential environmental services (clean air & water, climate regulation, watershed protection, biodiversity, etc.) necessary for all our health and well-being. The cost of the depletion or degradation of these values are rarely assigned to those responsible and are generally passed on as “externalities” (costs/damages) to society and future generations.
Reforms to the market mechanism are urgently needed to “internalize” such factors as we can ill afford to continue with perverse incentives that degrade our planet’s life-support capacity at a time of unprecedented (and unsustainable) increase of human demands on the ecosystem. Current conceptions of “progress and development” which are synonomous with incessant growth, consumption and concentration of wealth for the few are outdated and destructive. Basic reconceptualizations are needed. These terms will be useful when they signify qualitative improvements for all, within the bounds of Earth’s carrying capacity, and leaving ample room for all the other species and cultures with which we share the planet.
Globalization and Free Trade
Policy alternatives and technical solutions do exist. There is unlimited potential to resolve existing problems by creating incentives for social and economic innovation and for the development of conservation, efficiency, alternative energy, recycling and remediation technologies. What is needed is the ethical basis and the political will to decisively take this path. To halt deforestation requires profound changes in policy toward investment in Ecuador’s human and natural resources, its biological and cultural diversity, its truly renewable and sustainable sources of wealth. Instead current policies go in exactly the opposite direction: they rapidly mine non-renewable resources, contaminate our ecosystems and degrade their life-support capacity, while sacrificing land, species and people to pay an unjust and unpayable debt that only grows higher as extraction is intensified.
As the consequences become ever more extreme, popular consciousness is growing to the fact that the conventional western development model (now culminating in “globalization”) is detrimental to ecosystems, indigenous and traditional cultures, communities and the marginalized, not only in Ecuador, but throughout the world. This occurs in a global context in which human-induced climate change, ozone depletion, contamination of planetary food chains and water supplies, species and cultural extinctions are generalized phenomena which will increasingly affect us all for the foreseeable future. Globalization policies (as presently conceived) aggravate these trends by ignoring the conditions needed to maintain bio-cultural diversity and healthy populations of all species including our own.
Led by the U.S., Ecuador along with all the rest of the hemisphere’s countries (except Cuba) are currently negotiating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The term “free trade” gives the impression that this is all about opening up opportunities and promoting freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, the consequences of the FTAA for the majority of us are quite the contrary. This agreement, which will profoundly affect us all, is being negotiated in secret by selected interest groups and excludes participation of most representative citizens organizations. It subordinates the fundamental rights of nation-states, indigenous and traditional peoples, and workers to the interests of transnational business and investors. Such world trade and investment accords, imposed by vested interests and lacking popular participation, threaten our local and national economies, food security, sovereignty and self-determination by concentrating further power to distant and unaccountable corporations.
In Ecuador related proposals to privatize not only public utilities, but also health, education and even water supplies are viewed with public alarm. Attempts by the biotech giants to utilize the FTAA to impose transgenic seeds/crops/foods in Ecuador (and America-wide) threatens our exceptionally rich forest and crop biodiversity with irreversible genetic contamination. This would defile our most precious resource while robbing us of the opportunity to develop our enormous potential in the organic market. Corporate piracy of indigenous knowledge and traditional plant varieties, and the patenting and genetic manipulation of life forms for monopolistic ends indicates to what degenerate extremes we have arrived under the materialistic dominant paradigm. All this has galvanized the decision of indigenous (and many other) organizations to defend their hard-won rights and territories, and to seek development alternatives based upon their own cultural values of human interdependence, cooperation and balance with nature.
Out of the deepening ecological, economic and socio-political crisis an historical shift is underway; the Kichwa indigenous elders call it PACHAKUTIK (“time of change”). Although still in power, the ruling elite and their immoral and obsolete development models have lost all vestige of credibility. Since the mid-1990’s the leadership initiative in Ecuador has been unofficially assumed by the indigenous and rural people’s movement in alliance with environmental and other popular social organizations. They offer the only integrated coherent proposal of alternative policies to guide Ecuador’s future development, based upon fundamental social values (*7), people’s direct participation in planning and decision-making on essential issues, public accountability of leaders, recognition and support of cultural diversity (“unity through diversity”), decentralization, and development based upon ecological & economic sustainability and social justice (*8). They favor “fair free trade” which is freely debated and decided democratically through the informed participation of all sectors of society; that respects fundamental human rights including those of indigenous and traditional peoples; that preserves national sovereignty for basic political, cultural and food security issues; that abides by international agreements on the environment; and that are based upon the needs of all and not only the greed of powerful special interests.
The story of deforestation in Ecuador is a classic example of unsustainable development typical to the “Third World”. It is a microcosm of the powers and processes which currently dominate the world’s economy and politics. The popular socio-political resurgence known as “PACHAKUTIK” in Ecuador is representative of a planetary-wide movement which seeks to heal the Earth by reforming human relations at all levels as essential to assure the possibilities of a decent existence for our children and future generations. This is not merely a change in political factions or ideology, but rather a fundamental change in paradigm which ...in essence... seeks the care of and harmonious cooperation with (rather than the ruthless exploitation of and competition with) nature and our fellow human beings. When we arrive at this as the new “dominant paradigm”, perhaps someday we’ll talk about the way deforestation was halted as we’re busily engaged in reforesting the Earth.
(*1) The Choco phytogeographic (floristic) region consists of tropical rainforest which extends from southern Panama along the Colombian Pacific coast into northwest Ecuador.
(*2) The annual deforestation rate is approximately 3% of currently existing forestland which remains at roughly 10 - 11 million hectares. At this rate the country will be completely deforested within 30 years. Ecuador also has South America’s highest population density (45 inhabitants/sq. km.) and highest rate of population growth averaging around 3% per year in recent decades.
(*3) Eucalyptus and pine monocultures are promoted by the “Forest Absorbing Carbon Dioxide Emission (FACE)” project which is sponsored in Ecuador by Dutch electric utilities to offset their CO2 emissions.
(*4) The full economic value of a forest includes not just wood, but also the benefits (both monetary & non-monetary) from non-timber products (e.g. food, fibers, forrage, medicines), environmental services (CO2 absorption, oxygen production & air purification, climate regulation, watershed protection, groundwater recharge, soil & water conservation, biodiversity & ecological balance, scenic beauty), as well as recreation & tourism.
(*5) Ecuador’s population and foreign debt --
1972: 6.4 million inhabitants; US$ 344 million debt; $54 per inhabitant.
1999: approx. 13 million inhabitants; US$ 17.442 billion debt;
$1342 per inhabitant.
1972-99: 203% increase population; 5070% increase foreign debt;
2485% increase per inhabitant.
(*6) In the last count sponsored by Bird Life International approx. 350 bird species were identified in the Mindo area, which took first place in the world. 46 of the area’s bird species are endangered with extinction.
(*7) The motto of Ecuador’s national indigenous movement is (in Kichwa):
AMA QUILLA - AMA LLULLA - AMA SHUA (Don't be lazy, don’t lie, don't steal).
The general application of these ancient traditional values would resolve most of the internal problems which currently plague the country.
(*8) The Municipality of Cotacachi, led since 1996 by indigenous mayor Auki Titua–a, is an example where principles of participatory government are being applied at regional government level with impressively positive results. For the year 2000 Cotacachi was granted the “Dubai Award” by the U.N. Habitat Program as one of the best participatory government experiences in the world. The same year a pioneering municipal ordinance was passed declaring Cotacachi as an “ecological county” (the first in Ecuador), including the creation of programs to implement the ordinance.
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