Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ecuador Enchantment

When we were in Panama people told us to expect a far less-developed country. We were even told that we should have gone to Ecuador first to see a backward country and then we would appreciate how far Panama has developed. In fact, we have all been charmed by Ecuador and find the country an attractive developing nation. It does not have nearly the U.S. influence of Panama, and nothing like the Canal, but the streets are pretty clean, the transportation seems to run quite well, and the locals are invariably helpful and welcoming. It is clear why tourism is a developing industry here in the Andean highlands around Quito.

We arrived at the Quito airport on Friday night and split into three groups. One group jumped into a van and headed south for Banos, a charming provincial city with hot springs, water falls and zip lines through the jungle. Another group went off to the Killan cacao bean cooperative. Twelve hundred families belong to a coop that processes their beans into high-end cocoa for export to Switzerland and other premium chocolate manufacturers. That group got to help process fermenting beans and help in the production. They left promising to help the cooperative's financial management practices.

Wil Agatstein and I opted to stay in Quito. We both had some work to do and thought a weekend away from the class was probably a good idea all around. We took off on Saturday and jumped on the "trole" or trolley into the older colonial part of town and walked back stopping at the National Art Museum for a Chagall exhibit, enjoying the numerous public squares, visiting food markets and just generally enjoying Quito. We found a very walkable city.

Today we all resumed out study of Ecuador and the political-business climate with a visit to the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy is new and impressive, a true fortification that houses more than 300 employees. We went through a serious security check and were met by a diplomatic officer whose role is to do outreach into the community. I think we were all amazed to have a series of briefings by top officials who took our visit seriously.

We had our pictures taken and were told that we would see them on the Embassy web site next month. The officials explained that Ecuador is a country squeezed between two large drug-exporting countries, Peru and Columbia, and that its position has made it wary of its neighbors. It has regular skirmishes over borders and refugees, but nothing that compares to the Middle East. One of the big issues now is a dispute with Chevron over degradation of an Amazon region caused by oil drilling. Wil and I had heard about this controversy and a law suite against Chevron from Amazon Watch activists who were staying in our hotel. We were amazed at the very different "facts" we heard from both parties. Indeed the damage was caused by Texaco beginning in the 1970s and the liability has been assumed by Chevron a few years ago after an acquisition of drilling rights. It has started the mitigation and remediation process but apparently the damage is extensive to both the natural and the human environment. There are billions of dollars at stake.

We probably learned as much about life as a diplomat as anything from our visit. The diplomatic corps members we met were constantly rotating between embassies and consulates, from one region to another. One diplomat had been assigned to Mexico, then Jordan, then Ecuador picking up Arabic on a stint in Washington. These rotations keep them from developing deep roots in any one society, and keeps them focused on their ties to the U.S. and its mission. Four of our students talked about taking the Foreign Service Entrance Examination. I could see the wanderlust in their eyes.

Our last visit was to a factory that makes shirts and caps with embroidered logos for businesses such as the local Pepsi distributor and for tourist venues like the Galapagos Islands. Wil and I were expecting perhaps a sweat shop--this is a low-wage country--but the factory was clean and well lit and had little turnover. Again, we were pleasantly surprised by Ecuador.


Zuri said...

I am so glad that you are enjoying your trip in Ecuador, because it is such a diverse and peaceful country. The weather, the colonial cities and the people are just fantastic. Nothing compares to the landscapes of the Highlands, the lush of the Amazon Jungle Forest, the exotic Beaches of the Coast and the mystery of the Galapagos Islands.


Anna Kay said...

If you want to find out more about the mess Texaco/Chevron left in Ecuador, visit this blog: http://www.thechevronpit.blogspot.com