From an environmental standpoint, Ecuador seems to be in the midst of implementing a number of top-down public directives and initiatives to address common environmental concerns found all over the world. But like all countries, Ecuador faces the need to grow economically while demonstrating a genuine commitment to a clean environment and sustainability in the long-term. Below are some environmental observations based on our discussions and our travels around Ecuador.
First, there's the obvious air pollution issue in Quito. Spend a few days here, especially in the lower elevations of the valley, and you'll notice a lingering cloud of smog hanging over the city. Indeed, a member of AU’s undergraduate “Global Scholars” group we met in Quito was clearly astonished by how “dirty” Quito was compared to the United States (it was the first time he had left the US). For my part, the city streets seemed fairly clean compared to other Latin America countries I have visited.
But keep in mind that many large cities (like Santiago, Chile) surrounded by mountains suffer from the “bowl effect” that keeps airborne pollutants trapped by the surrounding topography, drastically reducing air quality.
Combine this issue with an inefficient city layout, constant gridlock, rapid expansion, hundreds if not thousands of soot-belching, cringe-inducing diesel city buses, and it's obvious that Quito has some major challenges to improving environmental quality, and this is only one specific environmental area.
But then again, this is a surprise to no one, and secondhand remarks note that pollution levels have actually decreased dramatically in the past 30 years. Although I heard numerous complaints about the location of the new airport, located what will likely be at least an hour's drive from Quito because of traffic, this area of activity will likely shift a significant percentage of airborne pollutants from aircraft and traffic outside of the central valley of Quito.
Also, the massive government investments in public transportation infrastructure such as the new metrorail, new restrictions on personal vehicle usage (only a percentage of registered personal vehicles are allowed on the streets in the morning and evening rush hours – known as pico y placa), and initiatives to remove vehicular traffic from certain parts of the city (the Old City) are taking direct aim to bolster economic development but make it sustainable – also known as “smart growth”.
Outside of the city, deforestation from expanding, small-scale rural agriculture is another well-known challenge. Much of this issue is due to historical factors tied to Spanish colonization where indigenous farmers were forced out of the rich, bountiful valley soils and onto the tree-covered mountain sides to grow their own food.
Although the hacienda system is now defunct, some indigenous groups continue to live in these highland areas and, to maintain their livelihoods, continue to deforest for cropland or grazing areas for livestock, as well as using the wood for heating fuel.
Another important factor in deforestation is the usage of antiquated agricultural practices. The adoption of modern agricultural techniques was cited in our discussions as one avenue for raising food production while limiting inputs and plot size. In our visit to Salinas de Bolivar, we noted the burning and/or removal of the paramo grass / ecosystem for graze land.
Finally, perhaps the most well-known environmental initiative here is the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) Yasuni National Park initiative, which calls for the international community to pay the Ecuadorean government to not exploit for oil one of richest biological hotspots in the world. The idea, certainly revolutionary, has seen some success, but with the global recession, world governments have been less enthusiastic to contribute of late.
From my own perspective, the ITT-Yasuni initiative is certainly outside-the-box as an idea, but I am skeptical of its long-term survival. What are plans B, C and D if enough money is not raised to protect the area from oil exploitation? How serious is the government in protecting this area versus raising cash from oil production, and, which activity will ultimately provide the greatest long-term investment returns? Would the government really exploit the area in the end just to add a few billion dollars more to its coffers? I doubt it.
In sum, Ecuador’s environmental outlook is similar to almost any country in the world, except that Ecuador's environment is one of the world's most diverse. Development remains the number one motivation, particularly in times of global recession. After all, the environment doesn’t vote at the polls. But concern remains here for the long-term viability of environmental resources, and as the government’s theme of “Buen Vivir” indicates, Ecuadoreans are as interested in economic development as they are for social and environmental protections.