Natural Resources, 2013, 4, 31-44 Published Online March 2013 ( 31
Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in
Ecuador, 1964-1994*
Robert Wasserstrom1, Douglas Southgate2
1Terra Group, Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA; 2Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, Ohio State
University, Columbus, USA.
Received October 13th, 2012; revised December 6th, 2012; accepted December 21st, 2012
Recent biodiversity research in the Western Amazon has emphasized the linkages among road construction, deforesta-
tion and loss of indigenous lands. Many observers have concluded that hydrocarbon production inevitably means de-
struction of forests and expropriation of native territory. Yet evidence from the eastern lowlands of Ecuador (known as
the Oriente) shows that oil can be developed without roads or harmful impacts. The Oriente also provides another con-
trasting case: in areas where no oil was discovered, the gov ern ment often bu ilt ro ads to suppo rt its agricultu ral co loniza-
tion efforts. In these areas, a great deal of deforestation and indigenous displacement occurred. Such evidence suggests
that a different set of agrarian and environmental policies might permit oil activity without loss of rain forest or indige-
nous territory.
Keywords: Ecuador; Deforestation; Oil Development; Agrarian Reform; Colonization
1. Introduction
Recent biodiversity research in Western Amazonia has
emphasized the linkages among road construction, de-
forestation of sensitive areas and lo ss of indigenous lands
[1-3]. Much of this research focuses on petroleum de-
velopment in the eastern lowland s of Ecuador (known as
the Oriente), where “oil itself was located deep in pri-
mary forest and the ex tensive sys te m of oil access ro a ds…
facilitated colonization and subsequent deforestation by
small migrant farmers pursuing agriculture and cattle
ranching” [4]. This formulation partly reflects the pio-
neering work of economist Sven Wunder, who reported
that “the direct deforestation impacts of the oil industry
from roads were negligible. The indirect impacts from oil
roads to open up new areas for first timber extraction and
then colonisation were more important, causing a spon-
taneous influx of agricultural squatters, who… gradually
‘ate’ their way into the forest [5].” Contemporary events
in Ecuador seem to bear him out. Between 1964 and
1994, nearly one-fifth of the country’s eastern forests
disappeared (Table 1), while indigenous communities
retained only a small fraction of their original lands. De-
spite Wunder’s findings about colonization, however,
most researchers continue to blame oil production as the
Table 1. Deforestation in the Oriente, 1965-20001.
Province Hectares (mm)
Hectares %
Sucumbíos 1.79 267,000 14.9
Orellana 2.17 404,700 18.7
Napo 1.25 421,300 33.8
Pastaza 2.91 222,800 7.7
Morona Santiago 2.39 601,200 25.2
Zamora Chinchipe1.05 236,900 22.4
Total, Oriente 11.6 2,153,900 18.6
primary cause of harm.
Yet for Ecuador, this account overlooks a major driv-
ing force of deforestation: the government’s agricultural
development and colonization policies. Settlement in the
Ecuadorian Amazon remained a central focus of gov-
ernment policy throughout the late 19th and 20th Centu-
ries. Through shifting political currents and economic
fortunes, virtually every administration took steps to oc-
cupy and subdue the rain forest. In 1875, the government
declared its Amazonian territories to be “vacant land”
and open for colonization; they remained open until the
government formally ended colonization in 1994. In 1963,
*The authors are deeply indebted to an anonymous reviewer, who sig-
nificantly improved our article. They would also like to thank Dr.
James Ellis for providing his satellite maps of the Ecuadorian rainforest.1Adapted from Reference [6].
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. NR
Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
authorities in Quito iden tified target areas for agricu ltural
settlement in the Oriente and designed a “master plan”
for colonization. The following year, Ecuador’s new mili-
tary rulers began a massive transfer of native lands to
migrant homesteaders, who were recruited from the high-
lands and Pacific Coast.
In contrast, oil production did not start until 1972, the
same year a highway from Quito to Lago Agrio (the pro-
duction center) was co mpleted (Figure 1). Withou t ques-
tion, settlers used this highway to enter the Oriente. But
even where oil was absent, the government undertook
public works needed for colonization and demanded that
oil companies build roads and bridges—whether or not
such infrastructure was needed for petroleum develop-
In this paper, we will reevaluate the relative impact of
oil development and colonization policy on Ecuador’s
eastern rain forest. The Oriente offers a unique opportu-
nity to analyze development policy, because it can be
divided into four distinct zones that allow for detailed
1) The northern region, with extensive road construc-
tion, oil production and colonization.
2) Pastaza Province, where oil development took place
without roads or colonization.
3) Morona Santiago Province, where roads were built
to encourage settlement but oil was never found.
4) The remote eastern frontier without oil development,
roads or settlers.
Comparing and contrasting such cases lead to broader
conclusions about development policy. Many investiga-
tors now argue that oil and gas production are inherently
destructive and cause deforestation, loss of indigenous
lands and other damage [7-12]. But our evidence shows
that this need not be the case. Far more significant, we
argue, was the Ecuadorian government’s early intention
to expand agricultural colonization into Amazonia. Oil
exploration in the northern Oriente was used opp ortunis-
tically to build the infrastructure for settlement and for
crop and livestock production. This conclusion suggests
that a different set of policies might permit oil or mining
activity without loss of rain forest or native lands.
Figure 1. Ecuador and its eastern rainfore st.
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994 33
2. Development Policy in Ecuador
When oil was discovered near Lago Agrio in April, 1967,
the Ecuadorian government looked forward to investing
heavily in national development [13]. Ecuador had one of
the poorest, most rural and fastest gr owing popu latio ns in
the Western Hemisphere. Its gross national income (GNI)
per capita was little more than half the average for Latin
America and the Caribbean as a whole; only Haitians h ad
an average income that was significantly lower. Ecua-
dorians born in 1967 could expect to live 57 years, less
than the hemisphere’s average age of 59 years. Mean-
while, at 3%, Ecuador’s annual population growth ex-
ceeded the rate for the region as a whole, which was
2.7% [14].
Thanks to oil money, GNI per capita in Ecuador grew
faster during the 1970s than in any other nation in the
Western Hemisphere. By the end of the decade, oil ex-
ports brought in $1.035 billion and represented more than
half of all government revenues [15]. Nearly four-fifths
of this revenue was used to expand public sector em-
ployment and increase salaries [16]. In turn, improve-
ment in living conditions for middle class families drove
up the demand for food, especially livestock products
[17]. Increasing demand and accelerated currency appre-
ciation would most likely have resulted in a flood of im-
ported beef, pork and chicken. To prevent this, the gov-
ernment imposed tariffs that protected domestic suppliers.
Ranchers and other livestock producers became major
beneficiaries of the growth in domestic markets, as were
suppliers of non-tradable services [18].
Government policies stimulated expansion of the live-
stock sector in other ways. Enriched by oil revenue, offi-
cial agencies offered subsidized credit that favored spe-
cific economic sectors [19]. During the 1970s, for exam-
ple, nearly every loan from the National Development
Bank (BNF), a public credit agency, favored livestock
producers2. Moreover, cheap credit was directed over-
whelmingly toward larger operators: only 10% of the
country’s 700,000 farmers received BNF loans [22]. Es-
pecially in the highlands, large landowners used bor-
rowed money to mechanize and expand their operations.
As economist Carlos Larrea notes, mechanization often
reduced farm-related employment, which declined from
873,000 jobs in 1974 to 773,000 in 1982 [23]. Many laid-
off workers moved to urban slums or returned to culti-
vating small highland plots. Others joined the ranks of
agricultural colonists settlin g in the Oriente. At the same
time, national production of rice, potatoes and other basic
food crops dropped by 30% [21]. And finally, through
the 1970s and 1980s, the government offered subsidies
and tax holidays to large palm oil growers and cattle
ranchers if they cleared new land in peripheral places like
the Amazon basin [24].
Other public subsidies directly accelerated the geo-
graphic expansion of agriculture into lowland forests.
During the 1970s, gasoline in Ecuador rarely cost more
than $0.10/gallon, far lower than international prices.
Even during the 1980s, domestic prices rose to only
$0.30/gallon [25]. Although low energy prices may have
benefited everyone, they were especially advantageous
for farmers in remote settings like the Oriente. Mean-
while, improvements in agricultural technology received
little support, which was reflected in low crop and live-
stock yields. By the late 1980s, rice yields in Ecuador
(2.3 metric tons per hectare) had sunk to less than half of
yields in Colombia (4.7 tons) and Peru (4.8 tons)—de-
spite the fact that farming conditions for rice are ideal in
the Guayas River basin [26]. Ecuador’s per-hectare pro-
duction of grain and tubers was lower in 1998 than yields
in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela [27]3. Simultaneously,
the rising demand for food led to a sharp expansion in
agricultural land use. For two decades starting in the
mid-1970s, two-thirds of the increase in Ecuador’s crop
and livestock output resulted from the spread of areas
under cultivation; rising yields accounted for only one-
third of that increase [29].
3. Land Reform
3.1. The First Land Reform, 1964-1972
In 1964, Ecuador’s new military rulers decided to ad-
dress one of the country’s most serious economic and
political problems: agrarian reform. Since the country’s
first agricultural census in 1954, many Ecuadorian offi-
cials recognized that “agrarian reform was necessary if
industrialization was to be achieved” [30]. At the time,
0.4% of all proprietors occupied 45% of total farmland,
while 90% of farms (owned by half of the country’s
population) were too small to support a single family [31,
32]. Previous governments had made timorous efforts to
address these problems. In 1957, Pr esident Camilo Ponc e
Enríquez established the Instituto Nacional de Coloni-
zación (INC, National Colonization Institute), which later
became the Instituto Ecuatoriano de Reforma Agraria y
Colonización (IERAC, the Ecuadorian Institute for Ag rar-
ian Reform and Resettlement). But support for land re-
distribution was always limited. Among other things,
landowners objected to the abolition of indebted labor
(known as precarismo or huasipungo) on their estates
2In 1979, the World Bank found that 90% of these loans supported
cattle production [20]. Another government lender, the Banco Coopera-
tivo, supported only landowners who owned more than 100 hectares.
By 1984, 60% of all agricultural credit was channeled toward livestock
3According to Pichón, “Yields of almost all crops in Ecuador are lower
than in neighboring Colombia and Peru, and in some cases are mark-
edly lower…” He also writes that “in wheat, beans, and soybeans,
yields have actu ally declined since the early 1990s [28].”
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
and opposed any limitation on farm size. As Redclift
writes, “Five years after the 1964 Law was introduced it
was calculated that, at the current rate at which land was
being handed over to former huisipungueros, it would be
one hundred and seventy years before all the precaristas
in Ecuador were in possession of land [33].”
Although land reform largely failed in the highlands,
government officials achieved greater success in reset-
tling impoverished families on “vacant lands” along the
northern coast and in the southern Amazon. In 1963,
military rulers asked the Junta Nacional de Planificación
y Coordinación Económica (National Planning Board,
known as JNPC) to prepare an inventory of potential
“colonization” areas, along with a master plan for settling
them (Figure 2) [34].
But without roads, most of the Amazon remained out
of reach4. Until the mid-1960s, only one under-populated
part of Ecuador could be reached by highway: the coastal
rain forest between Santo Domingo de los Colorados and
Esmeraldas. Then beginning in 1965, another region
opened to colonization: the Andean foothills of Morona
Santiago province, east of Cuenca. With support from the
Inter-American Development Bank, regional authorities
in Cuenca built a road network that eventually extended
deep into “unoccupied” areas that lay within traditional
Shuar and Achu ar terr ito r y [20,3 8 ]. By 19 73, I ERA C had
issued provisional title for 212,000 hectares to 4000
benefici aries [20].
3.2. The Second Land Reform, 1973-1979
In 1966, Ecuador’s military authorities relinquished pow er
to a civilian administration that governed until 1972,
when the armed forces again took control (until 1979).
By this time, highland hacendados had sold off signifi-
cant holdings, but they still owned a third of the coun-
try’s total (and best) agricultural land. In contrast, 70% of
rural households tried to survive on less than 8% of all
farmland. For the most part, food production stagnated.
Figure 2. Designated colonization zones, 1963.
4Bromley provides an early discussion of this issue [35]. In a few instances, large haciendas spread along the most accessible headwaters of major
rivers: the Napo, Pastaza and Curaray. According to Uquillas, however, early settlers focused primarily on land speculation or logging [36]. Brownet
al. point out that early migrations closely followed commodity cycles: “With respect to the Oriente, increases in world demand for rubber, gold, qui-
nine and petroleum motivated successive waves of settlement, and decreases in demand dampened or reversed those waves, leading to a boom and
bust economy [37].”
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994 35
Soon after taking power, military rulers created a new
state oil company, the Corporación Estatal Petrolero Ec-
uatoriana (CEPE, later renamed Petroecuador) and joined
OPEC. They rewrote the National Hydrocarbons Law to
underscore governmental ownership of the country’s pe-
troleum reserves, along with its exclusive ri ght to explor e
and develop them. New contracts were signed with Tex-
pet (the Texaco-Gulf Consortium that discovered oil in
1967), thereby making CEPE an equity partner. Hence-
forth, foreign companies were also “required to pay sur-
face and entry rights, royalties, tax contributions for edu-
cation, transportation fees for pipeline usage, and com-
pensatory public works in the region contracted [39].”
The emphasis on public works is significant. Sin ce the
1920s, when it adopted its second Ley del Oriente, the
Ecuadorian government had looked to oil companies for
“dual purpose” infrastructure [40]. In 1947, for example,
Shell built a road from Ambato (in the central highlan ds)
to Puyo, opening part of the central Amazon to settle-
ment. It also built an airport at Shell-Mera and a netwo rk
of local penetration roads. As oil exploration proceeded,
these roads were extended and eventually connected to
the highway from Morona Santiago, farther to the south.
In September, 1971, at the government’s direction, Tex-
pet completed a highway from Quito to Lago Agrio
(paved in 1972) . By contr act, Texpet w as also r equ ired to
build other infrastructure-including highways, bridges
and the Lago Agrio airport-worth $55.5 million (includ-
ing $20 million of penetration roads unrelated to oil de-
velopment) [41]. For the first time, Ecuadorian officials
could now envision fulfilling their aspiration of coloniz-
ing the north ern Ama zon (Figure 3).
Like its predecessor, the military government that
came to power in 1972 viewed land reform as an essen-
tial precondition for economic progress. But reform ad-
vocates quickly ran into oppositio n from landowners and
more conservative military officers. As in 1964, pro-
posed ceilings on landholdings became the stumbling
block. As a compromise, the 1973 Agrarian Reform Law
set no limits on farm size, as long as these holdings ful-
filled a legitimate “social function” : efficient agricultural
production [42].
But what was to be done with the 1.85 million high-
land peasants who had received nothing at all under land
reform? Most of these families lived on less than one
hectare and survived as seasonal migrants on coastal p lan -
tations or in the cities. “By 1973,” Redclift no tes, “it was
abundantly clear that no redistributive land reform was
likely, at least in the short term, and that the main efforts
of the military would be expended in efforts to ‘modern-
ize’ agricultural production on the latifundia [43].” As a
result, Zevallos adds, “colonization became an alternative
Figure 3. Highway construction in the Oriente, 1947-1994.
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
to agrarian reform [44].” In 1972, as the Quito-Lago
Agrio road was nearing completion, the government de-
clared that oil develop ment would enable th e northeast to
become a target “area for migration and expansion.” It
offered 50-hectare parcels of land in the Oriente and re-
quired settlers to clear half of their holdings within five
years to show “effective use.” Colonization, not land
reform, became the dominant force in reshaping Ecua-
dor’s countr yside (Figure 4).
4. Colonization and Resettlement:
Four Cases
Were deforestation and the loss of native land an un-
avoidable outcome of petroleum development, as many
scholars have argued, or were these problems largely a
consequence of misguided economic policies5? Beginning
in 1964, migrants from the highlands and Pacific Coast
poured into the eastern forests and claimed “vacant”
Figure 4. Land reform and colonization, 1964-1978.
5In our analysis of deforestation, we have used satellite imagery from 2000 because this is the first year that it was available after the frontier was
closed. Data were adapted from Reference [6] and from the Centro de Levantamientos Integrados de Recursos Naturales por Sensores Remotos
(CLIRSEN), available online at We are grateful to Dr. James Ellis for
sharing his analysis with us.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. NR
Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994 37
land under the country’s new colonization laws (Table 2).
Analysis of satellite imagery and historical data allow us
to compare how such events unfolded in four cases.
4.1. The Northern Oriente (Oil Development,
Roads and Colonization)
Until 1972, a few migrants entered this area—mostly
settlers pushing north along the Puyo-Tena road. After
the highway from Quito to Lago Agrio was completed,
however, colonos poured in from all parts of Ecuador,
especially drought-stricken Loja Province in the southern
Andes. Colonization brought significant consequences
for the region’s indigenous population. Virtually all of
the “vacant” land identified by government officials in
their 1963 settlement plan was located within traditional
territories used by the Cofán, Siona-Secoya and Huaorani
people. According to Uquillas, “The fact that large por-
tions of land are considered ‘fallow’ or have no owner
other than the state (frequently ignoring prior rights of
possession of indigenous inhabitants) has incited the un-
restrained taking of lands by immig rants to th e petroleum
zone. In areas of highway construction (or projected con-
struction), colonists take possession of the land and
commence deforestation [48].”
Only the first homesteaders who lived along new roads
enjoyed relatively easy access to outside markets. They
planted crops such as coffee, maize or planta ins on ho me-
steads that measured 200 - 250 meters wide by 2 km
deep. Later arrivals settled farther from roads, with little
prospect of raising anything but cattle. By 1978, accord-
ing to Hiraoka and Yamamoto, “colonists were clearing
parcels… eight or ten kilometers distant from the trunk
routes [49].” Many of these colonists knew that their
farms were commercially unviable, but were speculating
that access roads would be built later.
In September, 1980, government officials convened an
inter-minis terial co mmittee to reso lve the conflic t betw ee n
colonos and native communities. Rep resen ting trad ition al
“developmentalist” agencies, most committee members
argued that 50 hectares per family were generous for
semi-nomadic native farmers and that larger land grants
would be wasted. Independent experts conducted field
studies among the Cofán, Siona-Secoya and Huaorani,
and tried to explain why native economies required more
Table 2. Population of the Oriente, 1962-19926.
Year Population
1962 25,582
1974 55,142
1982 115,110
1992 371,110
extensive lands. Ultimately, however, the government
approved only modest gr ants to native communities [36].
By 1990, the Siona-Secoya had ob tained title to just over
40,000 hectares; almost 680,000 hectares of Huaorani
land were legally protected from invasion; eventually,
the Cofán received 34,000 hectares (subsequently in-
creased to 69,000 hectares). For the Cofán and Siona-
Secoya, such grants ensured their bare survival, but ex-
cluded most of their original territories (totaling nearly 3
million hectares).
Homesteading was not successful for everyone. Many
farmers failed, because they missed their annual land
payments, lacked credit, lost cattle, or couldn’t grow
enough food. IERAC procedures were complicated and
often required fees, bribes and expensive trips to Quito or
Lago Agrio. Land could not be sold legally without per-
manent title. If hardsh ip struck, many colonos abandoned
remote farms for a fraction of their potential market
value, allowing larger landowners to expand their hold-
ings. Ultimately, wrote Hiraoka and Yamamoto, this
process would defeat the purpose of agricultural settle-
ment: “social and economic roles envisaged for the Ori-
ente—provision of better financial opportunities and the
poor and relief of demographic pressures from the An-
dean core regions—will not be realizable [50].” To make
matters worse, government officials also allocated far lar-
ger parcels in the northern Oriente to commercial agri-
culture. By 1978, they had already given grants of 10,000
hectares and 60,000 hectares to corporate operators for
oil palm and livestock production. Subsequently, 9,500
hectares of traditional Siona-Secoya hunting territory were
awarded to Palmeras del Ecuador for an African oil palm
plantation. A few years later semi-clandestine logging
spread into the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve along roads
built by the state oil company, Petroecuador (Figure 5)
4.2. Pastaza Province (Oil Development without
Pastaza Province shares a long border with Peru, guarded
by remote army garrisons. Until 1947, its capital, Puyo,
housed a small Catholic mission and neigh boring village.
Completion of roads to Macas and Ambato transformed
the settlement into a commercial and administrative cen-
ter. By 1966, it was surrounded by large ranches and
sugar plantations, as landowners took advantage of the
1964 Agrarian Law to annex lowland Quichua territory
Traditionally, lowland Quichua people were divided
into two groups: Quijos (Napo Runa) and Canelos (Puyo
Runa). By the mid-19th Century, many Runa—at least
those who lived closest to Puyo and Tena—had become
indebted peons on lowland haciendas (also called fundos
6Adapted from References [46,47].
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
Figure 5. Land use in Sucumbíos, Orellana and Napo Provinces, 2000.
in Ecuador). During the mid-20th Century, they often
found opportunities to work elsewhere or find temporary
employment with petroleum companies. Wages in the oil
fields were far superior to peonage on lowland fundos. At
first, local men worked for Shell, which explored for oil
in the Oriente between 1937 and 1950. Later, they signed
on with Texaco or other companies. Although a few
families moved to Lago Agrio, an important Texaco base,
more often the men took temporary jobs there (the nor-
mal labor contract lasted 90 days), while their wives and
children rem a ined behi n d o n t he chacra (farm).
This situation changed in the late 1950s and early
1960s, as colonos invaded Runa territory along the Puyo-
Tena road. In response, the Runa there abandoned their
traditional subsistence economy and subdivided commu-
nal lands into individual parcels, which they cleared for
pasture [55]. As cattle ranches, their lands co uld be titled
and protected. They understood the 1964 Agrarian Re-
form Law and the laws that followed—many of them had
moved from Tena to escape colonization—and they took
preemptive action. Farther south, around Puyo, Quichua
communities also adopted livestock production in order
to hold onto their land [56].
In 1988, ARCO signed a contract with Petroecuador to
explore Shell’s old fields in Pastaza. A few years later, it
discovered significant reserves in Villano, a cluster of
several small villages located in undistributed rain forest
about 100 km east of Puyo [57]. In 1998, the company
completed work on production facilities and a secondary
pipeline connecting Villano with SOTE, Ecuador’s main
pipeline system. To minimize environmental impacts,
ARCO built its facilities using an “off-shore” strategy
that required no roads. During construction, all equip-
ment, supplies and workers were transported by helicop-
ter. A small “flow line” was laid above ground to avoid
damaging tree roots and leave the forest canopy intact.
Oil was stored at a central processing facility outside the
jungle, rather than in large tanks at Villano [58]. Where
the flow line emerged from undisturbed forest, it was
deliberately routed across an impassible escarpment to
block easy entrance for potential settlers.
Opposition to the off-shore model came from two
quarters: local communities and Petroecuador. Commu-
nity members lobbied intensively for an access road al-
lowing them to market their cattle and other products in
Puyo. When ARCO refused, they held three company
employees hostage for ten days in 1998 until provincial
leaders negotiated their release. Petroecuador also wanted
a road: in its view, road construction remained a key to
economic development in the region and part of its public
responsibilities. After lengthy discussions, ARCO ag r e ed t o
build secondary roads elsewhere along the Puyo-Baeza
Highway in areas where deforestation had already oc-
curred. So far, it seems, the offshore model has worked:
in 2001, satellite imagery showed that only 1.6% of the
Villano area had been deforested (Figure 6).
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994 39
Figure 6. Land use in Pastaza Province, 2000.
4.3. Morona Santiago (Roads and Colonization
without Oil)
In 1893, Salesian missionaries from Italy arrived in Mo-
rona Santiago to “civilize and indoctrinate” Shuar and
Achuar communities (collectively known as “Jívaro”)
numbering as many as 10,000 inhabitants [59]. Until the
mid-1960s, these groups lived in extended households
headed by closely related men. Large distances separated
family groups. Periodically, Jívaro war parties raided
other Shuar and Achuar settlements. During these raids,
several families might come together in one large house
until the danger had passed [60 ]. Between 1940 and 196 0,
according to Taylor, such raids became so frequent that
one out of every two Achuar men was killed in warfare
[61]. Survivors described those years as a time when “we
were ending.”
Around 1900, one small group of 400 mestizo immi-
grants settled in the Upano Valley, located within Shuar
territory along the Andean foothills. Unable to transport
their crops to the highlands, they lived in n ear total isola-
tion. Other settlers began to arrive in the 1930s, when
Salesian missionaries built a trail through the mountains
to their mission in Méndez, located in the lowlands 100
km east of Cuenca.
Conflict quickly arose between colonists and Shuar
communities in the Upano region. “As the colonists be-
came more numerous during the 1930s and 1940s,”
write Rudel and Horowitz [62], “their demands for land
began to disturb the Shuar. The colonists converted as
much forest to pasture as possible; only the steepest
slopes remained forested… In contrast the Shuar prac-
ticed shifting cultivation which left the basic structure of
the forest intact.” By the 1950s, Salesian missionaries
became alarmed at the growing influx of settlers and oc-
cupation of native territories. Early efforts to obtain land
titles for Shuar families went awry when native “land-
owners” sold their parcels to outsiders. The Salesians
then hit upon the idea of forming centros (centers) under
the 1937 Rural Communes Law: “The Shuar in an area
would form a centro, an organization of villagers, and it
would receive title to a large tract of land around the vil-
lage. Each household in the village would receive a tract
of land in the centro. Household heads could sell their
land to other members of the centro, and they could pass
it on to their sons and daughters, so individuals consid-
ered themselves to be the ‘owners’ of their tract of land.
They could not sell their land to outsiders [62].”
In 1964, Shuar leaders formed the Federación de Cen-
tros Shuar (FICSH, the Federation of Shuar Communi-
ties), which began an aggressive campaign to defend
Shuar territory. Settlers reacted forcefully. In 1977, they
persuaded the military government to create a “national
reserve” for colonists east of the Cordillera de Cutucú.
Between 19 76 and 1988, IERAC slowed its processing of
Shuar and Achuar land claims, thus giving migrants time
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Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
to occupy new land. Still, 83% of eastern Morona Santi-
ago remained in native hands. By th e late 1980s, the set-
tlement frontier stabilized, because no new roads were
built farther east. Nonetheless, migrants and Indians alike
cut down the forest. Virtually all colonos aspired to raise
cattle. And like the Runa in Pastaza Province, Shuar (and
eventually Achuar) communities adopted similar strate-
gies. Beginning in the early 1960s, Salesian missionaries
persuaded indigenous leaders that cattle production was
their best defense against encroachment and lent live-
stock to native communities.
“In the early 1970s,” Rudel and Horowtiz write, “the
federation, using funds donated by European develop-
ment agencies, began making loans to Shuar centros for
the development of th eir cattle herds [62].” Within a few
years, traditional communities—and relatively intact
forests—remained only in eastern Morona Santiago, far
from existing roads (Figure 7). The 1973 Agrarian Re-
form Law cemented this pattern in place.
4.4. The Remote Frontier (No Roads, Oil or
Beyond these frontiers, Ecuador’s eastern rain forest has
remained largely undisturbed. Sporadic settlement has
not brought significant change. In the late 19th and early
20th Centuries, Ecuadorian and Peruvian landowners cre-
ated a string of haciendas down the Napo River as far as
Iquitos. Many of the Quichu a-speaking communities that
subsequently received land there under the 1973 Agrar-
ian Reform Law included the descendents of laborers on
these haciendas.
The economic decline of Iquitos and the 1941 border
war with Peru put an end to settlement along the lower
Napo. Periodically, Petroecuador has tried to interest for-
eign oil companies in developing heavy oil reserves near
Nuevo Rocafuerte, but so far with little success. Simi-
larly, eastern Pastaza and Morona Santiago Provinces
remain too isolated for settlement. In 1984 , Petroecuador
explored for oil along the Peruvian border, but aban-
doned these efforts shortly thereafter [63]. Ominously,
Petroecuador has also d rilled several exploration wells in
the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and has begun to build
production facilities in a protected forest adjacent to the
Reserve. For now, however, these areas appear to be safe
from large-scale deforestation, since most rivers flow
eastward from the Andean foothills into the Amazonian
interior, making it difficult to market illegally harvest
timber (Figure 8).
Figure 7. Land use in Morona Santiago Province, 2000.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. NR
Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994 41
Figure 8. Deforestation in the Oriente, 1965-2000.
5. Conclusions
Colonization in Ecuador has occurred wherever roads
were built and land was available. Before 1971, four high-
ways extended into the Oriente: Quito-Baeza; Ambato-
Puyo-Tena; Cuenca-Limón-Méndez; and Loja-Zamora.
Initially, most of the migrants (numbering aro und 30,000)
moved from the southern Andes into adjacent lowland
forests, where transportation infrastructure was better;
only 10,000 settled in Napo Province (later subdivided
into thr ee provinc es). Bu t such tr ends ch anged af ter 1972,
when the highway from Quito to Lago Agrio was com-
pleted. Between 1974 and 1976, Napo’s population rose
from 62,000 to 86,000; by 1982, it had increased again to
115,000; and in 1992, it reached around 200,0 00 [64,65].
Since then, population in the area has remained roughly
stable despite an elevated rate of natural increase—sug-
gesting that 120,000 former residents have moved away
during the past 20 years.
Between 1964 and 1994, IERAC gave almost 5 million
hectares to landless farmers and homesteaders throughout
Ecuador; two-thirds of this land was located in the Ori-
ente [47]. In 1994, with no additional vacant lands re-
maining, the “frontier” was officially closed and IERAC
was replaced by a conventional development agency, the
Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Agrario (INDA, the
National Institute for Agricu ltural Development).
What did government officials know about the impact
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. NR
Deforestation, Agrarian Reform and Oil Development in Ecuador, 1964-1994
of colonization and when did they know it? The evidence
is clear. Beginning in 1963, various agencies collected
soil samples, hydrological data and other information to
determine where settlement should occur [20,34,66]. This
information was largely ignored in subsequent coloniza-
tion schemes: “In 1987, [the Ministry of Agriculture and
Livestock] completed an evaluation of 5.30 million hec-
tares in northeastern Ecuador. The conclusion was reached
that only 17 percent of the region (0.90 million hectares)
was suitable for crop production and that forests should
be maintained on the remaining 83 percent. When the
evaluation was carried out, 1.10 million hectares had
already been colonized [67].” As we have seen, most of
this land became pasture. Between 1972 and 1989, as
crop lands in the Oriente grew from 30,000 hectares to
135,000 hectares, pasture lands increased from 384,000
hectares to 880,000 hectares.
Similar events took place in other parts of Ecuador.
Along the Pacific Coast, for example, another half-mil-
lion hectares of intact forest were cut down. Rudel and
Horowitz note an “underlying similarity” among major
colonization zones: “Timber companies played a signifi-
cant role in clearing land along Ecuador’s northern coast,
but smallholders working in corridors along highways
have cleared the most land. Oil companies triggered de-
forestation in the northern Oriente when they constructed
roads… but colonists working small tracts of land along
the roads have cleared the most land…. Smallholders
have cleared almost all of the land in the southern Ori-
ente [68].” In all three regions, they continue, “Small-
holders predominate, and an in tense competition for land
between colonists and indigenous peoples characterizes
local politics.”
Did colonization address Ecuador’s need for food?
Early research suggests that it did not. According to the
Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, production of
highland crops such as wheat, potatoes and corn in Ec-
uador declined by more than 70% during the “land rush”
years of 1972-1982. Meanwhile, pasture lands increased
twenty-fold, displacing thousands of rural families [69].
Between 1975 and 1980, net rural employment declined
by 125,000 workers (10% of the agricultural work
force)—creating more landless peasants who migrated
into the forest. Ultimately, as most specialists recognize,
the government’s management of petroleum revenues led
to other problems: massive public debt (borrowed against
fu tur e oil production), devaluation, and political instability.
After completing a large-scale survey of living condi-
tions in Ecuador, the World Bank concluded in 1991 that
“close to four million Ecuadorans, about 35% of the
population live in poverty [70].” Another 17% were vul-
nerable to poverty. “One and a half million Ecuadorans
live in extreme poverty and cannot meet their nutritional
requirements even if they spend everything they have on
food [71].” In the Oriente, two- thirds of all rural families
remained below the poverty line [72].
What guidance does this analysis provide for conser-
vation and hydrocarbon development in the Western
Amazon? Previous researchers have correctly empha-
sized the role of small-scale settlers and road construc-
tion in bringing about widespread deforestation in Ecua-
dor, Peru and elsewhere. Nonetheless, they have ne-
glected to consider a major intervening variable: con-
flicting priorities within government policy-making. At
least in Ecuador, colonization may have been spontane-
ous and largely undirected, but it was completely inten-
tional. Where deliberate safeguards were put in place to
protect the forest and indigenous land rights, as in Vil-
lano, relatively little disturbance occurred. Bass et al.
offer another example: Block 16, which lies within
Huaorani Traditional Territory and the Yasuní National
Park [4]. But the fact that safeguards have not become
ubiquitous—indeed, th at they remain the exceptio n rather
than the rule—suggests that policy-makers have not re-
solved long-standing and widely divergent views of eco-
nomic development. This does not bode well for preser-
vation of the Oriente.
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