Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador
by Mara Precoma
The Indigenous population of Ecuador counts approximately 1.1 million people out of a total population of 17 million inhabitants. There are 14 Indigenous nationalities which are grouped into local, regional and national organizations. Two Rivers Reserve is located in the Kichwa community.
The history of Native Ecuadorians spans roughly 11,000 years. Evidence suggests that humans settled in the coastal and Andes region before they settled in the Amazon region. Nowadays, the majority of Indigenous peoples lives in the Central-North mountains, most of them in rural areas. Around 24% of the Indigenous population lives in the Amazon area. Across the country, Indigenous nationalities with just a few hundred members exist. These communities find themselves in especially vulnerable positions as they lack economic and political power.
Ecuador has made theoretical steps towards the recognition and protection of its Native population. It ratified the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention in 1989, voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and included the idea of a plurinational and intercultural Ecuador in its 2008 Constitution. In reality, however, civil, political, cultural and territorial rights are not fully respected and enforcement of policies is lacking. The introduction of neoliberal politics which favor private enterprise, extractive industries and US-American foreign policy under Donald Trump has put the Indigenous population in an unfortunate situation. Importantly, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of a colonial history during which Indigenous peoples experienced enslavement, abuse and exploitation, and whose legacy lasts until today.
Some of the main challenges which Indigenous peoples are currently facing concern natural resource exploitation and large-scale mining activities. Both disturb and harm Indigenous lands and ecologically fragile areas, leading to existential concerns with regard to self-determination, health, cultural practices and sources of income. While these are some of the most visible and internationally covered struggles experienced by the Indigenous population, they are by far the only ones.
Latin America has the widest gap of income inequality in the world. In Ecuador (and many other countries), Indigenous peoples are most likely to be disadvantaged and to live in poverty. The percent of Indigenous who are poor is 4.5 times that of the non-Indigenous population. Being poor is highly correlated with low levels of educational attainment. Indigenous adults have received an average of 4.5 years of formal education whereas non-Indigenous adults’ formal education average amounts to 8 years. Differences in education lead to differences in human capital attainment, which, combined with discrimination, explains the earning gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Knowing that differences in education translate into differences in wages and living standards, Two Rivers Reserve aims to equalize educational opportunities for local children. One of the many projects which volunteers and interns can engage in is teaching local school children basic English and science.
Another area where the Indigenous population experiences disadvantages concerns health services. Even though these continue to improve, access to mainstream and emergency healthcare is still limited, especially for rural populations in the Andes and Amazon regions. In partnership with volunteers and interns, Two Rivers Reserve tries to offer health and wellness activities such as first aid classes or dental checkups to the local population whenever possible.
Despite many challenges, Ecuador’s Indigenous population continues to fight socio-political disadvantages, discrimination and exploitation. 2019 was marked by anti-government protests and demonstrations which denounced the national government’s economic policies. In the fall of 2019, Indigenous mobilization peaked and was met with violent action by repressive forces, in particular the police. At a time when racism and police brutality is receiving unmatched media attention, we would be well advised to pay more attention to the struggles and resistance of Indigenous peoples in Latin America and all over the world as well. Two Rivers Reserve acknowledges that listening to and learning from Indigenous voices is one of the most important steps towards the liberation of the Indigenous population. We celebrate Indigenous cultural expression and support the battle for Indigenous rights and rights implementation.
“Ecuador.” Minority Rights Group International, 2018, minorityrights.org/country/ecuador/.
García-Aracil, Adela, and Carolyn Winter. “Gender and Ethnicity Differentials in School Attainment and Labor Market Earnings in Ecuador.” World Development, vol. 34, no. 2, 2006, pp. 289-307.
Mamo, Dwayne, editor. “Ecuador.” The Indigenous World 2020, 34th edition, The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2020, pp. 396-409.
“World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Ecuador.” Refworld, 2018, www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce3223.html.
by Mar Precoma
Last week’s article listed the many threats to Ecuador’s spectacular biodiversity. This article will outline the main threat to biodiversity conservation: Deforestation. 34.5% of Ecuador’s land area is covered by forest. In 1986, the forest cover amounted to 48.1%. During the last few decades, forest in the average size of 110 American football pitches was cleared daily. Ecuador ranks second among Latin American countries in terms of deforestation levels. Of course, this has wide-reaching consequences for nature and humans alike.
Historically, deforestation occurred mainly in the coastal and Andes region. The coastal lowland region is still experiencing a high degree of deforestation caused by enhanced population pressure. The Andes region displays lesser deforestation, since much mountain forest was already cleared centuries ago. Current forest reduction in this area is usually due to the mining industry.
In the middle of the 20th century, the Amazon region was cleared for crop production. Since the 1970s, the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon Basin has been the expanding oil industry. This includes the construction of roads, pipelines, camps, oil wells and heliports as well as the land settlement, agricultural expansion and timber harvesting which follow after the establishment of roads. In recent decades, 650,000 hectares of Ecuadorian rainforest have been lost. Almost 70% of the Ecuadorian Amazon is divided into oil blocks, with more blocks to be added during the next years. The rainforest is covered by more than 9500 km of roads (roughly twice the distance between the US-American East- and West Coast) which connect more than 3400 oil wells.
Deforestation has large impacts on both climate and biodiversity. By destroying habitat it threatens the livelihood of many species and the functionality of ecosystems. At the same time, deforestation has grave consequences for local and global climate regulation. Deforestation in tropical regions is one of the main components of climate change. Burn activities and forest to pasture conversion lead to massive emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. Global warming and diminished water availability cause even higher pressure on tropical ecosystems, resulting in species extinction.
Humans are deeply impacted by deforestation as well. The Amazon area is home to a variety of Indigenous communities who are being robbed of lands which make up the basis of their livelihood and cultures. Despite their vulnerability, the presence and territorial claims of Indigenous peoples constitutes one of the main obstacles to deforestation. Where ancestral lands are recognized, deforestation is 2 to 3 times lower than outside of those areas. By making it harder to hide environmental degradation, satellite images constitute another useful tool in the fight against destructive industries and compliant governments.
Laws and programs which address deforestation have been introduced, but the Ministry of Environment (which oversees the National Forestry Agency) is often unable to conduct forestry law enforcement due to funding shortage.
Two Rivers Reserve works in direct partnership with the local community in order to build and strengthen resistance to deforestation as pressures on land and cultures grow every day. It engages in reforestation practices in order to restore the area’s biodiversity. Planting trees is one of the many helpful and fun activities which interns and visitors of the reserve can engage in. If you would like to spend time in nature whilst restoring a unique ecosystem, you can visit the website for more information on internships and educational trips.
Brown, Kimberley. “How to Clear the Oil Spills of the Amazon Rainforest.” BBC, 17 Mar. 2020, www.bbc.com/future/article/20200316-cleaning-up-the-oil-spills-of-the-amazon-rainforest.
“Forest Governance – Ecuador.” Global Forest Atlas, 2020, globalforestatlas.yale.edu/amazon-forest/forest-governance/forest-governance-ecuador.
González-Jaramillo, Víctor, et al. “Assessment of Deforestation During the Last Decades in Ecuador Using NOAA-AVHRR Satellite Data.” Erdkunde, vol. 70, no. 3, 2016, pp. 217-35.
Mainville, Nicolas. “Deforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon: 50 Years of Oil-Driven Ancestral Land Invasion.” Amazon Frontlines, 2019, www.amazonfrontlines.org/chronicles/deforestation-ecuador-amazon/.
Biodiversity in Ecuador
Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. In fact, it is one of seventeen “megadiverse” countries, hosts approximately 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and offers two natural World Heritage sites (the Galapagos National Park and the Marine Reserve) – all of this despite its relatively small size (Ecuador is about 35 times smaller than the US). Protecting this great biodiversity as it suffers from human intervention is one of Two Rivers Reserve’s main goals.
Ecuador’s natural wealth can be explained by its geographical, atmospheric and climatic conditions. The country is located in the Neotropical realm, a terrestrial realm which developed a rich natural world during its long separation from the North American continent. Ecuador can be divided into four zones with unique features: The coastal region, the Andes highland region, the lowland Amazon region and the Galápagos Islands. Ocean, beaches, bays, mountains, volcanoes, moorlands, rainforest and rivers offer the perfect backdrop for a richness of fauna and flora. Some numbers help to demonstrate Ecuador’s biodiversity: The country hosts 16% of the world’s known bird species, 8% of all the species of amphibians on earth, over 16,000 species of plants and 4,500 species of butterfly. To compare: Arizona and Ecuador (they are about the same size) host 14 and 140 species of hummingbirds respectively. (If you would like to experience some of this beautiful natural world yourself you should check out the “Travel” section on our website!)
Two Rivers Reserve is located in the Amazon region, close to the city of Puyo. The Amazon biome encompasses the largest tropical rainforest in the world, making it home to an unfathomable number of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. Since one in ten known species lives in the Amazon rainforest, it is called a biodiversity hot spot. The area of the Amazon rainforest located in Ecuador is just a small part of the forest as a whole, but Ecuador is home to the most diverse biosphere on earth – the Yasuni National Park. The Amazon’s role in maintaining regional and global climate functions is indisputable. Yet, it has lost at least 17% of its forest cover in the last few decades.
About 9% of the Amazon’s population is made up of Indigenous peoples. In Ecuador, the Kichwa Indigenous community is the largest Indigenous group in the rainforest region and the country at large. Two Rivers Reserve works with the local Indigenous population to promote sustainable behavior in hopes that our next generations will be able to enjoy all that the rainforest has to offer as part of a harmonious relationship between people and nature.
In Ecuador, the Ministerio del Ambiente y Agua is responsible for the administration of the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (National System of Areas Protected). Protected areas represent about 14% of the conserved national territory. Currently, there are 59 protected areas. In Pastaza, the province where Two Rivers Reserve is located, about 13% of the land is protected. However, in order to preserve the country’s biodiversity, more land needs to be protected.
Despite a growth of documentation on the country’s biodiversity, information on Ecuador’s ecosystems is still lacking. Two Rivers Reserve engages in biodiversity monitoring and cataloguing. These are important activities which help evaluate ecosystems, their responses to disturbances and the success of conservation and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, Ecuador’s biodiversity richness is threatened by unsustainable behavior from extractive sectors such as mining, oil, logging, agriculture and industrial fisheries. Urban expansion, human migration, tourism development and introduced species add to the problem. The resulting habitat loss threatens the livelihood of many species, for example jaguars or spider monkeys. A different blog post will provide you with more information on the threats to Ecuador’s biodiversity.
“An Equatorial Treasure Trove.” Fauna & Flora International, 2020, www.fauna-flora.org/countries/ecuador.
“Ecuador – Main Details.” Convention on Biological Diversity, 2020, www.cbd.int/countries/profile/?country=ec.
“Ecuadorian Biodiversity Project.” The Biodiversity Group, 2016, https://biodiversitygroup.org/documenting-biodiversity-ecuador/.
“Inside the Amazon.” WWF, 2020, wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/about_the_amazon/.
“Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas.” Ministerio del Ambiente y Agua, 2020, www.ambiente.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2020/04/2020_03_30-BOLETIN-FINAL.pdf.
By Mara Precoma
When trying to understand the cultural and political context within which Two Rivers Reserve operates, it is helpful to familiarize oneself with the concept of buen vivir. Those who have heard of buen vivir have likely come across the “fun” fact that Ecuador’s Constitution bestows rights upon nature. While this is true, there is much more to buen vivir – an idea with revolutionary potential.
Buen vivir is best understood as an umbrella term for a set of different, context-dependent positions. It is loosely translatable into “good living,” but the inadequacy of this translation already points out that buen vivir is far from the western notion of wellbeing which prioritizes the individual. Buen vivir describes a community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive way of life. This worldview is embedded in various Indigenous belief systems across South America, but it is also expressed by critical movements such as feminist thought or environmentalism. Two of the most well-known approaches to buen vivir are the Ecuadorian Kichwa concept of sumak kawsay and the Bolivian Aymara concept of suma qamaña, both Andean conceptions of life which value diversity and a harmonious relationship with nature.
In its more abstract form, buen vivir constitutes a philosophy. It tries to overcome the artificially created dichotomy between society and nature which has resulted in an understanding of nature as an inanimate object which can be sold and owned. Buen vivir advocates for cohabitation with others and nature. At the same time, buen vivir proposes an alternative model of economic development and societal organization. It prioritizes the collective over the individual, the community over the self. As opposed to a consumption-based and profit-driven market economy, buen vivir promotes reciprocity, redistribution and small-scale, local production. It acknowledges that each product comes with a social and environmental price; one which South America pays all too often as its resources are exploited in order to satisfy a global market. Buen vivir also encompasses the legal and political recognition of diversity and the celebration of cultural pluralism. In Ecuador, for example, Indigenous movements are promoting the idea of a plurinational state.
Buen vivir asks for transformations. Not just transformations of the economy, the political and legal system, education or the health sector, but transformations of thought and changes to the ways in which we perceive our surroundings. Rather than a strict blueprint, it is a platform for critical thinking and alternative visions.
Ecuador has shown that buen vivir can be translated into practical strategies. In 2008, the country included buen vivir in its Constitution. Together, economy, politics and society are to promote and protect the principles of sumak kawsay. In Ecuador’s Constitution, buen vivir does not just constitute an ethical principle, it represents a set of rights. Breaking with traditional patterns of environmental protection, nature itself is attributed rights. The Constitution states that “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence” (Article 71).
Knowing of the continued environmental degradation which takes place under the eyes of the Ecuadorian government, a puzzling contradiction emerges. With regard to environmental protection, Ecuador’s Constitution seems to be an aspirational document at best. This is why the conservation work of organizations such as Two Rivers Reserve takes on such an importance. However – and this point is not to be underestimated – the constitutional appointment of the Rights of Nature authorizes a rhetoric which legitimizes the public performance of rights claiming, an important step towards the lasting implementation of any claim. Buen vivir is hope, after all.
Balch, Oliver (2013): “Buen Vivir: The Social Philosophy Inspiring Movements in South America.” The Guardian, 4 Feb. 2013, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas.
De La Cadena, Marisol (2010): “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 334–70.
Gudynas, Eduardo (2011): “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow.” Development, vol. 54, no. 4, pp. 441-47.
República del Ecuador (2011): “Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador.” Political Database of the Americas, 31 Jan. 2011, https://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html.
Hannah is a 26-year old student from Germany. She has a very special connection to Ecuador since after her high school graduation she spent one year working and living in a children’s home in Quito. In order to understand and reflect on her experiences from a more academic point of view, she specialized in Latin America during her Bachelor’s in International Studies and learnt a lot about the region’s culture, history, politics, and economics. Although she has visited several other Latin American countries since then, Ecuador will always hold a special place in her heart. If she is not busy traveling, Hannah tries herself at yoga or entertains her two beloved cats.
Erick is a trilingual graduate student from Ventura, California studying at Albert-Ludwig Universität Freiburg. During his Bachelors and Masters degrees, he has studied in universities from 5 different continents and prior to beginning his MA in Global Studies, held positions in global supply chain management, law firms, and study abroad providers. He loves playing guitar, playing football/soccer, and traveling.
Mara was born and raised in Germany. She completed her B.A. in Interdisciplinary American Studies in 2019, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Social Sciences at the University of Freiburg. She has not yet been to Ecuador, but she spent a few months in Argentina as part of her Master’s degree. Mara is interested in literary studies, social movements, gender & queer studies, and Indigenous cinema. In her free time, she is usually on the hunt for cafés with delicious hot chocolate, beautiful landscapes to photograph, and new true crime podcasts to listen to.
Sarah is a 27-year-old Master’s student from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. She is currently studying Global Studies at Albert-Ludwigs-Unversität in Freiburg, Germany. She completed her undergraduate degree in International Relations in 2015. Her research centers around critical education, inclusivity within education and post-conflict studies. She enjoys spending her free time traveling and reading.
Thank you for checking out Two Rivers Reserve's brand new blog. You can find all kinds of information about Two Rivers Reserve, Amazonia, and Ecuador here. Our lovely volunteer interns have been writing up a storm about things they have just found fascinating in Ecuador. Although our volunteer interns would have loved to be in Ecuador this summer, the Coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for them to travel. We hope they'll come and visit it us soon. Take a look below to meet our writing volunteers!
This page is happy to have many authors! From some of the Two Rivers' staff to our lovely volunteer interns. WE hope we can see Ecuador in as many perspectives as there are trees in the Amazon.