While working with Water Ecuador this past year, I became fascinated with Ecuador and couldn’t wait to come visit. I can’t study abroad during the school year for my major, so when I noticed an opportunity to study abroad in Ecuador over the summer I jumped on the chance to take it. (An added bonus was that I would get to volunteer for Water Ecuador afterwards.) I just finished my classes, and now I’m working with James in Muisne. I’m lucky to say I’ve had some incredible experiences so far.
During the last six weeks I’ve been in Ecuador, I’ve hiked through the most biodiverse parts of the rainforest and the shopper-packed mall Quicentro. I’ve zipped along the Amazon River in a giant rain jacket and boots, and laid atop a speed boat basking in my bikini while hopping from one island to another in the Galapagos. I’ve bargained with an elderly indigenous woman the price of an handmade alpaca scarf from $7 to $5, and discussed with my host family in Quito their upcoming Disneyland vacation. I’ve played soccer with the junior team of a professional sports center in Chota, and on the beach with boys of nearly the same age from Heriberto’s drug clinic. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot. And of all the things I’ve had the opportunity to see, what struck me most about Ecuador is it’s abundant diversity in every sense of the word.
This diversity in people, land, nature, and culture exemplifies a number of conflicts that challenge the world today. Ecuador, one of OPEC’s smallest countries, has been hit by the falling oil prices. The tension between protection of the environment – a clear priority of President Rafael Correa’s 2008 constitution, the first in the world to include such a provision – and the need for government revenue is obvious. Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is home to some of the most biodiverse sections of the Amazon jungle, as well as a number of indigenous communities which carry a wealth of cultural diversity. Environmentalists and indigenous rights groups alike fight hard against continuing measures to exploit the oil of the rainforest, which strongly disrupts both the rainforest’s ecosystems and the indigenous communities.
But at the same time, money is needed to support the government-run schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, and oil is an easy source. Inflation in Ecuador has stabilized since the adoption of the US dollar in 2000, but the economy is heavily dependent on oil and the recent price drop has not gone unfelt.
Tied to this need for funds are heavily-debated new laws increasing the inheritance tax, which have led to widespread protests across the country. I lived right next to the Parque La Carolina, one of the largest parks in Quito, and I was frequently woken up by loud protesters or would walk back from school to find buses packed with shield-carrying policemen parked on my street. Tensions calmed down the last few days I was in Quito (debate was tabled to prepare for the arrival of the Pope). But the Pope’s strong stance on environmental protection is yet another facet to the conflicting political pressures.
I don’t know how to resolve these conflicts, and I’m not sure there’s a simple solution to be found. Questions like how to protect the environment or how to fund development are not easy to answer. I do know, however, that the effects of them are important. I’ve met some of the kindest people in Ecuador, who have put up patiently with my Spanish, taught me about their ways of life, and fed me wonderful meals with seemingly endless portions of soup and rice. From my American-educated USFQ professor who brags he once fired Correa to the kids I’ve seen playing on the street during my first few days in Muisne, these questions affect everyone. It will be interesting to see how Ecuador – and the rest of the world – answers them.