Exploiting the Commons in Ecuador

Synth Author(s): Laurel Garrett, Julia Withers, Aaron Fellows, Robin Gropp First Year Spring 2013
Comparison: Multiple Topics in One Site
Research Site(s): Ecuador
Question: How do Ecuadorian economic practices and regulations define the consumption and distribution of common-pool resources?

Included Projects

  • It all goes Downstream: Agronutrients in the Ecuadorian Guayas Basin
    The Guayas River Basin in Ecuador is the largest watershed West of the Andes, encompassing a large river system in the Guayas province. Areas in the Guayas Basin have been increasingly developed to expand and intensify agriculture, responding to international market demand, urbanization and development. Agricultural intensification has resulted in new agricultural inputs including chemical fertilizers, which have environmental and social consequences. Farmland is a source of nutrient (phosphorous and nitrogen) runoff into water sources which contributes to eutrophication, creating...

  • Sharing Water, Sharing Wisdom: Integrated Water Resource Management in Ecuador’s El Angel Watershed

  • The Banana as a Driver of Land Use Change in Ecuador
    Bananas are one of Ecuador's primary exports and the country is one of the leading producers of the crop worldwide. Thus it is likely that the banana industry exerts significant political and economic influences on the country and its culture. In this study, we pose to explore the relationship between the burgeoning banana industry and land use change dynamics in Ecuador's Western lowland region. In addition, a factor we will be considering is the manner in which these factors have...

  • Air Pollution in Cuenca, Ecuador 2011
    This spring I will be studying and living in Cuenca as part of an Overseas program through Lewis and Clark College. As part of my environmental studies major and concentration (Environmental Health in Latin America), I will be studying air pollution and the associated health related problems in urban areas, using Cuenca as a case study. Air pollution in cities is a major problem world wide and is particularly important today because the majority of air pollution is a...


In the past few decades, Ecuador has faced intense economic pressures from the international market as it has made an effort to become a part of the global economy. With more people moving to urban areas, there is a huge push towards industrial-scale commercial farming instead of subsistence-based agriculture. This, combined with economic stimuli to intensify export of fuels and other goods, has led to increased pressures on air, land, and water systems, through expanding industrial measures. With reference to these four SGE projects, we examine the role of economic and governmental institutions in regulating these common-pool resource systems and the effects of these regulations on their dependents.

In Ecuador, vast expanses of land are currently being cleared to make way for agricultural expansion. As of now, this growth still follows a distinct upward trend, but if these practices are to continue, then the pattern of growth must be modified to account for ecological and spatial boundaries. Due to the varied mineral content of soils in Ecuadorian lowlands, some agricultural tracts must be cleared and temporarily left fallow, necessitating increased clearing. This, along with booming economic demand, fuels this expansion of farmland, and results in vast areas of cleared and nutritionally depleted land.

Devon Snyder and McKenzie Southworth cite the banana as a prevailing influence upon the land use systems of the Ecuadorian lowlands.[1] The banana constitutes an enormous industry in Ecuador, being the largest national cash crop and the second largest export overall, after oil. As such, the banana industry is poised to exert disproportionate influence over patterns of land development. As the global population has experienced increased urbanization, this multinational export industry has felt rising pressure to expand over the last few decades. The international economic pressure on farmers to produce more goods (which include cocoa and coffee, in addition to bananas) has led to the expansion of agricultural lands and the intensification of agricultural methods. In order for farmers to meet these economic pressures, fertilizers and pesticides are sprayed on the crops in an effort to boost production. Since there are very few widespread regulations on the use of agricultural pesticides, they are often used on too large of a scale to be healthy for the surrounding ecosystem. Many of these fertilizers and pesticides end up being washed into irrigation ditches, rivers, and lakes, often leading to nutrient depletion and eutrophication.[2]

In 2008, a new constitution, aimed at protecting Ecuador’s resources against aggressive expansion, was instituted. This constitution is particularly notable for its enforcement of the Rights of Nature, which entitles ecosystems to flourish without impediment by industrialization. Ecuador is the first nation to implement such an initiative, but the full effects of the policy have yet to emerge.[2]

The treatment of farmland and farming practices directly correlate with the health of the water system, namely in the Guayas watershed, an extremely fertile area. Fertilizers high in nitrogen and phosphorous cause rapid growth of aquatic microbes and algaes, which deplete the water’s oxygen supply and leave the system uninhabitable for endemic fish populations and unsuitable for human consumption. Kyle Dietrich, Emmett Lawrence, and Dorothy Upton worry that this hostile environment may become a public health issue for those dependent on the resources of this region.

El Angel Watershed, in the Northern Ecuadorian Andes, is a source of agricultural irrigation as well as potable drinking water for the surrounding communities, making it doubly important to local systems. However, this watershed is threatened by the same industrial byproducts as mentioned above. Many of the inhabitants of the watershed area are agricultural workers below the poverty line, whose livelihood depends on access to these essential resources, and are very vulnerable to industry-caused impacts on this ecosystem. There are non-governmental groups, such as the Randi Randi Corporation, which was established in 2000, which aims to regulate the use of agrochemicals in the watershed.[3] The emergence of the modern industrial economy in Ecuador has fostered, by necessity, the involvement of these non-governmental groups with the watershed. However, there is some concern that the private regulation of the watershed may result in disproportionate favoring of large stakeholders, who are largely commercial agricultural managers, over the economically disfavored farmers. Nonetheless, the organization-sponsored regulation of harmful inputs to these systems is essential for everyone. In order to jointly address the needs of all involved parties, the health and availability of these common essential resources must be preserved.

Air is another common-access resource which is degraded by the urban centers of Ecuador. According to Isabel Kuniholm, the main factor that contributes to air pollution in Cuenca is motor vehicle emissions.[4] The problem of urban pollution has recently been recognized by the Ecuadorian government with the CUENCAIRE program in 2009, meant to revise vehicle models in order to meet emission standards. This is a program similar to the Rights of Nature clause in the 2008 constitution. Furthermore, Ecuador’s growing population and accelerated urbanization has led to an increase in motor vehicle use since the 1990’s, which, along with industrial processing and export of key resources, exacerbates pollution immensely. Additionally, diminishing air quality has been a major cause of respiratory disease in the urban population. As seen with the exploitation of land and water use in Ecuador, the pattern of global urbanization has been coevolutionary with large-scale economies and commercialization. These changes have increased the amount of pollution in city centers like Cuenca.

Economic pressures have been leading factors contributing to growing motor vehicle use, expansion of intensive agriculture, and increased industrialization. Loosely regulated emission and chemical standards in Ecuador have led to the degradation of ecosystems, which contain common-pool resources essential to the livelihoods and health of the ecosystem and human civilizations. With new emphasis on the Rights of Nature, however, the possibility exists for more effective cooperation between interested parties and government regulations as they relate to common-pool resources. Of course, institutional involvements in these environmental, social, and economic systems cannot be so simply summarized in the relatively few studies which we cite here. Nonetheless, these projects do illustrate the essential role that management of common-pool resources has to play in the interdependent network of Ecuadorian, and global, ecosystems.

[1] Devon Snyder and McKenzie Southworth, “The Banana as a Driver of Land Use Change in Ecuador,” Situating the Global Environment, November 28, 2011, accessed February 12, 2013, https://ds.lclark.edu/sge/research/land-use-bananas-ecuador/.

[2] Kyle Dietrich, Emmett Lawrence, Dorothy Upton, “It all goes Downstream: Agronutrients in the Ecuadorian Guayas Basin,” Situating the Global Environment, December 3, 2012, accessed February 12, 2013, https://ds.lclark.edu/sge/research/it-all-goes-downstream-effects-of-agronutrients-in-the-ecuadorian-guayas-basin/.

[3] Anna Dagget, Charlotte Francisco, “Sharing Water, Sharing Wisdom: Integrated Water Resource Management in Ecuador’s El Angel Watershed,” Situating the Global Environment, December 3, 2012, accessed February 12, 2013, https://ds.lclark.edu/sge/research/integrated-water-resource-management-in-ecuadors-el-angel-watershed-fairly-distributed-or-not/.

[4] Isabel Kuniholm, “Air Pollution in Cuenca, Ecuador 2011,” Situating the Global Environment, October 10, 2010, accessed February 12, 2013, https://ds.lclark.edu/sge/research/air-pollution-in-cuenca-ecuador-2011/.