Ecuador’s Challenges Viewed by Alumna, Student

July 15, 2008

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Student Rachel Hodel spent this spring studying abroad in the coastal village of Olon in Ecuador.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The small, South American country of Ecuador made the news last week as the government seized nearly 200 businesses to collect debts from a bank collapse. This move has given rise to fears of a dictatorship surfacing in the democratic republic that has substantial petroleum resources and draws in millions of dollars in foreign investment.  However, the news did not shock Illinois Wesleyan University student Rachel Hodel, who spent this past spring studying abroad in the coastal village of Olon, Ecuador.

“It does not surprise me at all,” said Hodel. She believes many of the nation’s problems stem from a high percentage of people there who live in poverty. “In a country that deals with poverty everyday, everyone is struggling and people talk of corruption everywhere,” she said.

For nearly 30 years, Ecuador has been ruled by a civil government that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Factbook said is “marred by political instability.” The economy has suffered as well, with a bank crisis in 1999 that led to the adoption of the U.S. dollar as currency in 2000. Although the move helped stabilize the economy and attract more foreign investors, there was also a downside, according to Kim Priebe. A 2003 Illinois Wesleyan graduate, Priebe taught English classes in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, from 2005 to 2006 as an instructor for World Teach, an organization out of the Harvard Center for National Development.

Once a retreat for Incan royalty, Vilcabamba is a village in the southern region of Ecuador, located in a scenic area known as the Valley of Longevity because of the wide belief that its residents commonly reach 100 years old and beyond.  When a New York Times article on Vilcabamba referred to the village as “a jewel,” “suddenly English-speaking investors were pouring into the place,” said Priebe, along with a wave of international settlers who were older and wealthy.

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Alumna Kim Priebe took this photo while in Vilcabamba, showing how local businesses are being taken over by English-speaking investors.

Priebe observed that the mostly English-speaking investors were buying up land and local businesses cheaply and then inflating prices. Economic stability may have increased with the influx of foreign investment, but poverty is still prevalent, remaining at 38 percent, says the CIA Factbook. “Now, because land prices are so high, locals cannot afford to own anything,” said Priebe. Adding to the crisis, residents find themselves unable to communicate with the influx of new owners who do not speak Spanish, the official language of Ecuador. “If local residents cannot speak the language of the new owners, then they are reduced to working low-paying jobs as maids or waitresses, with very little stability or advancement,” she said.

Even though the English classes Priebe taught represented a way for residents to adapt to the drastic changes in their village, she noticed that many students were dropping out of school because they could not afford the classes, even at $5 a month. “The difference between $15 a week and $30 a week is astronomical in Vilcabamba, and even the meager cost of the classes that could transform people’s lives was too great of an economic strain,” she said.

With the encouragement of World Teach, Priebe reached out to the readers of her hometown newspaper in suburban Chicago, the Daily Herald. She wrote articles telling readers of the people she met and the students she taught, with a goal of raising $1,000 to create a scholarship fund for villagers to attend the English school. Most individual donations were less than $100, “but the stories touched so many people, and they responded in numbers,” said Priebe, who was astonished when she realized she had raised $20,000. Others took notice of her efforts. After she left Ecudaor, Priebe was asked to join a working group at the Brookings Institute, an independent research group in Washington, D.C. She accompanied the group to testify before Congress on global volunteerism in May of 2007. The former first lady of Ecuador, Maria Palacio, awarded Priebe the Presidential Volunteer Service Award in 2007.

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Priebe, at left, taught English classes while in Vilcabamba, which she believes gives villagers a chance at a better life.

While Priebe saw the darker side of foreign investment in Ecuador, student Rachel Hodel reported more positive effects during her time in Olon, a quiet fishing village surrounded by a lengthy, beautiful beach that seems ripe for the kind of international incursion that Vilcabamba experienced.

Instead, according to Hodel, Olon has been relatively untouched by English-speaking tourism, largely thanks to the efforts of Prodecos, a non-profit, community-based company started several years ago by a committee of local residents.

Evidence of what Olon could have been like without the efforts of Prodecos is close by. “Right down the beach was this little party town for Europeans called Montanita,” said Hodel. The Olon villagers relayed stories to Hodel of drugs, alcohol, vandalism and theft in Montanita. “The people of Olon made it clear they did want to be like that. Many of them live in poverty, and would enjoy the money that comes from tourism, but wanted it on their own terms. Companies like Prodecos are a response to that desire.”

Prodecos promotes “ecotourism” in Ecuador, which can be considered socially and ecologically conscious travel. Instead of simply visiting Ecuador and staying in a hotel, tourists are invited into the homes of families who have been trained by Prodecos to act as tour guides. “The whole point is to invite tourists into homes, not isolate them on some resort,” said Hodel.  “This allows tourists be part of a family, understand the culture of the people, and watch how the land is part of life.” Hodel examined Prodecos’s efforts in Olon as part of her study-abroad project. “The program encourages tourists to be less prone to abuse the land or the people when they see how people actually live. It’s all part of a push for self-sovereignty in Ecuador, a determination to carve out their own future,” she said.

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Hodel stands with a Prodecos host family. She studied Prodecos program of ecotourism while in Ecuador.

For her part, Priebe praises ecotourism efforts like Prodecos, but warned that any community in Ecuador should consider itself vulnerable to unwelcome changes.  In Vilcabamba, she witnessed a foreign cell-phone company’s attempt to erect a large reception tower in the village. Many of the landowners banded together and refused.  The company then went to a man living in extreme poverty and offered him a large sum of money to sell his land.

“Who could blame him for selling?” Priebe said. “Before I left, there was a huge, orange cell-phone tower in the middle of what had been a pristine valley in Vilcabamba.”  Priebe noted that people living in poverty often have little choice but to place their own livelihoods above what might be deemed best for the community as a whole. “It only takes one struggling local to sell their land for a large sum to an irresponsible developer and an entire community can be changed. It happens slowly – a decision here, a decision there,” she said.

Hodel shares Priebe’s concerns but remains cautiously optimistic for the people of Ecuador, despite its recent political and economic setbacks and daunting future challenges.  “Groups like Prodecos show that progress and cultural preservation can co-exit,” she says, “if that approach is strongly backed by the will of people in their individual communities.”

Contact: Rachel Hatch (309) 556-3960