UVM Students Gain Perspective in Ecuador
- By Erica H Houskeeper
Traveling to Ecuador tends to be a reality check for students.
A rural family of seven can live on as little as $80 a month in Ecuador. According to The World Bank, 35 percent of Ecuador’s population – about 4 million people – live in poverty. One and a half million Ecuadorians live in extreme poverty and cannot meet their nutritional requirements even if they spend everything they have on food.
University of Vermont faculty member Pete Shear leads the UVM "Politics of Land Use: Indigenous Politics, Alternative Social Models & Agroecology" travel study program in Ecuador. He believes that spending two weeks in Ecuador will certainly change a student’s perception of the world we live in.
“For a lot of my students, this is first time they have seen poverty and how poor people live,” says Shear, a native Vermonter and UVM alumnus (M.A. in geography) who moved to Ecuador 17 years ago and lives on a 25-acre farm. “What people like about this course is that they’re not staying at a five-star resort. We live with families in their homes and have a chance to really understand the culture.”
Now in its 10th year, Shear’s "Politics of Land Use" course is the longest, continuously running study abroad program at UVM. The popular course focuses on the social dynamism of Ecuador through volunteer work, community home-stays, and talks with political activists, students, campesino and indigenous organizations, and the rural agrarian people. The program is offered over winter session in December and January.
The course also has a strong environmental component. Almost half of Ecuador´s surface is covered by forests; the 18 percent percent of its territory is considered a protected area in order to conserve its unique biodiversity. But much is at stake. In Shear’s county, there is a proposal to establish a copper mine, and massive deforestation is an issue in Ecuador.
Students examine environmental issues and focus on solutions, actively participating in sustainable agriculture and small-scale economic development projects being implemented on Shear´s permaculture farm and rural community.
Shear’s students work at envisioning and creating a different future, particularly through sustainability, ecological economics and agriculture.
“We look at oil, copper, coffee and bananas as case studies,” Shear says. “We have students start thinking about their participation in the producer-consumer chain, and lifestyle choices.”
Laura Greenwood, a global studies major, participated in the program last year and attended a fall information session to talk to students interested in the program. Shear’s program had a profound effect on her.
“We were constantly reminded of how even our individual choices for consumption affect the greater scheme of the world due to this growing age of globalization,” she says. “The fact that a country as geographically small as Ecuador can house the largest amount of biodiversity in the world speaks wonders to how important every ecosystem is to preserve. I’d like to think I’m a more conscious consumer now; someone who understands that under every international contract or development project lays a local impact and population that speaks truth to what is really needed.”
The course also includes hiking and spending time on Shear’s farm, where he grows coffee, avocados and pineapples.
Shear returns to Vermont once a year in September to visit family and meet students interested in the program. Working with UVM students in Ecuador gives him hope for the future.
“When young adults come to Ecuador, and I see them really thinking about things, it gives me hope. On a global level, these students are in the top strata of privilege and will be running the world 20-30 years from now,” Shear says. “When they talk about dedicating their lives to sustainability, conservation or social work – part of the solution rather than part of the problem – it really gets me psyched about how much this generation is capable of creating a just and sustainable future.”
Interesting in studying abroad? Visit learn.uvm.edu for spring, summer and winter travel abroad programs at UVM.