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Social and Environmental Issues in Ecuador

In the 21st century, Ecuador has experienced a change of consciousness in regards to environmental and social issues, which often go hand-in-hand. The new Constitution of 2008 expands the guaranteed rights of both humans and the environment. Articles 56-60 address the rights of indigenous, montubio, Afro-Ecuadorian and other ethnic communities have guaranteed rights to maintain their language, customs and identity. Articles 71-74 provides rights to Mother Earth (Pacha Mama), including protection from environmental damage and of native species, be restored to its original state if damage has occurred and the restriction of introduced species.

Nonetheless, Ecuador still faces a number of social and environmental challenges as the nation tries to balance conflicting obligations of repaying international debt, developing industry and keeping the poorest sectors of society alive. Below are the most pressing issues.

Oil Exploitation
Oil was discovered in Ecuador in the 1960s, followed by large-scale production began in the 1970s. Oil has been a huge boost to the nation’s economy. However, development has not been sustainable. Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet and oil companies are a serious threat to the rainforest. Petroleum exploitation has been particularly detrimental on the region’s fragile ecosystems, vulnerable indigenous populations and public health. Even at lodges deep in the jungle, plumes of smoke emanating from oil refineries smudge the otherwise untouched horizon.

The hardest-hit area is the Lago Agrio and Yasuni rainforest in Sucumb√≠os Province, where Texaco (now Chevron) operated from 1964 to 1994. Here, year after year, Chevron dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic waste and crude oil spilled into the waterways of the Amazon. Furthermore, it abandoned over 900 unlined waste pits that stored carcinogenic ‚Äúproduced water,‚ÄĚ thus contaminating the soil. Local residents began exhibiting miscarriages, birth defects, and leukemia and other cancers, as well as cultural upheaval. The jungle was also deforested. The extent of the damage is estimated to be far greater than that caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Communities near Lago Agrio filed suit against Chevron in 1993. In February 2011, Ecuadorian courts ruled Chevron must pay $18.2 billion in damages. Later on in 2012 however, Chevron gained the upper hand in the trial by getting a judge to oversee the hearing (rather than a jury), effectively winning the retention of a judge. In addition, Chevron is fervently seeking exemption from the multi-billion dollar verdict by claiming that Ecuador had released the oil company of all potential liability back in the 1990s.

Additionally, there have been instances of drilling on ancestral land. The Ecuadorian government sold exploration rights in two areas of the jungle without consulting the indigenous communities to whom those areas were considered ancestral: in 1989, Block 23, a 200,000-hectare (494,211-ac) oil field in the homeland of the Kichwa ancestral lands of Sarayaku, in Pastaza Province; and in 1998, the 200,000-hectare Block 24 in the Shuar and Achuar peoples’ Transkutuku region in Morona Santiago Province.

Community groups demonstrated and local workers held strikes with some limited success. Protests in Sucumbíos and Orellana provinces in 2005 caused the state-owned oil company Petroecuador to halt production for several days. While consequences were dire on the economy, the local people gained some concessions in terms of health and infrastructure investment in these areas.

In addition to guarantees in the 2008 Constitution, President Correa’s administration had implemented a cap-and-trade policy which has now been rendered futile (see China & Ecuador: Yasuni-ITT) known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative. Under this scheme, millions of barrels of oil (20% of the country's total reserves) were to be kept underground in exchange for monetary benefits collected from developed countries around the world. These funds, in turn, were to be used for renewable energy sources research and installation, but things took a dramatic turn when Ecuador bit off more than it could chew, financially speaking.

Ecuador, the World & China: The End of Yasuni-ITT
Ever since Ecuador defaulted on its foreign debt back in 2008, it has found itself hard-pressed to receive loans from just about anywhere in the world, anywhere except China: the large and resource-hungry country was willing to make a deal with Ecuador which has now, nearly 5 years later, handed well over 7-billion to the country. Their deal, however, was not without its severely constricting terms. China has stated that under the agreement, Ecuador is to hand over some 75% of its oil exports to them in addition to paying its debt.

This truly was the tipping-point for the how and why Ecuador was no longer able to hold onto its highly ingenious ITT-initiative, time was running out as were measures for how Ecuador could keep its economy afloat amidst China's growing loans. What added immensely to the unfortunate decision to revoke the ITT-initiative was also that other countries did not manage to hold up their end of the bargain. On August 15, Correa scrapped the plan stating that poor support from the international community was the main reason. He ended up liquidating the entire trust fund and initiative. By the end of its timeline 5 years later, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative had coalesced roughly $336-million in pledges (roughly $13 million of which had already been handed over) of the 3.6-billion goal.

Sustainable Tourism
Ecuador suffered a severe economic crisis in the late 1990s, which plunged over half of the population into poverty, which has led to high levels of migration to cities and foreign countries. The economy has since rebounded (in 2012, the poverty figure had dropped to 27.3 percent), due in part to tourism. This important source of income brings in over $1.2 billion of annual revenue to the country, contributing 1.8 percent to the GDP (World Tourism and Travel Council, 2011). The tourism and travel industry provided an estimated 273,700 jobs in 2011, representing 4.5 percent of total employment. Thus, tourism has the ability to decrease poverty in Ecuador in a manner that is potentially less damaging to the environment and more sustainable than other revenue generating enterprises such as export agriculture and petroleum extraction.

Many of the tourist operations in the Andean region of Ecuador promote the beauty and indigenous culture of the area, yet only a handful classify themselves as ecological and try to meaningfully engage in conservation and community awareness. Key factors determining the success of pioneering eco-lodges are conservation and community development. Most tourist operations recognize the importance of sustainable practices but do not have sufficient technological or financial resources to engage in them. One model for encouraging sustainability is through outreach by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Ecuadorian NGO Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D; URL: has a program called Smart Voyager which is aimed at training and certifying operations in sustainable tourism. The Smart Voyager program increases the efficiency and profitability of tourism operations, which provides an economic incentive for the operations to become certified. Certification helps to ensure that growth in tourism has a positive impact on the environment, workers, communities and the fight against poverty. It also provides consumers with independent information on the environmental and social standards of an operation. Moreover, through workshops and training sessions that are run in collaboration with C&D’s partner Rainforest Alliance, tourism operators are able to share ideas and learn new methods of conserving the environment, promoting social programs and reducing poverty in their own areas.

There are a number of ways you can leave a positive mark on the places you visit, but two of the most important measures to ensure the country and its people benefit from your travels as much as you do are by: practicing responsible tourism yourself and using companies that have received an ecotourism certification.

The Indigenous Movement in Ecuador
For over three decades, a strong and largely united indigenous movement has been developing in Ecuador and it is considered to be among the strongest in Latin America. Indigenous political groups wield significant power in Ecuador, including nation-wide strikes and the toppling of elected officials.

In the 1980s, the Amazonian and highland federation CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) was formed, bringing together 11 Ecuadorian ethnic groups (approximately 3.5 million people) with a united purpose. The group focuses on high-level key aims for all of its member groups such as human rights, consolidation of territory and education. In 1990, thousands of indigenous people held a three-week strike, the first major indigenous uprising against the government. This was the first time that such power had been wielded by these groups and came as a shock to the establishment. Roadblocks were placed in the Andes and a march took place in Quito to demand land rights and bilingual education. In the aftermath of the 1990 uprising, CONAIE began to gain real political influence as the indigenous people saw that it was possible to have a say and gain rights, if they united in their goals. This led to a number of massive protests and finally, in 1995, Pachakutik - the indigenous political party was formed to drive the rights of the people forwards in the political arena. It played a role in the ousting of Abdal√° Bucaram from the presidency in 1997.

A decade of unrest, lack of social reform and government corruption in the 1990s came to a head in early 2000 as the indigenous people had been left in poverty. When demonstrating again in Quito, troops were called in to break up the demonstrations. Lucio Guti√©rrez (at the time an army colonel) did not follow orders and instead, provided mobile army kitchens to support the indigenous protesters and let them overtake the congress building, declaring a ‚ÄúParliament of the People.‚ÄĚ Guti√©rrez worked with the indigenous to unsuccessfully try to form a new government to replace ousted president Jamil Mahuad. Guti√©rrez then was arrested and imprisoned for six months and deputy Gustavo Noboa was installed as president. Despite the failure of the indigenous movement to form a new government, this was landmark news. Failure of the Noboa government to take notice led to further uprisings in January and February 2001. These united not only the indigenous groups but also the urban and rural poor, who had many of the same problems. Many marches were held in Quito. After stating he would not negotiate, Noboa was eventually forced to concede to end ten days of protests. This significantly weakened his political position, strengthening that of the indigenous movement and setting the scene for the election of Guti√©rrez in 2002.

Gutiérrez’ power-base was built on siding with indigenous Ecuadorians, unhappy with a government that appeared to be out of touch with the poor. When he turned his back on this base his power began to disintegrate. Due to disagreements regarding IMF recommendations and his apparent out-of-touch with the poor, he lost his indigenous allies’ support. In April 2005, popular uprisings would topple him from power.

The provisional government, led by Alfredo Palacio, also faced opposition during March 2006 in response to free trade negotiations with the United States. Indigenous groups feared such an agreement would cripple small-scale farmers in rural communities, especially those who produce rice, potatoes, beans, meat, cheese and maize. During the March protests, indigenous groups blocked the Pan-American Highway north and south of Quito. A state of emergency was declared in five central sierra provinces. These protests set the pace for political movements in the October 2006 presidential elections.

Running as a candidate of Alianza País, a coalition of over 30 parties and organizations (including Pachakutik) Rafael Correa won the 2006 elections. A major component of his platform was to call an Asamblea Constituyente to write a new constitution which was voter-approved in 2009. In the country’s new Magna Carta, indigenous and other ethnic groups have the right to practice their traditions, language and identity. In 2010, however, the indigenous political party Pachakutik broke with Alianza País over issues of water rights, teacher certification and other issues. Pachukutik has joined the MUPP (Movimiento de Unidad PluriNacional) in the 2013 presidential elections.

The Gal√°pagos Fishing War
There is constant tension in Gal√°pagos between the two main industries in the islands: Ô¨Āshing and tourism. Those in the Ô¨Āshing industry are always pushing for ecologically questionable concessions from the government such as long-line Ô¨Āshing, long seasons for valuable species such as lobsters and sea cucumbers, and removal of protections on marine reserves.

Long-line Ô¨Āshing is particularly destructive‚ÄĒit involves baiting several hundred hooks on the same heavy line. Used to catch swordÔ¨Āsh and tuna, it also results in a lot of ‚Äúby-catch,‚ÄĚ or unintended catch, including sea turtles, sharks, rays, sea lions and even marine birds such as the albatross, all of which are protected in Gal√°pagos. Ecologists are aghast that this Ô¨Āshing method is even being considered in such a fragile ecosystem.

Catch levels are way down in recent years, yet short-sighted Ô¨Āshermen continue to push for longer seasons and larger catch limits. What is worse, there is a lot of illegal Ô¨Āshing being done in Gal√°pagos, both by foreign vessels Ô¨Āshing in Ecuadorian waters near the islands as well as local boats engaged in poaching out of season or of illegal species. In particular, sharks in Gal√°pagos are being hunted to near extinction: they are caught for their Ô¨Āns, which bring a lucrative price in Asia. Sharks are caught by unscrupulous Ô¨Āshermen (sometimes using chopped-up sea lions as bait), their Ô¨Āns are cut off, and they are dumped back into the water. There is a ban on shark Ô¨Āshing, but Ecuador does not have the resources (or desire, apparently) to enforce it.

The tourism operators in the islands favor stringent restrictions, as unchecked Ô¨Āshing is severely detrimental to the ecosystem. For example, the sea cucumber, one of the most highly sought-after species in Gal√°pagos, is a key link in the marine food chain.

Most Gal√°pagos life ultimately depends on the sea: many birds feed on Ô¨Āsh, and if the marine ecosystem collapses, there will be no more boobies, frigates or albatrosses for tourists to come and see. Therefore, tour operators are constantly pressuring the Ecuadorian government to enact and enforce strict rules for those who want to Ô¨Āsh in Gal√°pagos.

Most of the residents of the islands are either Ô¨Āshermen themselves or have family members who Ô¨Āsh. This is true of many of the park rangers, who are charged with enforcing the rules: they often look the other way if they catch family or friends doing something illegal. The Ô¨Āshermen are very powerful in the islands: on more than one occasion, they have blockaded whole islands from tour vessels to protest a new ban or law, and once they even took over the Charles Darwin Research Station, held the scientists hostage, and threatened to kill Lonesome George.

Although the two sides seem beyond any sort of agreement, there are those who are working on compromises and new solutions; large tour operators Metropolitan Touring and Lindblad Expeditions support projects such as the ‚ÄúTeachers on Board‚ÄĚ plan, in which schoolteachers from Gal√°pagos spend time on cruise ships, learning about the islands from a tourism perspective. Metropolitan also has a project in which Ô¨Āshermen are paid to pick up trash off the islands. Perhaps in the future, Ô¨Āshing, wildlife and tourism will be able to coexist in these fragile islands.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Ecuador: Swallow-Tailed Gull, Galápagos Islands Geology, Getting To and Away From Riobamba, Centro Histórico Hotels, Responsible Tourism, Sergeant-Major, The Galapagos Snake, Galápagos Adventure Tours, Getting to and Away from Ambato and Lava Heron.

14 Nov 2013

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