What I got wrong about Ecuadorian environmental attitudes

Galapagos sea lion
A Galapagos sea lion sleeping on a bench that says “Conservemos Lo Nuestro” (Let’s Conserve What’s Ours).

 

I came to Ecuador eager to explore the country’s relationship to extraction and conservation. So far, what I have found is far from what I expected. Over the past seven weeks, I have come to appreciate the nuances of Ecuadorian environmental attitudes in two very distinct locations: Quito and San Cristóbal, Galápagos. I suppose it was hubris that led me to believe that I could understand the Ecuadorian relationship to the environment from afar. I assumed that people in the mainland would support extractivism, while those on the islands would have a stronger conservation ethic. In reality, things are not so simple. In this post, I will review some of the key takeaways from my initial research here. 

As I mentioned in my first post, Quito was the site of mass unrest in October of 2019 after the government removed a fuel subsidy. Knowing this history, I thought that Quiteños and others on the mainland must be strongly in favor of extraction. After all, Ecuadorians benefit from the maintenance of low fuel prices and the economy is highly dependent on oil exports. Yet I soon learned that support for fuel subsidies is not the same as support for extraction. Quite otherwise, many of the most vocal protestors in October were simultaneously calling for the return of fuel subsidies and the pursuit of a post-petroleum society. 

Among the most notable voices in the October protests were indigenous groups. Indigenous people comprise approximately 7% of Ecuador’s population, and they have long been a powerful political force. I assumed that indigenous Ecuadorians, particularly those on the frontlines of extraction in the Amazon, would support the end of fuel subsidies. At the time, I couldn’t understand why indigenous groups so vehemently demanded the return of fuel subsidies. More recently, I have learned that the relationship between indigenous groups and extractivism is extremely complex. First, it is worth noting that indigenous groups are not a monolith. Different communities can have highly divergent opinions of fossil fuel extraction depending on their own personal experiences. While some groups actively resist the presence of oil companies on their land, others are more ambivalent. Communities may benefit from extraction in the short-term, in the form of jobs and public services, like healthcare and education. Thus, even though extraction leads to profound environmental damage and may contradict the values of indigenous groups, some communities depend on it for their well-being. Moreover, fuel subsidies are vital for many indigenous groups, who are among the poorest Ecuadorians. 

In this context, I started to understand the position of indigenous protestors better. CONFENIAE, the federation representing indigenous Amazonians (those most directly affected by extraction) called for the return of fuel subsidies, noting their economic importance. They also argued that higher fuel prices are not guaranteed to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and that instead the government ought to work toward ending extraction in all its forms. Non-indigenous Ecuadorians also often have ambivalent relationships toward fossil fuels. They are highly aware of the increasing pollution and changing climate that are associated with fossil fuel use. The problem for many Ecuadorians, as my host mom in Quito explained to me, was not the removal of subsidies but the process. Fuel subsidies were eliminated all at once, without any warning. Perhaps if subsidies had been phased out slowly, so that people could plan and adjust to their new reality, the response would have been different. I now recognize that the protests of October should not be mistaken for overwhelmingly support of extractivism.    

Similarly, attitudes toward conservation and the environment in the Galápagos have proven to be quite different from what I expected. I assumed that because they live in a place that is 97% national park and world-renowned for its pristine nature, Galapagueños would have a particularly strong conservation ethic. What I have found in my first two weeks is that the relationship between Galapagueños and conservationists has long been contentious. Long before the Galápagos were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they were regarded as a frontier to be colonized – the Wild West of Ecuador. The islands have historically been a site of exploitation, first by early pirates and whalers, later by colonists from the mainland and abroad. When Ecuador took control of the islands in the 1830s, they promoted the vision of the Galápagos as a wild place for human benefit. For hundreds of years, the islands’ most charismatic species, such as giant tortoises and sea lions, were killed for human use. 

The concept of the Galapagos as an untouched, pristine wilderness is quite inaccurate, yet this is how Westerners (including myself) have been taught to think about the islands. Needless to say, this was quite a shock to me when I actually arrived and started to learn more about the history of the Galápagos and the people living here. Some families have been here for generations, and many of those who arrived before 1998 (before migration was limited) regard the islands as a site for exploitation. They believe that they have a right to benefit from the islands’ natural resources, and thus often bump up against the wishes of the conservation community, which has long been white and non-Ecuadorian. This is seen clearly in the disparate ways that locals and conservationists see the same species; where locals see animals that are either useful or useless, conservationists see endemic species worthy of preservation. The giant tortoise, for example, may be regarded as a food source by some locals, or a prized endemic species by the scientific community. 

Over the years, these divergent views on the Galápagos and conservation have led to conflict, most notably between fishermen and the national park. Unfortunately, some locals resent conservation as a result of its effect on their livelihoods. My professor told me about people he met on Isabela Island, who complained that when a volcano erupts, the tortoises are airlifted to safety, yet children are left to die every day on account of poor health care. These stories have shaken me and my assumptions about conservation. I think that from my position in an Amherst College classroom, it is easy to argue that more conservation is inherently good. I have come to appreciate that the situation on the ground is often far more complex, and the “pristine” sites we wish to conserve are very often shared by humans. For decades in the Galapagos, conservation efforts have verged on eco-fascist, attempting to erase the real, long-standing human presence here. 

I do not wish to suggest that everyone in the Galápagos rejects conservation, as that is far from the case. Many Galapagueños are extremely proud of their home and show tremendous love for their endemic species. Increasingly, as the economy shifts toward tourism, those who previously relied on extraction (like fishermen) are becoming more concerned with conservation. There is also a significant generational divide, with younger generations far more likely to prioritize preserving the Galápagos than their parents or grandparents. There has been a concerted effort to help young people learn about conservation and get involved with it as scientific experts and park guides. I hope that as local control of conservation grows, it will be more reflective of the needs of Galapagueños. 

Thus far, I have been struck by how often the Western imaginary has failed me. It is not that everything I thought about Ecuador was wrong, but a lot was. This has made my research experience all the more rewarding, and I am particularly eager to continue sharing my insights with others. I believe that appropriate solutions to global environmental problems will only be reached by truly appreciating the complex relationships that different people have with the natural world.

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