Named for its location on the equator, Ecuador is one of South America's most diverse nations. Culturally, Ecuador is home to close to 50 different indigenous groups, which comprise approximately 40% of the population. Ecologically, there are four distinct ecosystems within the borders of this small nation, including Amazonian rainforest (known as the Oriente), the Andean mountains (known as la Sierra), a long Pacific coastline and the Galapagos Islands. With a relatively mild climate in the Sierra, locals joke that you can experience all four seasons in just one day.
As with most other Latin American countries, Ecuador has endured a fairly turbulent political history: 7 presidents have been in power over the last 10 years. However, despite the lack of stability, Ecuadorian citizens and social movements have proven that if the political leadership does not listen to civil society, the leadership will be kicked out.
Lucio Gutierrez, the latest president to be ousted, was elected in January 2003 on a platform of "no more neoliberal economics" and had the endorsement of the indigenous-led political party, Patchakutik-Nuevo Pais. However, he soon signed an IMF agreement to privatize everything from petroleum to telecommunications, leaving the indigenous leadership no choice but to break their coalition and resign from their government posts. His support waning due to closer ties to US interests, Gutierrez desperately sought to align himself with as many sectors as possible to remain in power. His administration's elimination of corruption charges for ex-president Abdalá Bucaram was the last straw, and the subsequent formation of the largely middle-class "forajido" movement ("outlaws", referring to Gutierrez's label for the most recent protesters) led the Congress to remove Gutierrez from office.
Ecuador is known for its extensive natural resources, including timber, minerals and oil, and therefore has been the site of countless conflicts over the rights to these resources. The conflict over the oil deposits in the Oriente began in 1964 when Ecuador invited Texaco to develop a 200-square-mile oil field. Between 1971 and 1991, Texaco was responsible for the perforation of over 600 oil pits and pools and over 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water, which continue to contaminate local communities. They dumped 50% more oil in the Oriente than was spilled during Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
The home of the largest and most organized indigenous movement in Latin America, Ecuador's future is cloudy as privatization continues to lurk in the region. However, local, solidarity-based economic initiatives, resistance to oil exploitation, and a growing context of South American integration offer hope for the rights of indigenous communities and civil society in this mega-diverse country.