Exploring environmental attitudes across Ecuador

¡Saludos de Ecuador! I

Top of the Panecillo, a famous overlook in Quito

Me at the top of the Panecillo, a famous overlook in Quito


spent the past five weeks living in Quito, and I just arrived in the Galápagos a few days ago. I have the unique opportunity to study for eight weeks in each location, which will provide me with different perspectives on the same environmental issues. I chose to study abroad in Ecuador in part because of its unparalleled biodiversity. Within a relatively small country exists nearly every ecosystem you can imagine. In my short time here, I have already hiked up volcanoes much taller than the Rocky Mountains, visited the cloud forest, and swam in the ocean. Driving an hour in any direction from the city takes me to a completely different climate, with an array of flora and fauna like I have never seen before. Ecuador’s constitution recognizes the rights of nature, and everyone I have met is understandably proud of their environment. Yet there is another side to Ecuador’s abundant natural resources; the country is not only replete with birds and trees, but also oil and minerals. It is this paradox of respect for nature and widespread extraction that I am interested in exploring during my four months in Ecuador. 

In October of 2019, Ecuador experienced mass unrest. People took to the streets in response to the removal of a fuel subsidy and other austerity measures, which the government had agreed to in order to receive a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The protests forced the government to move from Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. For weeks, I was not sure whether I would be able to study abroad in Ecuador. Although the protests ended relatively quickly and the fuel subsidy was reinstated, I was struck by the contradiction of maintaining cheap oil prices while also trying to conserve the environment. The October protests, which are still spoken of nearly every day here, piqued my interest in the Ecuadorian relationship to the environment. 

More specifically, I decided to research attitudes toward extractive industries and conservation. My program presents the ideal opportunity to explore these subjects, and compare attitudes across the country. I started my semester in Quito, the epicenter of the October protests. Quito is a massive metropolitan city of over 3 million people. While it is not the site of extraction, it is a beneficiary of subsidized oil. Though the majority of Quiteños use public transportation to get around, more and more people are driving cars, worsening pollution. Even those who do not drive are affected by fuel prices; as my host mom explained to me, the cost of fuel influences the cost of everything. Bus fare, food prices, and electricity are among some of the necessities that increased in price practically overnight in October. Resistance to higher fuel prices is a global phenomenon, yet scientists and economists agree that carbon taxes are a necessary tool in the fight against global warming. I want to explore Ecuadorian attitudes toward higher fuel prices for environmental protection, to appreciate under what conditions, if any, fuel subsidies could be removed successfully. In a developing country, where most of the population is extremely vulnerable to changes in fuel prices, how else might fossil fuel consumption be diminished? For the health of Quiteños and our planet, how can the trend toward increasing fossil fuel pollution be reversed?  

The Galápagos presents a different, yet related, set of questions. Until a few decades ago, the islands were virtually uninhabited. Today, the three largest islands – Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristóbal – are all populated. I will be living on San Cristóbal, in a community of about 6,500 people. Given that 97% of the archipelago is protected as a National Park, human activities are constrained. The infrastructure of the islands, particularly modern amenities like internet, is not very developed. In other words, Galapagueños have sacrificed development in part to conserve the natural environment. Because addressing climate change will require lifestyle changes from billions of people, particularly those living in the Global North, I think it is important to explore attitudes toward the environment among Galapagueños. Why are they willing to sacrifice increased development and certain fixtures of modernity in order to preserve their ecosystem? I am eager to learn more about how this community managed to prioritize their long-term interests over short-term benefits, and hopefully bring these lessons back to the United States. I do not wish to suggest, however, that the archipelago’s preservation is ensured. I want to explore the difficulties of preserving an ecosystem and the challenges posed to local communities by conservation, as well.

I plan to explore these topics in a number of different ways. I believe that one of the best ways to appreciate an individual or community’s relationship to the environment is through observation. How do people talk about the environment? When does it come up? Does local and national media report on the environment, and if so, what is the general tone? Are there government campaigns urging environmental protection, and are they working? Living in Quito, I have already learned so much just by being attuned to the world around me. From the conversations I’ve overheard and participated in, Quiteños are really concerned about air pollution, trash, endangered species, and climate change. Almost every day, I hear something on the news or radio about the environment. In many small towns (though notably not in Quito), there are signs reminding us to take care of the environment. Yet these concerns do not necessarily translate into lifestyle changes for many people. I also plan to speak to Quiteños and Galapagueños directly about conservation issues and their relationship to the environment. I think it will be informative to compare stated attitudes to casual conversation and actions. I already feel as though being here has enriched my perspective on environmental protection, and I hope to come away with a more nuanced understanding of how to address conservation and extraction across different cultural contexts. 

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