Before digging into the Ecuador leg of our South American trip, I thought it might be helpful to describe the situation here, which is complex, to say the least.
Ecuador is fantastically biodiverse. I've never seen so many different plants in my life. It is also culturally and geographically diversethere are 13 different indigenous nationalities living in the Andean highlands, the Amazon, the coastal areas and the Galapagos Islands. Migration out of rural areas has left the cities of Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil crowded. Poverty is everywhere, but highly concentrated in rural areas. In the rural highlands, 78 percent of the population lives in poverty; on the rural coast, the poverty rate is as high as 86 percent. A whopping 40 percent of rural indigenous people are malnourished.
To the logical mind, this doesn't seem to make sense. Why, in a place so rich in biodiversity with thousands of years of ancestral agricultural knowledge, are so many people poor and hungry?
Here is just a sample of the contributing factors:
- Land and water distribution are inequitable. Large agribusinesses growing cash crops for export, like bananas, coffee, cocoa, rice and potatoes are on the best, easiest to farm land and use the vast majority of the water available for agriculture.
- At the same time, the major food crops consumed by Ecuadorians in-country are largely grown on farms 50 acres or smaller. Agriculture policies, however, are primarily focused on export growth.
- Access to things like irrigation and credit for small farmers is dismally low, so it is difficult for small farmers to get ahead.
- Predatory extraction of natural resources (petroleum, shrimp, metals).