The Monitoring Well, Reflections on Geology & Society

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June 10, 2024

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Before going on to discuss the geology and geopolitics of Ecuador, here are some news items I thought were interesting.

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June 10, 2024

Geology and the Fate of Societies – Ecuador

Figure 1a – EcuadorCredit: CIA World Factbook, public domain

Figure 1b – Location MapCredit: CIA World Factbook, public domain

The Republic of Ecuador is in the northwest part of South America; it is bordered by Columbia to the north, Peru to the east and south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Ecuador includes the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the total area of Ecuador is 283,561 square kilometres (km2) including the Galapagos Islands. Of the total area, 276,841 km2 is land and 6,720 km2 is water.

Ecuador is a unitary presidential republic; the President is Daniel Noboa, and the Vice President is Verónica Abad Rojas. The legislature consists of a single house, the National Assembly. The Capital City is is Quito (metropolitan population 2,889,703), and its largest city is Guayaquil (metropolitan population 3,618,450).

Also according to the CIA, 18,309,984 people live in Ecuador. Of the approximately 18.3 million people in Ecuador, 77.5% are Mestizo (mixed Indigenous and White); 7.7% are Montubio (a distinct mixed race group); 7.7% are Indigenous; 4.7% are considered or Afro-Ecuadorian, Black, or Mulatto; 2.2% are considered White; and the remaining are something other. Spanish, spoken by 98.6% of the population, is an official language together with indigenous languages Kichwa (Quechua) and Shuar.

The largest religious group in Ecuador are Roman Catholics at 68.2% of the population. Protestant Christians, make up 19% of the population; 1.4% are Jehovah’s Witnesses; and the remaining are either no religion or something other.

Figure 2 – Demographic Profile of Ecuador
Credit: U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, public domain

The demographic profile of Ecuador shows a population that is stabilizing. The median age is 28 years; the total fertility rate is 2.21 births/woman, and the annual population growth rate is 0.94%. Life expectancy for both sexes is 74.9 years. 64.8% of total Ecuadoran population lives in urban areas. Almost half of the population is in the basins and valleys of the Andes Mountains, together with large concentrations also found along the western coastal strip. Few people live in the rainforests of the east.

Emigration from Ecuador is common, especially during times of economic stress. In recent years, many of the people seeking entry to the United States from Mexico are from Ecuador. Ecuador also hosts refugees from Columbia and Venezuela.

In terms of education, 93.9% of the Ecuadoran population can read and write. While Ecuadoran law requires about 9 years of education per child, children in rural areas are likely to attend 7 to 8 years while in urban areas 10 to 11 years of education are more common. About 14% of young people go on to post-secondary education. Tuition at state post-secondary institutions is free.

To round out the general facts on Ecuador, here are links to a couples of interesting videos:

Geology

Figure 3 – Extract of Detailed Tectonic Plate Boundaries 
Credit: Eric Gaba (Sting), Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

A good way to understand the geology of Ecuador is to first look at the tectonic framework. The heart of the Ecuadoran geology is in the Andes Mountains and the Andean Orogeny that formed them. The Andes were formed by the subduction of oceanic crust under the South American Plate. The oceanic crust subducting under Ecuador is the Nazca Plate, which is moving east.

Figure 4 – Tectonic Subduction
Credit: KDS4444, Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

In Ecuador, the Andean Orogeny brought together tectonic blocks of continental crust in a complex process known as accretion. This process began in the Early Cretaceous when island arcs accreted onto the main body of northwestern South America as the oceanic crust subducted under the continental crust. The Cordillera Real of Ecuador was originally a belt of volcanoes that accreted onto South America during this time. You can see the belts of tectonic terranes in the geological map of Ecuador, Figure 5, below.

Figure 5 – Geological Map of Ecuador
Credit: European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC), public domain

The major terranes in Ecuador are, from east to west, are:

  • Various continental and continental margin rocks, ranging in age from Paleozoic to Quaternary;

  • Oceanic terranes, island arc volcanics and sediments, Cretaceous in age;

  • Continental volcanic arc deposits, Cretaceous to Quaternary in age; and

  • Post accretionary sediments: greywackes, sandstones, and conglomerates.

The Galapagos Islands are almost entirely volcanic deposits, Neogene and Quaternary in age.

Resources

Agriculture

Figure 6 – Calves on a Pasture at El Chaupi Organic Dairy Farm, Ecuador
Credit: Julia Rubinic, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

According to the CIA World Factbook 29.7%of the land in Ecuador is used for agriculture (4.7% arable land, 5.6% permanent crops, and 19.4% permanent pasture). Of the remainder, 38.9% is forest and the remaining 31.4% has other or no use. About 10,000 km2 of agricultural land is irrigated.

Major cereal crops in Ecuador include maize, grown since ancient times, but also rice and wheat. Native to the Andes, potatoes are a common crop. Tropical specialty crops such as bananas (world’s largest exporter), cacao (for chocolate), and coffee are also grown, especially for export. The African oil palm is grown for vegetable oil. Perishable crops grown for export via air cargo include flowers, strawberries, asparagus, and snow peas. Other cash crops include sugarcane and tobacco.

The large area of permanent pasture is an indication that livestock production is important. Different areas of the country tend to specialize in particular livestock production. For example, pastures in lowland areas are used to raise beef cattle, whereas dairy cattle, pigs, and guinea pigs are raised in highland areas. Chickens are raised everywhere and goats are commonly raised in the south.

Statistics on agricultural production from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) can be found here. The FAO also publishes other information on food availability in Ecuador. For example, 37.3% of the Ecuadoran population suffered from moderate of severe food insecurity in 2022.

Forests

Figure 7 – Ecuadoran Cloud Forestry
Credit: User:Hjvannes, Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

As noted above, 38.9% of the land area in Ecuador is forest. There are three main forest types in the country:

  1. The Amazon rainforest – 62% of the country’s forest;

  2. The Montane (sierra) forests that are on the western and eastern slopes, at lower and upper levels, and towards the Andean high peaks – 21% of the forest in the country; and

  3. The tropical rainforest in the coastal plains of the Pacific region – 17% of Ecuadorian forests.

Also of interest in Ecuador, within the Amazon region, are the Cloud Forests.

Timber production includes species such as eucalyptus, mangroves, pines, cedars, walnut, and balsa wood. Statistics on forest production from the FAO in Ecuador can be found here.

Mineral Resources

Figure 8 – Drilling Rig in Ecuador 
Credit: EP Petroecuador,
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Metallic mineral production in Ecuador includes antimony, copper, gold, and silver.

Industrial minerals produced in Ecuador includes barite, cement, kaolin clay, feldspar, pumice, industrial silica, construction aggregate (sand, gravel, and crushed stone).

Ecuador is also a big producer of petroleum and natural gas, producing 172,599,000 barrels of oil and 310 million cubic metres of natural gas in 2021.

Natural gas is produced offshore in the Amistad field, Gulf of Guayaquil. Petroleum is produced in about 112 fields including:

  • About 26 active fields including the Auca Field in Orellana Province, and the Shushufindi Field in Napo Province operated by Empresa Pública de Hidrocarburos del Ecuado (EPHE);

  • Some 85 fields in the Amazon basin with operations in Guayas, Napo, Orellana, and Sucumbios Provinces operated by Petroamazonas EP, a subsidiary of EPHE; and

  • The Sacha oilfield in Sucumbios Province, operated by Operaciones Rio Napo, a subsidiary of EPHE.

In 2023 the people of Ecuador voted to halt oil drilling in Amazon reserve.

For further information on the mineral resources in Ecuador, check put the USGS Minerals Yearbook and the Mindat.org summary on Ecuador. (Mindat doesn’t have an interactive minerals map for the country).

Climate

Figure 9 – Köppen Climate Classification Map of Ecuador 
Credit: Ali Zifan, Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The CIA World Factbook on Ecuador describes the climate as “tropical along coast, becoming cooler inland at higher elevations; tropical in Amazonian jungle lowlands”. The Köppen climate classification map for Ecuador shows a varied climate that includes equatorial climate (Af), monsoon climate (Am), tropical savanna climate (Aw), warm desert climate (BWh), warm semi-arid climate (BSh), cold desert climate (BWk), cold semi-arid climate (BSk), temperate Mediterranean climate (Csb), temperate oceanic climate (Cfb), and cool oceanic climate (Cfc).

Given the variety of climate, Ecuador may be a pleasant place to visit. Travel advisories (here and here) warn of high rates of crime as well as dangers from drug trafficking cartels in the vicinity of the Columbian border and minefields near the Peruvian border. On January 9, 2024, the Government of Ecuador declared a nationwide state of “internal armed conflict” to allow security forces to better respond to a sharp increase in gang violence across the country. If you still want to go, check out Climates to travel and Lonely Planet. Also, if you want to just visit the Galapagos Islands, check out this site.

History and Geopolitics

History

Figure 10 – Inca Empire in South America
Credit: Earnold12, Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The history of Ecuador can be divided into four convenient divisions:

  • Ecuador prior to the arrival of the Spaniards;

  • The Spanish conquest and dominion;

  • Independence from Spain as part of Gran Colombia;

  • Independence as the Republic of Ecuador including various border disputes in the neighbours.

Pre-Columbian Ecuador included a number of indigenous cultures. By the time of European contact, Ecuador was part of the Inca Empire.

In 1530, 163 Spaniardsunder conquistadorFrancisco Pizarrooverthrew the Inca Empire. The Spanish conquest of the Incas was aided by a civil war that occurred immediately before Pizarro arrived and also by the new diseases and weapons that the Spaniards brought with them, although smallpox preceded their arrival and was an underlying cause of the Inca Civil War.

By 1544, the Spanish colony in what is now Ecuador was part of the Spain's colonies in the New World under the Viceroyalty of Peru. Local Spanish government was organized under the Quito Audiencia. In 1720, the Spanish re-organized their South American holdings and the Quito Audiencia became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.

The Spanish settled the country and set up encomiendaestates. Under this system, the Spaniards ruled as landowners with the native population providing the labour force – slaves or serfs depending on how you want to present it. This suited the Spanish elite well, the enslaved natives not so well. The Spaniards also tended to marry, or just have children with, local women thus developing the current mixed race population of the country.

The Spanish authorities tended to look down on the local elites in their colonies, the Criollos having no friends at the Spanish court and the best positions in the colonial government were reserved for those who came straight from Spain, the Peninsulares. The tensions between these elite factions broke out into open revolt in 1809. Spanish troops crushed the revolt, but in 1822 a moresuccessful revolt resulted in independence from Spain. Initially, Ecuador was part of the Gran Colombia federation that included modern day Columbia, Panama, and Venezuela. In 1830, following war between newly independent Peru and Gran Columbia, Ecuador became an independent country.

An important event in the early 1800’s in Ecuador, at least to geologists, was Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. Based upon his observations during the voyage of HMS Beagle, Darwin later wrote his famous work, On the Origin of Species in 1859, the book that gave us modern evolutionary theory.

Life was far from peaceful for newly independent Ecuador, you can find a list of their foreign conflicts here. Within the Republic of Ecuador, conflicts within the Criollo elite defined the internal politics in the early years, 1830-1860. This conflict resulted in a period of anarchy 1859 followed by a conservative reaction under the leadership of Gabriel García Moreno. Between 1860 and 1895, the conservative factions were in control of the country. In 1895, following the death of Moreno, liberal factions under the leadership of Eloy Alfaro, took control of Ecuador. The liberal era lasted until 1925. In 1925, factional strife overthrew the liberal regime; this factional strife lasted from 1925 to 1944. During this time of José María Velasco Ibarra(Velasco) became president in 1934 and dominated politics in Ecuador, often as president, until his final term ended in 1972. In between Velasco presidencies other men held the office, often being overthrown in coup d’etat. During this time of internal turmoil, Ecuador was also involved in a border dispute with Peru, a dispute that led Ecuador to invade Peru in 1941. The war was settled in the Rio Protocol.

From 1944 to 1960 Velasco switched places with other politicians including Galo Plaza Lasso. After 1960 political life became unstable, with serial military governments under various leaders holding power until 1979. Democratic elections in 1979 led to the presidency of Jaime Roldós Aguilera(Roldós) during which Ecuador entered into the Andean Common Market. A war broke out with Peru in 1981 after Roldós was killed in a plane crash. The accident that killed Roldóswas attributed by some to Peruvian agents or the CIA, depending on who you talked to. A number of political regimes ruled in the years following the death of Roldós. To add to their troubles, a devastating earthquake struck the country in March 1987.

Economic troubles and political disputes continue to afflict Ecuador until the present. Relations with Peru have not been peaceful, the Cenepa Warbroke out in 1995. In 2000, the Ecuadorean military staged a coup d'état. Also in 2000, the Ecuadorans adopted the United States dollar as their own official currency in attempt to stabilize the economy. Last year, Ecuador deployed infantry troops to the Peruvian border.

The military junta transferred rule to civilians in 2002, however, the situation rarely remained stable for long and there has been considerable political churn with the latest crisis being in 2023. Internal political disputes seem to be more popular than football in Ecuador, at least among the managerial class.

Geopolitics – Unfinished Business

Figure 11 – Peruvian M113 APC Deployed to the Ecuadoran Border
Credit: Ministerio de Defensa del Perú, Creative Commons
 Attribution 2.0 Generic license

It is clear from Ecuador’s history that the country is a troubled place. Internal political disputes often become violent and it is difficult for any government to maintain order for long. Crime, both petty and organized plagues the country. The government is not much better, the country ranks fairly poorly on the corruption index from Transparency International. One of the issues identified as a problem in dealing with corruption is infiltration by organized crime – judges and police can be bought. Clearly, the Ecuadorans have much work to do to clean up their act.

As if internal problems are not enough, Ecuador continues to have periodic border disputes with Peru. Whether or not this can be settled peacefully is open to question – the history suggests that it won’t be permanently settled anytime soon.

Ecuador’s problems with Columbia stem from a spill-over of Columbia’s drug cartels into Ecuador. While seemingly a law-enforcement problem, the trade in cocaine from the Andes region is powered by strong demand for the drug in its biggest markets: the United States and Western Europe. Markets engender powerful forces and it is difficult to work against them. Law enforcement officials, judges and police, are often faced with the choice of take the bribe or take a bullet (plata o plumo). The amount of money available almost makes corruption inevitable.

This brings us to the Great Powers. The United States is a major trading partner with Ecuador and has a strong interest in Ecuador’s peace and stability. However, as a major market for cocaine, the USA is also a destabilizing actor in the region. Finally, the Chinese have a trade interest in Ecuador, having recently signed a free trade deal between the two countries. Time will tell if that interest grows into something else. The Chinese are already seeking to increase their influence on the countries in America’s back yard. The Chinese have lots of motives for this including distracting the Americans from other areas of mutual rivalry.

That winds up this very short description of Ecuador. Follow up on the links if any of this interests you.

Standard Caveat

The purpose of my weblog postings is to spark people's curiosity in geology. Don't entirely believe me until you've done your own research and checked the evidence. If I have sparked your curiosity in the subject of this posting, follow up with some of the links provided here. If you want to, go out into the field and examine some rocks on your own with the help of a good field guide. Follow the evidence and make up your own mind.

In science, the only authority is the evidence.