Ecuador, Geography

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Ecuador, Geography

Ecuador's borders have been in doubt during most of the nation's existence. When it seceded from Gran Colombia in 1830, the new nation claimed 282,972 square miles. Two years later with the incorporation of the Galápagos Islands the figure increased to 285,944 square miles. Colombia and Peru disputed Ecuador's claim to much of this territory, however. Border incidents became a frequent source of friction among the three nations. Ecuador and Colombia finally settled their boundary conflict in 1916; an agreement with Peru has proved more difficult to achieve.

Most of the area claimed by both Ecuador and Peru was in the Oriente, the lands east of the Andes. Ecuador failed to occupy the region effectively. In contrast, Peru advanced steadily into the disputed territory. By 1892 the southern republic had occupied 46,772 square miles of the contested area and claimed another 154,600 square miles. After two wars and decades of conflict, Ecuador and Peru seemingly agreed to a firm border in 1942 by signing the Protocol of Rio de Janeiro. The agreement reduced Ecuador to approximately 105,800 square miles. President José Maria Velasco Ibarra repudiated the accord in 1960, claiming that it had been imposed by force of arms. The issues remain unsettled and border clashes continue in the region.

The twin cordilleras of the Andes, which traverse the country from north to south, divide mainland Ecuador into three distinct geographic zones. These great mountain ranges include among their high peaks Mount Chimborazo (20,561 feet above sea level), Cotopaxi (19,347 feet), Cayambe (18,996 feet), and Antisana (18,228 feet). They partition the country into the Oriente, or eastern region, the Sierra, or highland region, and the Costa, or coastal region.

The Oriente contains approximately 46 percent of the national territory. It extends from the foothills of the eastern cordillera to the lower regions of the Amazon basin. Most of the area is a single floodplain covered with tropical woodlands and rain forest. This hot and humid region has a heavy annual rainfall that ranges from 71.4 inches in the south to 166.6 inches in the north. Median temperatures range from 73F to 80F. The Oriente has an excellent system of navigable rivers, but they flow southeastward, away from the heavily settled parts of Ecuador into Brazil and the Atlantic.

The Oriente is sparsely populated and, until recently, produced nothing of sufficient value to attract large-scale settlement or investment. Only since the 1960s with the discovery of petroleum has the region begun to enter the mainstream of national political and economic life. Previously the area did not command national attention unless a border dispute became the subject of intense diplomatic activity or exploded into open conflict. Since most of the Oriente's tiny population consisted of Indians with no political power, the national government could avoid committing its scarce development capital to the area. Even if sufficient capital had existed, the contemporary level of technology could not develop the area efficiently. The cost of exploiting the Oriente remained prohibitive, even after World War II, when scientific advances removed many barriers. Circumstances changed in the late 1960s because of the growing world demand for energy, dwindling petroleum reserves, and the rise of OPEC. At that time significant petroleum deposits were confirmed in the Oriente's Aguarico basin. The increase in the world market price of oil made the cost of developing the area acceptable. The Oriente is an important focus of national concern and government development policy. Petroleum resources comprise a sizeable portion of Ecuador's exports and the government's budget revenues.

The highlands, sandwiched between the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental, comprise about a quarter of the nation's territory. This central zone is divided into a series of narrow basins formed when lava flows linked the Andean ranges. The eleven basins between 7,029 feet and 9,075 feet—Tulcán, Ibarra, Quito, Ambato, Riobamba, Alausí, Cañar, Cuenca, Jubones, Loja, and Macará—are isolated from each other as the sierra is from the Oriente or from the coast. Each basin varies from mountainous to slightly rolling terrain and, in most, there are deep valleys cut by streams. The rivers that drain the region are not navigable in the highlands. All the basins are densely populated, with most of the land exploited either for subsistence agriculture or for livestock.

Temperatures range from below freezing above the permanent snow line (about 16,689 feet) to a pleasant 71F in the subtropical valley. Sierra agriculture varies with altitude. Most basins contain four climatic zones. The páramos, a barren windswept region above 10,065 feet, are used for pasture and to grow potatoes and other native tubers. The altiplano, which lies between 8,052 feet, and 10,065 feet, is suitable for grain cultivation and pasture. The growing season, however, is short and frequent frosts endanger even hearty crops. Annual rainfall in the páramos and the altiplano is about 40 inches. The temperate valley, at elevations from 6,039 feet to 8,052 feet, is devoted to a variety of temperature crops. The average yearly rainfall of 20 inches is supplemented by the runoff from higher altitudes. Located at elevations between 3,018 feet and 6,039 feet are tropical valleys that produce vegetables, cotton, sugarcane, citrus fruits, as well as the highland staples: potatoes and grains.

The productivity of the sierra varies. Centuries of continuous cultivation by primitive methods have eroded and depleted soils. The fertility of the Ambato and Riobamba basins suffers because the soil is of recent volcanic origin and does not retain moisture. In contrast, the Cuenca basin, with ample rainfall and one of the least porous soils in the highlands, enjoys much greater agricultural potential. Slightly less favorable conditions exist in Quito; the rolling hills in the southern part of the basin are the site of extensive grain cultivation and livestock raising.

The coastal, or littoral, region of Ecuador encompasses approximately 69,300 square miles of plain, hills, and Andean piedmont. It is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and by the Andes on the east. About half of the region is a low alluvial plain known as the Guayas lowlands; it lies below 990 feet and varies in width from 19 to 111 miles. The littoral region also contains two hilly areas: the foothills of the Andes that rise to an altitude of 1,617 feet and the hilly region that extends west of Guayaquil to the coast and northward.

The natural vegetation of the coast reflects the decrease in rainfall from north to south. While there are two rainy seasons at the Colombian border, most of the littoral has a single rainy season that becomes shorter as it moves south. The rain forests of the north give way to semideciduous forest and tropical woodlands in the south. Along the Santa Elena peninsula and in the extreme south only xerophytic shrubs can survive without irrigation. In the east, however, the foothills of the Andes receive enough precipitation to support rain forest.

The littoral region is very productive. Coastal soils are generally fertile, well watered, with a temperature that averages between 73F and 77F. While a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown for local consumption, coastal agriculture is oriented primarily toward an export market. The Guayas lowlands, which extend north and southwest of Guayaquil, possess ideal conditions for tropical agriculture. Navigable rivers provide the region with access to the sea. As a result, the Guayas basin became the country's primary producer of agricultural exports including cacao, bananas, and coffee. Since these products constituted Ecuador's most important exports for most of the national period, the coast and its major port, Guayaquil, dominated the country's economy.

Across the country, Ecuador must contend with increasing deforestation, soil erosion, landslides, desertification, and the impact of prolonged droughts.

The Galápagos Islands, or the Archipiélago de Colón, are a group of volcanic islands about 600 miles due west of the mainland. The islands suffer from a scarcity of water, and consequently they are thinly populated and of little economic value. However, the wide variety of exotic fauna and flora that survives makes the Galápagos interesting to scientists and to tourists. The waters surrounding the archipelago are excellent fishing grounds, and in the 1980s fishing and related industries grew significantly.

See alsoAgriculture; Altiplano; Andes; Galápagos Islands; Guayaquil; Oriente (Ecuador).


Lilo Linke, Ecuador: Country of Contrasts, 3d ed. (1960, reissued 1981).

Additional Bibliography

Gerlach, Allen. Indians, Oil, and Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

Gómez E., Nelson. Transformación del espacio nacional: Pasado y presente del Ecuador. Quito: EDIGUIAS C., 1999.

Pearson, David, and Les Beletsky. Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2005.

Winckell, Alain. Las condiciones del medio natural. Quito: C.E.D.I.G., 1997.

Wunder, Sven. The Economics of Deforestation: The Example of Ecuador. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

                                     Linda A. RodrÍguez