Documenting Community Resource Management in Ecuador’s Threatened Forests

In November 2010, Stu Hamilton, Program Director of the GIS Lab, Professor Kris Lane in History and I got together to talk about our shared interest in Ecuador. Stu has spent years looking at the destruction of mangrove forests on the coast, Kris studies the gold-mining communities in the Highlands, and I spent time teaching photography in Ecuador with National Geographic Expeditions. As conversation worked its way into possible collaboration, we tried to find ways to involve each other in our own work. That’s when the idea of an inter-session course began to take shape.

Currently, we plan to offer a three-week-long inter-session interdisciplinary course that will enable students to learn and document current problems of community resource management in three distinct tropical ecological zones in the Republic of Ecuador. Students will work with Stu, Kris and I to conduct primary and secondary research to develop media projects.

Although we can’t be sure of our schedule at this time, we have developed a working itinerary. After a brief orientation in the capital city of Quito, students will visit an indigenous, Quechua-speaking community in the cool highlands, where potable water has been a core concern for many years. Next, the group will proceed to a remote site in the nearby Pacific-watershed jungle where an Afro-Ecuadorian community has created a nature preserve that has relied on eco-tourism (vs. gold mining and logging) for almost a decade. Last, the group will meet with a Pacific coast fishing community grappling with the massive expansion of shrimp farms, which have all but eliminated Ecuador’s once famous mangrove habitat.

Ecuador is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world. Understanding how native populations manage those resources is vitally important for students of environment and public policy. Students interested in Latin American studies will find a rich offering from the course as well. Students who have an interest in using GIS and media production will also find much to gain from the course. Some of the class objectives include: (1) to focus teachers and students with different disciplinary backgrounds on a key problem found throughout the tropical Americas (and indeed much of the developing world); (2) to allow students to communicate directly with community members in order to assess needs and concerns ‘from the inside out’ rather than from the ‘outside-in’ perspectives of government or non-governmental agencies; (3) to provide students with a diverse, hands-on field experience to complement library and computer-aided research; (4) to introduce and implement methods of using media as a tool for scientific research and advocacy.