The fragile balance between employment and the environment

Employment & Income,Inclusive Economy14 Jul 2014Rob Vos

Diversification of employment opportunities into non-farm, non-mining activities will be critical to safeguarding Ecuador’s rainforest. However, this is easier said than done.

The Ecuadorian Amazon possesses one of the richest reserves of biodiversity in the world. However, the dense forests also grow above rich oil reserves. The discovery of oil, together with agrarian reform policies that promote agricultural colonization in Ecuador’s Amazon region, have been driving forces behind one of the highest rates of deforestation of any Amazonian nation from the late 1960s. The creation of protected territories as natural reservoirs and sources of livelihood for indigenous people did slow the opening of new land for agriculture, but has been far from sufficient to halt deforestation and further depletion of natural resources.

Increasing population pressure has also contributed to a drop in agricultural productivity, while the intensification of land use is limited by the fragility of Amazon soils.

Decreasing agricultural productivity has pushed many Ecuadorians to seek new ventures in less occupied or unoccupied areas near or in townships and urban centres. New small businesses have emerged, creating plenty of jobs in non-farm activities. Although incomes tend to be higher than those in agriculture, these job opportunities do not provide a great lift either as most are in low productivity activities, such as petty trade, repair services and simple manufacturing. Besides, the expansion of townships and urban centres have given new impulses to deforestation.

Present employment diversification in Ecuador’s Amazon region does not seem to be sustainable. Nonetheless, employment generation in off-farm and outside natural resource exploitation located in and near rural townships and urban centres remains the way forward. It will help reduce pressure on fragile Amazonian land, but only if further expansion of the land frontier is limited by, for example, enlarging protected natural zones and making existing farming more productive and ecologically responsible. Regulated eco-tourism also has vast potential if it fully engages the local population.

Further infrastructure development should mainly focus on the urban centres and rural townships in the entrance zones of the Amazon, while maintaining traditional means of transport deeper into the rainforest (rivers) and setting strict environmental standards on new infrastructure (including lodging facilities for tourism). Creating farm and off-farm jobs in sustainable forestry has additional potential and is currently being promoted through the UN-REDD+ programme.

Economic transformation of Ecuador’s Amazon area is ongoing, but – in its present form – is not sustainable. Pathways towards more sustainable transformation need to be found and followed through with great urgency. If not, it will impede the opportunity for the “Buen Vivir” of present and future generations in the region, as well as for many living outside the region and outside Ecuador’s borders because of irreversible losses to biodiversity and the consequences for climate change.

This contribution is based on a paper presented at the CEDLA seminar “What Future for Amazonia”, Amsterdam, 5 June 2014. The full version is available in Pitou van Dijck (ed.) (2014) What is the Future for Amazonia? Socio-Economic and Environmental Transformation and the Role of Road Infrastructure, CEDLA Cuadernos 28.