In 2001, I spent several weeks trekking through remote villages in the highlands and rainforests of Ecuador. It was the same summer that the Bush administration announced the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI), an expansion of policies started under the Clinton administration and the latest effort in the War on Drugs. (Remember that war?) The ARI would receive very little media attention. Not that it really mattered. In just a few weeks hijacked planes would crash into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the War on Drugs would be the last thing on everyone’s mind.
That year the ARI provided Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and other countries hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, mostly in the form of military equipment and training to help the governments destroy coca and poppy crops and improve internal policing. It didn’t matter that some of these regimes had horrendous human rights records. Peasants and indigenous populations in Peru had faced near-genocide conditions in the recent past. In Colombia, these same populations had suffered at the hands of the military, paramilitary forces, and the FARC, a guerilla insurgency that some say has deteriorated into a narco-terrorist operation.
It also didn’t matter that growing coca and poppy was one of the few viable economic options for many of the region’s peasant and indigenous populations. Eliminating these crops would simply push thousands and possibly millions of people deeper into poverty, further destabilizing the region. Sure, the Bush administration paid lip service to issues of alternative economic development, but the aid was overwhelmingly military in nature.
We spent a good deal of time training and preparing for our exploratory trek. We studied maps of the area, making sure to avoid “hot spots” near the Colombian border where there had been a rash of kidnappings and military activity. After arriving in Quito, we quickly made our way to the countryside. Once away from the main tourist areas and larger cities, we were treated more as guests than tourists. We spoke with locals intimately and gained valuable insights into the lives of everyday people. As we passed from village to village, a clear picture and consistent message emerged: people needed jobs. We heard countless stories of individuals leaving their families and traveling great distances to find work. I would later learn that competition for productive land was also a major issue, with indigenous populations losing out to the government, the economic elite, and multinational corporations.
Nonetheless, there were many signs of hope and determination. On the slopes of Ecuador’s highest mountain, Chimborazo, we stayed in an Indian village with particularly inspiring and innovative economic development strategies. Thanks to a grant from the Canadian Agency for International Development and help from Canadian expatriates, the village was capitalizing on a growing global market for exotic adventure travel destinations. It launched a mountain and eco-tourism guide service and built a guesthouse for mountain climbers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and other adventure enthusiasts, all of which created jobs for its young people. It was an example of how globalization could work in favor of the poor.
In Ecuador, my eyes were opened to a part of the world that has been ignored by the American press because of the focus on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terrorism. But it’s also a region that could easily fall into turmoil should we continue to follow short-sighted and ill-begotten polices like the ARI. I lament the fact that our own government spends millions of tax dollars militarizing the region, rather than supporting projects that provide true hope and an alternative to the drug trade for the region’s impoverished people.