Chao, Ecuador! Some closing thoughts on my time abroad

This is an image of Playa Mann at sunset

Playa Mann at sunset, complete with sea lions.


It’s hard to believe that my study abroad journey is coming to an end. If I had been able to remain in Ecuador for the duration of my semester, I would have just left the Galapagos for my final three weeks in Quito. Even with my new reality of Zoom classes, the time has flown. In this short time, I feel that I have learned so much about Ecuadorian environmental attitudes. Coming from the U.S., it was both refreshing and exciting to be in a place where the reality of environmental degradation is accepted as a basic truth. Conservation, pollution, and ocean plastic were all topics of daily conversation and media attention throughout the country. While I was in Ecuador, I felt more aware of myself as a part of the environment, as a part of nature; it is this awareness that I hope to maintain back in the U.S.

When I started this semester, I was interested in exploring differences in environmental attitudes across Ecuador. I imagined I would find a strong environmental ethic in the Galapagos, and a more ambivalent attitude in the mainland, given their reliance on oil extraction. The reality is far more complex. I met many people in the mainland who are deeply concerned about environmental degradation, and people in the Galapagos who regard conservation as their enemy. Clearly, our environmental attitudes are not determined solely by how pristine of an environment we live in. Overall, I observed a strong degree of concern for the environment among Ecuadorians, particularly compared to the U.S. The environment did not seem to be a topic for debate or partisan divide, rather it unified many Ecuadorians. 

Unfortunately, most Ecuadorians are very limited in their ability to contribute to environmental protection. Given that the country still holds “developing” status and the economy is not industrialized, Ecuador will likely be tied to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. The alternatives that have grown so popular in places like the U.S., such as electric vehicles and solar panels, do not yet feel relevant in a country where most people still do not own cars and rely on tanks of oil to power their homes. Individual consumer choices, like refusing plastic bags or cutting out disposable water bottles, seem like a luxury that is not available to most Ecuadorians yet. Knowing the economic toll that the coronavirus pandemic is taking on the country, I fear that the systemic changes the government will need to make to meaningfully advance environmental protection will be pushed even further out of sight.

Extractivism continues to be a primary driver of economic activity in Ecuador. As a result, many people who may otherwise reject oil drilling or mining outright are forced to reconcile themselves to it. Communities throughout Ecuador, indigenous and non-indigenous, depend on extraction for their economic well-being. Though they may suffer the severe environmental and health consequences of extraction, many communities have no alternative source of income. Moreover, consumers throughout Ecuador have no alternatives to fossil fuels. Thus, a strong environmental ethic among citizens is not sufficient to change the fundamental reliance of the Ecuadorian economy on extractivism. 

Interestingly, I learned that extractivism is not necessarily in conflict with conservation. Quite otherwise, in the Galapagos they are deeply intertwined. That’s because the primary form of extraction in the Galapagos is the tourism industry, which depends on conservation. About fifty years ago, before tourism in the Galapagos took off, conservation was not a priority for most residents. The Galapagos were long regarded as a wasteland, then a frontier to be conquered, neither of which encouraged sustainable resource use or conservation. It was only more recently, when the economic well-being of local people became tied to tourism, that many Galapagueños started to prioritize conservation. This is because tourists have been sold the idea of a “pristine” or “untouched” Galapagos, which requires extensive conservation efforts to maintain.

Seeing this fundamental contradiction, where some Ecuadorians rely on conservation for their economic well-being while others rely on environmental degradation, has made me think a lot about what it takes to protect the environment. Is willingness to protect the environment, or the lack thereof, really a function of money? It seems, at least on some basic level, that the answer might be yes. This, of course, is the rationale behind programs like Payments for Ecosystem Services, which pay communities to protect key habitats, such as rainforests. Yet I think it would be unfair to say that people are only interested in conservation when it serves their own self-interest. In Ecuador, there are many communities that are deeply concerned about environmental degradation, yet have no choice but to engage in extractivism. And what are people to do when their environmental values are in conflict with their short-term survival? This seems like a deeply unfair choice. Unfortunately, this is a choice that is intrinsic to Ecuador’s extractivist economy. 

Interestingly, COVID-19 is revealing the unsustainability of an economy based on extraction. In recent weeks, as oil prices have dropped, global demand for commodities has plummeted, and tourism has dropped off, Ecuador’s economy has gone into a tailspin. Without its primary sources of income, the government will likely end up with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of new debt. This crisis has laid bare the instability of Ecuador’s economy, which lacks resilience and dynamism. There are few alternative sources of income when international trade slows, and there are no government coffers to draw from to support the newly unemployed. I can only wonder if this health crisis will help push the government toward an economic system that is more socially and environmentally sustainable. 

My time in Ecuador had a profound impact on my own environmental attitudes. Living in communities that think so much about the environment helped me to feel a new level of connection to the natural world. Yet this experience has also left me with a lot of ambivalence. I have come to understand that conservation is not inherently good; too often, it results in the displacement of communities that have lived in an area sustainably for years. I now appreciate how many people have no choice but to act in contradiction to their environmental beliefs and values. I am left wondering how best to include the developing world in future environmental policy, given that the process of economic development – at least under current conditions – requires continued reliance on fossil fuels. I am coming away from my study abroad experience with more questions than answers, and I can’t wait to continue exploring how best to address the global challenge of sustainability.

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