In additional to hearing from a number of activists, government officials, educators, community organizers, and many other local citizens working for social and environmental change based in Quito, an integral part of the semester are three overnight field visits (salidas de campo) to rural areas of the country. The main objective of the visits is to compare and contrast the primarily urban world that students experience in the capital city of Quito with rural lives and livelihoods. At each site students learn about different organizational, political, cultural, and economic initiatives.
Yasuni National Park
Located in the heart of the Northern Oriente within the Amazon river basin, Yasuni is Ecuador’s largest mainland park, covering nearly 10,000 square kilometers (only the Galapagos Islands constitute a larger park area). Its astounding biodiversity offers immense stretches of wetlands, marshes, rivers, and rain forest, with literally thousands of species that are unknown outside the Amazon. Indeed, because the park contains some of Ecuador’s last virgin wilderness, it is recognized as a UNESCO “international biosphere reserve.”
But not all is tranquil in Yasuni. After oil discoveries in the park, Ecuador granted extraction concessions to Conoco and then to other multinational firms, which eventually resulted in soil contamination, noise pollution, and the construction of a 150-kilometer access road. Beyond the obvious environmental damage, extraction pressed against the lands of indigenous communities in the area, threatening their ways of life. The Correa government reasserted tougher restrictions on oil drilling.
Then, in 2007, President Correa proposed a historic deal to the international community. In exchange for half of the value of the oil reserves beneath Yasuni ($3.6 billion over 13 years), Ecuador would keep the oil under Yasuni in the ground. This initiative would protect the park's mega-diversity and its indigenous populations, and would prevent the emission of CO2 from both extraction and use of the oil. There was great interest internationally in the initiative, and Germany, Spain, and Italy pledged more than $300 million in foreign aid commitments, along with more than $100 million from NGOs and private donors. But in August 2013, President Correa announced that Ecuador would abandon the proposal due to a lack of international support. Furthermore, the Ecuadorian National Assembly voted to start drilling for oil in the Yasuni rainforest. Indigenous leaders and Ecuadorian and international conservation NGOs remain opposed to oil extraction in Yasuni. At the same time, drilling offers the Ecuadorian government revenue for the country’s development. In Yasuni, students both enjoy the park's natural wonders and develop a better understanding of the complicated issues of oil extraction and its destructive effects on the environment.
Imbabura/Cotacachi and Otavalo
Imbabura lies about 50 miles north of Quito along the Pan-American Highway. It contains one of the largest, most prosperous, and most culturally engaged indigenous populations in the entire Andean region and is home to the world-famous Otavalo Indigenous Market. It also contains important natural attractions that figure prominently in spiritual traditions, such as the Cotacachi mountains and Lake Cuicocha.
Students are housed in rural homes with indigenous families. Because of potential language barriers (the families speak Kichwa/Quichua), many activities will involve the whole group so that program instructors can provide interpretation. The host families provide some meals, while other meals will be taken during daily outings to areas surrounding Imbabura.
Rural Field Excursion
A third field visit will take you to another rural location outside Quito. This particular visit rotates regularly, depending on availability and relevance to the current emphases of the program. Past visits have taken students to Mindo cloud forest, Yunguilla (another forest excursion), and various local Afro-Ecuadorian communities in the province of Esmeraldas.