Coming Home

February 12, 2010
By Becky W. Evans (

A billboard warns against illegal immigration

When I traveled from Ecuador to the United States last week, my journey home was relatively quick and painless, a privilege of my status as a wealthy U.S. citizen. I boarded a plane in Quito, flashed my passport to customs officials in Miami, and touched down in Boston just before sunset — less than 9 hours after leaving Quito.

The most challenging part of my trip was re-checking my luggage at Miami International Airport. After clearing customs, I hauled my two bags (one containing a delicate Ecuadorian end table padded with my dirty laundry) nearly a mile through a maze of lifeless, gray corridors. At the end of the tunnel, I was greeted with a long security line, which led to yet another snaking security line. Eventually, my bags were sent on to Boston; the table still in one piece.

For Ecuadorians who want to visit, study or work in the United States, entering this country is far more difficult than enduring airport security lines. Visas are necessary and they are hard to come by, especially for the poor. Those who cannot obtain a visa often try to enter the United States illegally. Many emigrants leave Ecuador on overcrowded fishing vessels bound for Guatemala and Mexico. They are crammed in unventilated fish holds below the ship’s decks, where they may go for days without food and water. Some people die and others are seized by the U.S. Coast Guard. Those who survive the voyage often owe thousands of dollars to coyotes, or guides, who smuggle them through Mexico and into the United States.

An economic crisis during the late 1990s sent many Ecuadorians searching for work outside South America. More than 600,000 Ecuadorians emigrated to the United States and Europe between 2000 and 2001, according to the U.S. Department of State. In recent years, high unemployment rates have continued to push job-seeking Ecuadorians into the United States. Today, an estimated one to two million Ecuadorians live here, according to the state department.

The government of Ecuador has partnered with child advocacy groups to launch a public awareness campaign that warns people, especially children, about the risks of illegal immigration. While walking through Quito’s Parque Carolina on my way home from Spanish class, I would pass the billboard pictured above. Translated into English, it reads: “Don’t travel illegally. You may never arrive. Be careful of coyotes.” I found the billboard haunting, especially knowing the ease of my return trip to the United States.

Though I am now back in Boston, I plan to publish more ThreeBeats stories about Ecuador in the coming weeks. Below, I have posted a few more photos from my stay in Quito. I have also posted the first submission to the ThreeBeats Challenge (see sidebar).

This YouTube video features surfer-activist Kyle Thiermann and his take on a proposed coal power plant, which he claims will threaten the fishing industry and pollute the marine environment of Constitucion, Chile. The video link was submitted by ThreeBeats subscriber Emily Thompson of New York City.

Hasta pronto.



A Glimpse of Glaciers

January 29, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (

A view of glacier-capped Chimborazo at the entrance to the park

Ecuador’s highest peak, Volcan Chimborazo (20,700 feet), is covered with finger-shaped glaciers that are retreating, possibly due to climate change. Research conducted in the Tropical Andes shows that temperatures are warming and humidity patterns are changing. Both factors influence the melting rate of glaciers and are indicative of climate change, scientists say.

Jeff LaFrenierre, a geography PhD student at Ohio State University, says photographs of Chimborazo’s glaciers reveal “noticeable retreat” over the past decade. LaFrenierre, who is connected with the university’s Byrd Polar Research Center, is conducting research on Chimborazo. For his proposed PhD dissertation, LaFrenierre is studying how the volcano’s glaciers contribute to the region’s water supply. He wants to know if and how further reduction of Chimborazo’s glacial mass could impact this water supply.

“Glaciers store excess snow and release it as meltwater during periods when it is warm or dry,” he said. As glaciers retreat, they initially release more meltwater but eventually the flow decreases.

“Anything that tinkers with the local hydrologic system can change the local ecology impacting human water supplies, agriculture and hydropower,” said LaFrenierre. “If we find that all these things are reliant on glacial contribution to the water system, we will know what to expect here in Ecuador if the glaciers continue to retreat.”

The glaciers of the Cordillerra Blanca in Peru and the Himalayas of India and Pakistan are known to be major feeders of water systems that supply millions of people with drinking water. If retreating glaciers deplete these water supplies, there are fears that so-called “water wars” will erupt in the future.

“These are very preliminary concerns raised in other parts of the world and my objective is to see what the situation may be here on Chimborazo,”  said LaFrenierre, who became familiar with the volcano while working with Engineers Without Borders.

For my part, I made a recent visit to Chimborazo, a dormant volcano that lies in the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes of central Ecuador. My ears popped as we drove up the cloud-covered volcano passing through different ecosystems, including the paramo, or high-altitude grasslands, and the arenal, a high-altitude plateau littered with volcanic debris.

I exited the truck at Carrel Hut, which stands at 15,900 feet. Initially I felt great taking in the silence of the vast landscape and sipping the fresh air. Yet just a few steps into my hike, I could feel the effects of the high altitude in my labored breathing and starry vision, both reminiscent of my experience hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. I continued up the trail for another 20 minutes, peaking a good distance from Whymper Hut (16,400 feet). The hut is used by serious climbers, who must rest before beginning their 12 a.m. ascent of Chimborazo. The early departure helps climbers avoid slipping on wet snow during the heat of midday.

My time on the volcano did not provide a clear view of Chimborazo’s glacier-coated peak, but at least I caught a glimpse of it when entering and leaving the park. Here are some photos from my visit (Remember they are best viewed by clicking on the first image to initiate a slide show):


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Behind the Seafood

January 22, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (

A recent meal of fried sea bass, lentils, rice, and shrimp in coconut sauce.

Since I have yet to visit Ecuador’s coast, this fisheries post will focus on my consumption of seafood here in Quito, where I’m studying Spanish. Seafood restaurants abound in this Andean city despite its distance from the Pacific coast (about a 5-hour drive down to sea level, I am told.) To date, I have sampled spicy garlic shrimp (camarones a la diabla), fried sea bass and shrimp in coconut sauce (corvina frita y encocado de camarones), and mahi-mahi (dorado) in a plantain sauce. Each heaping dish was worthy of at least four stars for taste, but likely fewer for sustainability.

A brief study of these three fisheries (mahi-mahi, sea bass and shrimp) raises some red flags. For starters, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reports there is little scientific information and no effective management plans for Ecuador’s mahi-mahi and sea bass species, which are imported by the United States and other countries. An artisanal fleet uses longlines to catch these fish along the country’s 1,400-mile coast and in deeper, offshore waters. Rules governing the mahi-mahi fishery are not well enforced, according to FishSource, a database of global fisheries research. Environmental advocacy groups, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, warn that unregulated longlining can injure or kill sea turtles, sharks, seabirds and marine mammals that are unintentionally caught or entangled in fishing gear. Some Ecuadorian fishermen are experimenting with special hooks designed to limit the incidental catch of sea turtles.

Shrimp farming in Ecuador has led to the deforestation of 70 percent of the country’s coastal mangrove swamps, said Cecilia Cherrez of Accion Ecologica Ecuador, an environmental group. Mangroves provide an important habitat for young fish, shellfish and birds. Huge tracts of mangrove forests were cut down to create massive  shrimp farms that have polluted the environment and displaced local fishermen. In the mid-1980s, Ecuador was the largest shrimp exporter in the world. In the late 1990s, the environmental groups Greenpeace and Fundecol led a campaign protesting the expansion of shrimp farming in Ecuador’s northern coast. More recently, private and public stakeholders have been working together to reduce the industry’s environmental impacts. Some companies are now certified as organic shrimp farms.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California publishes a seafood guide, called  Seafood WATCH, which helps consumers choose seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that do not harm the environment. The guide advises U.S. seafood consumers to avoid imported, farmed shrimp in addition to imported mahi-mahi caught with longlines.

Sustainable seafood guides have yet to reach consumers in Ecuador, says nutritionist Michelle O. Fried, who writes and teaches about Andean cuisine here. While fish and shellfish provide an important source of protein, more education is needed to inform consumers about their seafood choices. “Nobody is aware at all,” Fried said.

Some photos of seafood in Ecuador (click on an image for a larger slideshow.)


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Finding Life in the Land

January 13, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (

Terraced hillsides planted with crops.

“A people that does not have land, does not have life,” said Luis Alberto Bautista, an indigenous Ecuadorean pastor who serves as the indigenous ministry coordinator for the Latin Council of Churches. He spoke last week to visiting U.S. divinity school students about the spirituality and political involvement of Ecuador’s indigenous communities, which make up 21 percent of the country’s 14.6 million population.

Many of Ecuador’s indigenous people, including those living in the Andean highlands, lost their land during the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. They were forced to work as slaves on large farms, or haciendas, owned by Spanish landlords. Political organization of indigenous Ecuadorians during the 1940s led to agrarian reform, which restored some land to indigenous communities. But sociologist Luis Alberto Tuaza is quick to point out that indigenous people were given ownership of high-altitude land with poor, sandy soil rather than the fertile valleys below.

I recently traveled to the small Andean town of Guamote, where 95 percent of the population is indigenous. Campesinos wandered through the cobblestone streets wearing felt hats with peacock feathers, turquoise, green and magenta shawls (women), red ponchos (men) and other traditional dress. The town, located in one of the poorest counties of Ecuador, is surrounded by terraced hillsides planted with corn, barley and potatoes. Some of the land is held by individuals and some by the community.

Modern indigenous Andean spirituality and philosophy incorporates a profound respect for land. “There must be harmony between humans, between nature and between communities,” said Julian Guaman, an indigenous Ecuadorian theologian. He described a circular, not linear, concept of progress. “Advancement without hurting people or nature,” he said. “Our philosophy, wisdom, and way of thinking and living are all built on the foundation of parity, or equilibrium.”

Here are some photos of indigenous people living in Guamote and its surrounding villages. (Note: Click on an image for an enlarged slide show. It is best to view these photos at the ThreeBeats web site, rather than in your email inbox.)


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Bienvenido a Quito

January 7, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (

Quito's crowded neighborhoods

Welcome to Quito, Ecuador where I awake each morning to trilling songbirds, barking dogs and rumbling jet engines. This capital city of 2.1 million people sits at nearly 10,000-feet in a narrow valley bounded by Andean volcanoes, some of which are capped with snow year-round. The dense city measures about 29-miles long and 5-miles wide. The chaotic streets play host to cars, buses, motorcycles, four-wheelers, pedestrians, vendors and entertainers, including jugglers trying to earn some cash (U.S. dollars) before the traffic light turns green.

Speaking of lights, they get shut off for about two hours each day in different sections of this city due to a country-wide electricity rationing program, which began in November.

A severe drought has kept Ecuador dry since September. “It is the first time in forty years that the climate is so, so dry,” said economist Franklin Canelos of the Latin American Council of Churches.

A handful of hydropower plants produce about 60 percent of the country’s electricity, Canelos said. But now the plants are running at low capacity due to the rain shortage. In southern Ecuador, reservoir water levels have dropped significantly at the Paute River dam, which supplies Quito’s electricity.

The rolling blackouts, designed to conserve electricity, darken apartments, schools, churches and some business offices (many have generators.) When the traffic lights dim, policemen take to the bustling streets to direct traffic. For the most part, life in this city goes on, though not everyone is happy about it. The blackouts are likely to continue until March, when steady rainfall should return.

Here are some faces of Quito:


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