Migration Series | From caminantes to community builders: how migrants in Ecuador support each other in their journeys

With the deep political and socio-economic crisis, a large number of Venezuelans have fled to other countries, including Ecuador. Many people have journeyed on foot, earning them the name caminantes (walkers/hikers), and have encountered various challenges but also forms of solidarity along the way. This blog centres on the experiences of different actors who have provided aid to caminantes as they traverse Ecuador, turning the one-dimensional idea of migrants and refugees as victims on its head.

Picture of a family arriving the shelter in August 2022.

Since 2014, Venezuela has been grappling with a deepening political and socio-economic crisis. The situation has quickly deteriorated to the point where poverty, food, and medicine shortages, violence, and political oppression have caused thousands of Venezuelans to flee the country and seek refuge in other Latin American countries, as well as in the United States and Spain. However, due to the challenging economic circumstances, many migrants cannot afford traditional modes of transportation or access the documents needed to travel. Consequently, walking has become a viable option for low-income families, giving rise to the term ‘caminantes’ to describe them.1

During my fieldwork,2 I had the privilege of meeting both solidarity actors and migrants who were still on their journey. What surprised me the most was the high level of organisation and knowledge-sharing among the solidarity actors, many of whom are migrants themselves, which challenges the commonly held belief that migrants are solely aid recipients. By sharing legal information, food, shelter, and emotional support, they created a safe space for those navigating the uncertainties associated with migration.


Venezuelan migration dynamics in Ecuador

Ecuador has become a significant destination for the Venezuelan diaspora, with nearly half a million Venezuelans settling in the country. At the same time, families continue to walk along Ecuadorian roads, seeking a new home in Ecuador or further south. Despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and a weakening economy, migration has persisted – in 2022 alone, more than 250,000 people crossed through Ecuador to reach countries like Peru or Chile, according to the United Nations.3

Notwithstanding Ecuador’s own sizable diaspora in the United States and Europe, the country presents various challenges for and levels of hostility towards migrants. Since 2017, Ecuador has implemented stricter migration policies, which has contributed to the limiting of access to public services and the formal labour market. Moreover, criminal violence in Ecuador has sharply risen by 82.5% since 2021, exacerbating inequalities and instability migrant groups face and contributing to xenophobic acts and attitudes towards Venezuelans.4 Following national protests in June 2022, when Venezuelan citizens were associated with violent criminal activities, xenophobic messaging increased by over 343%.5 These hostilities are not only directed at migrants but also those supporting them, including former migrants themselves. Consequently, approximately 110,000 Venezuelan migrants have left Ecuador in the past two years in search of better opportunities in neighbouring countries.6


Exploring solidarity networks among caminantes and solidarity actors in Ecuador

Caminantes played a crucial role in my research, which sought to understand the impact of solidarity initiatives on their journeys. During my fieldwork in four towns in the summer of 2022, I met the Gomez family*, whose members migrated as caminantes in 2017 and settled in a small rural coastal town in Ecuador. They established a shelter to provide food, legal advice, and medical aid to fellow caminantes despite facing extortion, discrimination, and economic instability themselves. Roberto, a member of the Gomez family, emphasised their commitment to helping other migrants, drawing from his own experiences: “I know how it feels to be an emigrant because it is not easy to live that life, to live a life where you do not have a fixed journey or a point of arrival. And that is an intense experience. It really is.”

Although they have limited resources and face numerous challenges, Venezuelan migrants in this part of Ecuador have formed community networks. Eight solidarity actors I encountered during my fieldwork have established foundations that offer legal advice, support for informal businesses and job-seeking efforts, and support accessing social benefits through international organisations. They assist migrants of various nationalities, including Venezuelans, Colombians, Cubans, and Haitians. These actors face physical and legal threats but demonstrate solidarity with those who defy borders in search of a better life, just as they do. Their journey continues as they provide support to countless unknown people, offering shelter and seeking opportunities and safety for their own families. Other migrants with stable jobs or access to services now contribute significantly to the activities of actors like the Gomez family.

Solidarity is also practised among migrants who are walking to reach their new destination. Andres, a 22-year-old Venezuelan migrant, stressed that “we would also help each other on the road. We would sit in a place, a little park to rest … we would share – if I had and you did not, mine was yours. So, we all helped each other”. The interactions that occur during the journey also provide a sense of community and belonging to a network that can be sustained in time, as Martha recalls about her experience with a family they met on the journey: “I met the boy and the family I told you [about]. The man came in a wheelchair. He came with his wife and his child. In fact, my husband was a beacon of light to them. And they were a beacon of light to us. We became a family”.


Solidarity and resilience: a common factor in migrant communities

Despite facing significant challenges, the Gomez family and other interviewees dedicate their limited resources to helping others. Their resilience and determination serve as a powerful example of how migrants can come together and support each other to overcome obstacles such as a lack of access to services and high levels of violence. Their strength and resourcefulness allow them to provide crucial assistance to others in similar situations while also trying to start their new life in a different country, creating new opportunities for themselves and their families but also being an essential source of support for thousands who are still on their journey.

*A pseudonym.

Read the other topics on the migration series:

How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering.

From branding to bottom-up ‘sheltering’: How CSOs are helping to address migration governance gaps in the shelter city of Granada

“Us Aymara have no borders”: Differentiated mobilities in the Chilean borderlands

Precarity along the Colombia–Panama border: How providing healthcare services to transit migrants can foster new logics of inclusion and exclusion

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Fernanda González Ronquillo is a graduate of ISS, specialising in Human Rights within the Social Justice Perspectives major. Currently, she is interning at a local scale-up that supports women with a migrant background to enter the Dutch labour market.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

COVID-19 | The COVID-19 pandemic and oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon: the confluence of two crises

How can we reframe the current planetary crisis to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action? The Amazon region of Ecuador, at the center of two crises—COVID-19 and a major oil spill—but also home to a long history of indigenous resistance, offers some answers.

Oil Spill Amazon

Navigating two crises

In Ecuador, the intensification of resource extraction and pollution, floods and weather disturbances have hit marginalized populations hardest. Indigenous peoples and people living in the Amazon have continuously suffered an enormous political and economic disadvantage when confronting extractive industries and allied state bodies. The vulnerability of the peoples and territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon region has been even more severely exposed during the COVID-19 lockdown period starting 16 March 2020.

On 7 April 2020, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System and the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline, which transport Ecuador’s oil, collapsed. The pipelines were built along the banks of the Coca River and the collapse resulted in the spillage of an enormous quantity of crude oil into its waters. The Coca river is a key artery in the regional Amazon system. It runs through three national parks that form one of the richest biodiverse areas on Earth, which has been historically preserved by the ways of life of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it.

The breakage of the pipelines impacted kilometers of rainforest riverways and tens of thousands of people. Indigenous populations living in surrounding areas are more at risk than non-indigenous populations because they rely on locally harvested food and water, which can become contaminated. Indigenous peoples find it difficult to comply with lockdown mobility restrictions since their subsistence depends on agriculture, hunting and fishing, which in turn have been severely impacted by the oil spills. The exposure to the virus due to the entry of technicians to repair the pipelines is another threat. These conditions have led the Confederation of indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) warning of an impending genocide.

The Coca river valley before the erosion. Photo credit: Luisa Andrade

Despite the constitutional mandate to provide free and high-quality public healthcare for all citizens, the Ecuadorian national health system is fraught with problems. Health coverage in the Amazon region is precarious with a lack of medical facilities, doctors, and not enough COVID-19 tests and ventilators required to treat an outbreak. While elderly and people with comorbidities have been identified globally as most vulnerable to infection, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights identifies indigenous people as a risk group. Indeed, historically, pathogens have been one of the most powerful factors in decimating indigenous peoples in South America.

Depending on how an issue is framed, different responses can be expected, including why something is considered or not a problem, who is responsible, and what needs to be done about it. Environmental problems derived from the extraction of natural resources such as oil are mainly framed as localized problems. Thus, the burden is placed onto affected communities and local and national governments, while their global and systematic character is disowned. What we aim to say with this is that while there are companies and governmental entities that are directly responsible, their actions respond to a global system that is based and sustained on extractivism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, it is only when a crisis is understood as part of a global web of relations derived from complex power dynamics that we can imagine possibilities of globally coordinated and integrated efforts required for effective resolution. We are now living under global restrictions, which were once unimaginable, politically and economically.  The rapid adaptation of quarantine and travel restrictions reveals that when the message of ‘human life is in danger’ is embraced, societies as a whole are able to perform the collective drastic changes required in a short period of time.

For Ecuadorian grassroots organizations and scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of our interconnectedness, our collective vulnerability, and therefore our mutual obligations to our planet. The pandemic is just one aspect of the human-made planetary crisis along with biodiversity loss and climate change. We are interested in how to reframe the current planetary crisis that encompasses increasingly visible global diseases in order to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action. We ask these questions by looking at the Amazon region of Ecuador, which is bearing the brunt of two crises: COVID-19 and environmental destruction through a major oil spill.

“In the name of development”

To understand the complexity of this human and ecological disaster, it is necessary to retrace some historical steps. On February 2, 2020, the San Rafael waterfall, the highest in Ecuador, collapsed. At that time, hydrologists warned that a phenomenon known as ‘regressive erosion’ could affect upstream infrastructure. On April 7, 2020 the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the pipelines broke due to landslides that occurred in the San Rafael sector. Hydrologists associate the landslides with the construction and operation of the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam (CCSHD).

Location of the most relevant events generated by the regressive erosion phenomenon of the Coca River. Infographic credit: Luisa Andrade

According to Carolina Bernal, PhD in Geomorphology and Hydrosedimentology, the CCSHD caused a serious imbalance in the transport of sediments and water through the river flow which produced a  regressive erosion phenomenon which was responsible for causing sinkholes along the banks of the river. One of these sinkholes broke the oil pipelines. This risk had been mentioned in the earlier preliminary environmental impact study of the hydroelectric project.

CCSHD was inaugurated as part of Ecuador’s hydraulic mission during the presidency of Rafael Correa. The dam, like other hydroelectric projects carried out during his mandate, was politically legitimatized as “provider of clean energy and ‘good living’ for Ecuadorians and the world”. The rhetoric concerning the sustainable energy transition to renewable sources in the national energy matrix has been notably inconsistent with the dam’s high impacts on people and the environment.

The socio-environmental impacts associated with CCSHD and the oil spill were foreseen by the scientific community and civil society who were dismissed as “antidevelopmentalists” by Correa’s government. Some anticipated that the dam would a be major disruption of downstream sediment for the Napo River and would require extensive road-building and line construction in the primary forest. Others have questioned the true purpose of the dam, arguing that it was not about sustainable development for local people, but rather to provide electricity to the oil fields.

One of several sinkholes caused by the regressive erosion of the Coca River. The sinkhole captured in this picture is close to the town of San Luis. Photo credit: Carlos Sanchez (August 2020)

Going beyond business as usual

Even if the world is still embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic, the responses to this crisis have revealed stark unequal, racial, and geopolitical differences. The indigenous populations affected by the spill and the pandemic have denounced the failure of the state to attend to these two emergencies. The many commentators on the current changes in the social and economic constellation of the world are urging for the re-evaluation of our way of life and the possibility of a radical change. For Ecuadorian indigenous organizations and the environmental justice movement, the pandemic and the environmental crises call for a radical rethinking of economic growth and our current model of development.

Scholars like Maurie Cohen see COVID-19 as “a public health emergency and a real-time experiment in downsizing the consumer economy”. Accordingly, the outbreak could potentially contribute to a sustainable consumption transition. For Phoebe Everingham and Natasha Chassagne the crisis is an opportunity to challenge the atomized individualism that underlies overconsumption. For them, Buen Vivir, a central concept to Ecuador’s development planning, drawn from the historical experience of indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature, is a post-pandemic alternative for moving away from capitalist growth and re-imagining a new form of traveling and tourism.

We cannot return to ‘a normal’ that ignores the global environmental crisis which led to the inequitable and polluted societies that enabled the spread of COVID-19. The extractive vision of the living world is endangering humanity’s very existence. Is there space for a greater appreciation of the complexity of these intertwined crises? When will we see, as Bayo Akomalafe states, “Earth’s interconnected geological and political processes”?.

The extractive environmental activities that underpin capitalist development and a planetary-mass consumption culture are jeopardizing the very existence of humanity. Though environmental disasters have decimated and violated the rights of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon for years, they continue to resist. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, groups of Amazonian indigenous organizations promoted a model of autonomous governance of the Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru through the “Sacred Basins Territories of Life” initiative.

The proposal has been developed by an alliance of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador and Peru to forge a new post-carbon, post-extractive model by leaving fossil fuels and mineral resources underground, retaining around 3.8 billion metric tons of carbon, to protect our planet and the well-being of future generations. The proposal would cover around 30 million hectares of land between Ecuador and Peru, home to almost 500,000 indigenous people of 20 different nationalities. Can these counter-hegemonic proposals which claim the interconnectivity of all species in this world be critically revisited in the times of the pandemic?

COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. This ‘portal to a new era’, as Arundhati Roy proclaimed, offers us a chance to question deeply our social and economic relations. Perhaps this could be the moment in history where we also can finally reframe localized environmental disasters as global concerns and act accordingly. This is the opportunity to politically and socially rethink how to transition to a different kind of development that acknowledges and changes the damaging way global lifestyles directly impact the indigenous peoples and natures of the world.

This blog article was first published on Undisciplined Environments.

About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, in The Hague and lecturer at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam. Email: gaybortobar@iss.nl.

Wendy HarcourtWendy Harcourt is a Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University, in The Hague. She is a member of the Editorial Collective of Undisciplined Environments. Email: harcourt@iss.nl.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

COVID-19 | Ecuador, COVID-19 and the IMF: how austerity exacerbated the crisis by Ana Lucía Badillo Salgado and Andrew M. Fischer

Ecuador is currently (as of 8 April) the South American country worst affected by COVID-19 in terms of the number of confirmed cases and fatalities per capita. While even the universal health systems of Northern European countries are becoming severely frayed by the nature of this pandemic, Ecuador serves as a powerful example of how much worse the situation is for many low- and middle-income countries, particularly those whose public health systems have already been undermined by financial assistance programmes with international financial institutions (IFIs). The IMF and other IFIs such as the World Bank must acknowledge the role they have played and continue to play in undermining public health systems in ways that exacerbate the effects of the pandemic in many developing countries.

The recent IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) Arrangement, signed in March 2019 with the Government of Ecuador, was already the subject of massive protests in October 2019 given the austerity and ‘structural reforms’ imposed on the country (aka structural adjustment). It has also directly contributed to the severity of the pandemic in this country given that health and social security systems were among the first casualties of the austerity and reforms. In particular, the government’s COVID-19 response has been severely hindered by dramatic reductions of public health investment and by large layoffs of public health workers preceding the outbreak of the virus.

From this perspective, even though the IMF has recently moved to offer finance and debt relief to developing countries hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, a much more serious change of course is needed. For this, it is vital to understand its own role ­– and that of other IFIs such as the World Bank – in undermining health systems before the emergence of the pandemic in various developing countries, lest similar policy recipes are again repeated.

The baseline

It is clear that the pre-existing national healthcare system in Ecuador has been replete with problems even in ‘normal’ times. As in most of Latin America, the weaknesses of the healthcare system in Ecuador stem from its segmented and stratified character, with a distinct segregation between three main subsectors – the public, social security, and private sectors. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Health has a weak coordinating and regulatory role over these three subsectors, each of which caters to different beneficiary populations and with clearly distinct quality of services. The public system is the lowest quality and the one accessed by most poor people. Despite claims of universal health, the national system is a far cry from anything approaching genuine universalism.

Moreover, there has been a progressive privatization and commodification of healthcare since 2008. For instance, the building of capacity within the social security system has been undermined by the channelling of health funding via contracts to the private sector, where pricing is also mostly unregulated [1]. More generally, Ecuador has consistently exhibited one the highest out-of-pocket (OOP) health expenditure shares in South America, despite a government discourse and constitutional mandate to deliver free, high quality, public healthcare for all citizens. OOP payments – or direct payments by users at the point of service – reached 41.4% per total health spending in 2016 [2]. They include, for instance, payments for medicine or medical supplies by poor people in public hospitals, as well as payments by middle- and upper-class people for consultations and surgeries. The COVID-19 crisis puts pressure on precisely these aspects of healthcare provisioning, rendering the system prone to systemic failure for the majority of the population, especially in times of economic crisis when the ability of users to pay is severely curtailed.

Crisis and IFIs

These problems in the healthcare system have been exacerbated by the austerity measures of the current government of Lenín Moreno. The measures were introduced in the context of the protracted economic crisis that started in 2014 and have been endorsed by the IMF and other IFIs. Public health expenditure plateaued at 2.7% of GDP in 2017 and 2018, and then fell slightly to 2.6% in 2019, when GDP also slightly contracted (see figure). This was despite the constitutional goal that established an increase of at least 0.5% of GDP per year until 4% was to be reached, which is still far below the 6% of GDP recommended by the Pan American Health Organization [3].


Source: elaborated from the Fiscal Policy Observatory data (last accessed 7 April 2020 at https://www.observatoriofiscal.org/publicaciones/transparencia-fiscal/file/221-transparencia-fiscal-no-163-marzo-2020.html)
* The main component of this expenditure is on non-contributory social protection (social cash transfers).
** It excludes health expenditure of the social security system.

However, the collapse in public investment in the health sector has been far more dramatic, falling by 64% from 2017 to 2019, or from USD 306 million in 2017 to USD 110 million in 2019 [4]. Such reductions would have been largely borne by the public health system and constitute expenditures that are vital for a COVID-19 response, such as the construction of hospitals and the purchase of medical equipment.

It was in this context that the IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) was agreed and signed in March 2019. Within the framework of this programme, the government implemented a large layoff of public healthcare workers (including doctors, nurses, auxiliary nurses, stretcher-bearers, social workers, and other healthcare workers). The layoffs continued throughout 2019, despite protests by the National Syndicate of Healthcare Workers of the Ministry of Health [5], [6], [7]. It is difficult to know the exact number of layoffs because of the fragmented functioning of the health system, although within the Ministry of Public Health alone, 3,680 public health workers were laid off in 2019, representing 4.5% of total employment in this Ministry and 29% of total central government layoffs in that year [calculated from 8]. Similar reductions in the social security sector were announced in 2019 for 2020, although we have not yet been able to find any data on these reductions.

Thus, it is not a surprise that Ecuador is currently doing so poorly in handling the COVID 19 crisis. The retrenchment of the public health system together with an already weak and retrenched social protection system coupled for the perfect storm. But even more worrying is that, in the face of the pandemic, the government paid 324 million USD on the capital and interest of its sovereign ‘2020 bonds’ on 24 March instead of prioritizing the management of the health crisis. This decision was taken despite a petition on 22 March by the Ecuadorean assembly to suspend such payments, along with a chorus of civil society organizations lobbying for the same [9] [10]. The government nonetheless justified the payment as a trigger for further loans from the IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and Andean Financial Corporation [11]. This is especially problematic given that Ecuador has been hard hit by the collapse of oil prices and, as a dollarized economy, its only control over money supply and hence hope for economic stimulus rests on preventing monetary outflows from the economy (and encouraging inflows).

The payment is also paradoxical given that the IMF and the World Bank are currently calling for the prioritization of health expenditure and social protection and for a standstill of debt service, and have announced initiatives for debt relief and emergency financing [12] [13]. Nonetheless, despite such noble rhetoric, it appears that the precondition for such measures continues to be the protection of private creditors over urgent health financing needs.

Atoning for past and present sins on the path to universalism

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly exposes the inadequacies of existing social policy systems in developing countries and the urgent need of moving towards more genuinely universalistic systems. Ecuador is exemplary given that it has until recently been celebrated as a New Left social model even while its national health system has remained deeply segregated and increasingly commodified.

However, while the IMF and other IFIs have emphasised the importance of placing health expenditures in developing countries at the top of the priority list in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic [12], they have not acknowledged their own continuing roles in undermining these priorities. Indeed, their messaging is often contradictory, given that both the IMF and the World Bank have also repeatedly insisted that developing countries must persist with ‘structural reforms’ during and after the pandemic [13] [14]. In other words, there is no evidence that the course has been reset. As one way to induce a reset, it is important that they acknowledge the roles they have played and continue to play in undermining public health systems and universalistic social policy more generally, lest they continue to repeat them despite the switch to more noble rhetoric.

[1] http://cdes.org.ec/web/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/privatizaci%C3%B3n-salud.pdf
[2] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)30841-4/fulltext
[3] https://www.cepal.org/es/publicaciones/45337-america-latina-caribe-la-pandemia-covid-19-efectos-economicos-sociales
[4] https://coyunturaisip.wordpress.com/2020/03/28/los-recortes-cobran-factura-al-ecuador-la-inversion-en-salud-se-redujo-un-36-en-2019/
[5] https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2019/03/06/nota/7219694/trabajadores-publicos-salud-denuncian-despidos-masivos
[6] https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/recorte-personal-contratos-ocasionales-ecuador.html
[7] https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/despidos-trabajadores-ministerio-salud-evaluacion.html
[8] https://www.observatoriofiscal.org/publicaciones/estudios-y-an%C3%A1lisis/file/220-n%C3%BAmero-de-servidores-p%C3%BAblicos-del-presupuesto-2018-2019.html
[9] https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/asamblea-suspender-pago-deuda-coronavirus.html
[10] https://ww2.elmercurio.com.ec/2020/03/24/la-conaie-pide-al-gobierno-suspender-el-pago-de-la-deuda-externa/
[11] https://www.bourse.lu/issuer/Ecuador/34619 (first link under the notices section)
[12] https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/04/03/vs-some-say-there-is-a-trade-off-save-lives-or-save-jobs-this-is-a-false-dilemma
[13] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2020/03/04/joint-press-conference-on-covid-19-by-imf-managing-director-and-world-bank-group-president
[14] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2020/03/23/remarks-by-world-bank-group-president-david-malpass-on-g20-finance-ministers-conference-call-on-covid-19

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Ana LucíaAna Lucía Badillo Salgado is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on the political economy of social protection reforms in Ecuador and Paraguay, in particular the role of external actors in influencing social policymaking. She is also a Lecturer at Leiden University College. mug shot 2

Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer

Development Dialogue 2018 | Social acceptance of oil activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon: a long way to go by Alberto Diantini

Oil companies are coming to realise that they need a ‘Social Licence to Operate’—the acceptance of locals—to reduce social risk associated with their activities. But how do they achieve this community acceptance, especially in areas of the Amazon forest inhabited by indigenous peoples?

Extractive companies are usually unpopular and mistrusted. For them, it is increasingly evident that a legal, formal licence of operation from governments is not enough. To avoid costly protests, they need a Social Licence to Operate (SLO), generally defined as the acceptance of local communities of their activities. It is a kind of social, unwritten contract that ensures an enterprise’s social risk is reduced as long as priorities and expectations of the local communities are satisfied: the higher the SLO, the lower the risk (Prno & Slocombe, 2012).

Although the SLO concept was developed in Western contexts, it has been increasingly adopted in developing regions as well. In Latin America, for example, in the case of projects affecting indigenous peoples, the main common issues are power imbalances, conflicting worldviews, and informed consent, but these SLO key elements are largely overlooked (Ehrnström-Fuentes & Kröger, 2017).

As a contribution to filling this gap, my research aims to critically analyse the usability of the SLO concept as indicator of community acceptability in Latin America. In particular, I am focusing on the oil context of Block 10, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, managed by the Italian company Eni-Agip. The area is inhabited by indigenous groups, which are mostly Kichwa. Eni-Agip’s good reputation at the national level, its community investments (medical assistance and education programmes), and the apparent low level of conflicts in the block could suggest that the company has obtained an SLO from the locals. But is this the case?

To answer this question, I went to Ecuador and got in touch with researchers from the local university, the Estatal Amazónica of Puyo. Together, we planned a household survey in the villages of the affected area, examining people’s perceptions of positive and negative effects related to Eni-Agip’s operations. We also investigated whether locals perceive that the ‘Free, Prior, Informed Consent’ (FPIC) principle has been applied in this context. FPIC establishes that indigenous communities have the right to participate in the decision-making process pertaining to the activities that affect their territories. Before beginning oil operations, communities should have a full understanding of project’s risks and benefits and freely give informed consent (Hanna & Vanclay, 2013).

In order to facilitate interactions with the community members who don’t speak Spanish at all, a group of Kichwa students attending the university was included in our research team. This enabled me to be more easily accepted inside the communities: since I am Italian, people initially saw me as a potential spy of the Italian government or of the enterprise.

A total number of 346 questionnaires were completed and all villages of the influence area were surveyed. Preliminary results show that most respondents think the presence of the company is compromising the environment and irreversibly changing their culture. On the other hand, people rely on the social programmes previously offered by the oil company which Eni-Agip now claims are the duty of the State.

In effect, the most recent national oil contract stipulates that the government shall now provide these social services, but the State has been unable to meet this responsibility, in part due to the remoteness of these communities.

Almost 87% of the population doesn’t know what FPIC is. In addition, some of the interviewees reported cases in which they have been forced to accept the decisions of the company, with attempts of coercion.

It is noteworthy that during the survey, many people told us they fear that if they criticise Eni-Agip in any way, the company would cut social programs altogether.

In conclusion, despite the low level of conflicts and the good reputation of the company, interviewees reported the same impacts found in many other oil contexts of Ecuador and Latin America, such as cultural changes, dependence on the company, and lack of respect of FPIC procedures. Overall, the evidence of Eni-Agip’s high control of community consent, the absence of the State, and the vulnerability of indigenous communities are elements that seem to limit the genuine achievement of balanced power relationships, the core elements of a social licence. Therefore, caution is necessary prior to claim that a company has achieved an SLO in such a complex and conflicted territory. Much has to be done by the State to meet its responsibilities and by the company for a full respect of indigenous populations’ rights.

Ehrnström-Fuentes, M., & Kröger, M. (2017). In the shadows of social licence to operate: untold investment grievances in latin America. Journal of Cleaner Production, 141, 346–358.
Hanna, P., & Vanclay, F. (2013). Human rights, Indigenous peoples and the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31(2), 146–157.
Prno, J., & Slocombe, D. (2012). Exploring the origins of “social license to operate” in the mining sector: Perspectives from governance and sustainability theories. Resources Policy, 37(3), 346–357.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here , here, here here, and here.

About the author:


Alberto Diantini is a PhD researcher in Geographical Studies at the University of Padua, Italy, supervised by prof. Massimo De Marchi, coordinator of the “Territories of ecological and cultural diversity” research group. The main objective of Diantini’s research is investigating the usability of the concept of Social Licence to Operate in the oil contexts of the Ecuadorian Amazon.