I, Charles Ross Stavoe, a 2012 B.A. candidate in the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, spent eighteen days in Ecuador during June of 2006, as part of an immersion field study of biodiversity, conservation, and sustainable development. As a result of this trip, I earned a diploma in biodiversity and conservation awarded by the Board of the Inter-Institutional Framework Agreement in Education for Sustainable Development – a collaborative effort of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Academy, and Fundacion "SELVA" Vida Sin Fronteras (FSVSF) (http://www.selvaeco.org/), which is translated into English as “Foundation ‘SELVA’ Life Without Borders.” FSVSF is a non-governmental organization of international reach that involves itself with the integration of development in the social, political, and economic realms with environment protection. The expedition to Ecuador is the “crown jewel” of the International Academy’s academic enrichment program, according to their website (http://www.iatoday.org/).
We were a group of twenty-one students from three schools, accompanied a translator, two teachers, and two adult chaperones. Upon our arrival in Quito, we toured the city. The apparent ferocity of the police force, which traveled in packs which numbered at the least four officers, was unexpected by us, as was the number of people out and about in the city during the middle of the night, when police seemed to be less visible. We toured a project in sustainable development at the Illalo commune on the outskirts of Quito. In that project, local resources of volcanic soil and easily replenished bamboo from tribal land in Ecuadorian portions the Amazon Rainforest were being used to build a school for the children of the commune. We also viewed a completed house made with easily replenished resources used in a sustainable manner. It was built into the hillside for greater temperature stability, with a domed roof for better shedding of water, and was made out of locally available materials. During our trip to the commune, a FSVSF associate explained how indigenous peoples near the capital city were losing their lands and livelihoods through the legal environment in Ecuador and the relentless expansion of the city of Quito. While at the commune, we met with many of the villagers, as well as an elder who led them.
Following our stay in Quito, we toured of the Galápagos Islands for one week. We observed some of the detrimental effects of ecotourism, human inhabitation, and military presence in the archipelago. We also saw some of the impacts of the introduction of nonnative species to the islands, the insufficient actions that were being undertaken to wipe out invasive species, and the government’s attempts to restrict the further introduction of invaders. These alien species included both plants, such as the passion fruit tree (Passiflora edulis) and animals such as rats, dogs, and goats. We also observed some the other fauna of the islands, including hammerhead sharks, marine iguanas, and Galapagos tortoises. We were guided by a resident of the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela. As part of my studies in biodiversity, I went on about a dozen SCUBA dives, snorkeled, and disembarked for terrestrial excursions on islands including Batchas, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, and Santiago. We dove off of these islands, as well as near Gordon Rocks, Darwin Island, and Wolf Island.
After our weeklong stay on boats in the Galápagos, we flew back to Quito and took a bus through the mountains and cloud forests. We drove to the edge of the Amazon rainforest, passing through military checkpoints in the region of Ecuador that borders Columbia. The Ecuadorian military seemed less threatening than the police of Quito. In the rainforest, we stayed at a FSVSF compound located on a sandbar on a river. While there, we assisted in an attempt to reforest the sandbar by planting hardwood trees in an area where the humus had been restored through the cultivation and composting of banana trees.
We visited a nearby Cofane tribe, which had made the transition from traditional nomadic living to a sedentary lifestyle. At their village, we communicated with villagers directly in Spanish and indirectly through Cofane and Spanish translators. The village children were understandably mesmerized by the technology we brought with us, but left it to hunt tarantulas with small spears. The shaman of the village, along with one of his many sons showed us around his village and the surrounding rainforest. After discussing agriculture with the aforementioned son of the shaman, we calculated that the revenue from the tribal community’s production of cacao was not able to meet their costs, and was unsustainable. We found this because growing cacao required the complete destruction of the rainforest environment in which they resided, and upon which they relied for important medicines and food sources. The shaman taught us about some of the many plants of the rainforest he used for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, the soil in which the cacao plants were planted would erode soon after the plants reached peak production, making agricultural production short-lived. This also necessitated further plantings and, thus, the destruction of greater areas of rainforest. At the current prices, cacao did not offer the indigenous people with enough income to maintain their standard of living, which was already extremely low. They lived well below the international poverty line.
The government of Ecuador perpetuates the poverty in this and other communities and encourages the clear-cutting of rainforest by supplying the villages with cacao seeds. The production of cacao is driving the indigenous community further into poverty even with seeds being supplied free of charge. We found that agriculture was not the only threat to the Amazon rainforest.
As we journeyed deeper into the rainforest, we passed a large industrial installation with a large billboard that proclaimed that the company cared for the environment and the safety of its employees. The sign also proclaimed that the facility had not had a serious accident for the past four days, making us consider the difference between the actions of corporations and their stated goals. We traveled on a road constructed for the oil companies active in the rainforest, passing miles of pipeline and large pumping and processing facilities. Eventually, we entered the Reverva Faunista Cuyabeno, which is comprised of 603,380 hectares of tropical rainforest that stretches north towards the border with Colombia and east to the border with Peru (See Ecuador tourist board map at: http://www.ecuadortouristboard.com/parks/parks.html). The park is intended to be a highly protected area. However, the shaman of the Siona, the indigenous tribe of the area, showed us a dump site in the most highly restricted area of the reserve that contains byproducts of processes related to the extraction and transportation of oil in the region. The Siona face a number of problems, including the restriction of their range and medical illnesses such as tetanus. We were impressed by Delios, the shaman of the Siona, because he had very extensive knowledge of the rainforest, and could even smell out anacondas from a moving boat. In the rainforest, we were viewed unique flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world.
After returning to Quito, we took a bus to Otovalo. In the city, we spent American dollars at the market on relatively inexpensive Alpaca blankets and local crafts. The merchants did not accept newer American bills, erroneously thinking they were counterfeit. On our way to the market, we passed through the region with the largest rose-growing industry in Ecuador. According to the owners of a plantation we visited, the magnitude of this industry has brought relative prosperity and good working conditions to the region. They proudly announced that their region was the only in the nation with full employment and equality of pay based upon gender. Our visit to the plantation also showed us the integration of Ecuador into the global economy, as beautiful, high-quality roses were sorted before our eyes for shipment to Russia, the European Union, and the United States. We returned to Quito, where we enjoyed the low food prices before returning to the United States.