Agricultural frontier and demographic transition in the upper Morona-Santiago watersheds, Ecuador

The Upper Morona and Santiago watersheds are located in eastern Ecuador. They are the homeland of the Shuar, an Indian group also known as the Jívaros, which in Ecuadorian Spanish means fierce, rebellious and savage people. This reputation derives from the Shuar’s history of head-hunting, raiding, witchcraft feuding and hostility towards outsiders, which made their territory off-limits to Ecuadorians and travellers for about 400 years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Shuar still followed their traditional tropical forest hunting-horticulturist livelihood system. They were settled in hamlets of five to ten long houses each, scattered over an immense, depopulated region, and separated by large buffer areas. Population density was about 1.2 inhabitants per square kilometre.

In the 1960s, the Government of Ecuador created a special institution - the Centro de Reconversión Económica del Azuay, Cañar y Morona-Santiago (CREA) - to build the infrastructure for massive colonization of Shuar territory. To escape pressure from the colonists, many Shuar abandoned the valley and settled in the hills. They sought protection from missionaries against the colonists’ abuse, converted to Catholicism, sent their children to boarding schools, and started to combine indigenous slash-and-burn agriculture with cattle ranching on behalf of the missionaries.

In the mid-1960s, the missionaries founded an ethnic organization called the Shuar Federation. Its objectives were to defend indigenous land rights, ensure that development benefits reached Shuar communities, and preserve indigenous cultural and ethnic identity. The Shuar Federation promoted the registration of Shuar settlements as legally acknowledged cooperatives (Centros), the procurement of agricultural land titles, the provision of credit and technical assistance for extensive cattle ranching, and the extension of bilingual education, modern health care and transport services.

Over the next 20 years, the federation achieved its development objectives, but at a high price in terms of deforestation, the extinction of most hunting and gathering species, and degradation of fragile hillside land. This was mainly the result of the missionaries and the federation complying with existing laws, which did not recognize the existence of “Indian land” in the Amazon, but only State property to be distributed to individuals or legally recognized groups (i.e., colonization co-operatives) according to their “exploitation capability”. This policy had already led many colonists to clear forest and create pastures as an inexpensive way of supporting their claims to huge land extensions. The Shuar Federation secured significant land titles to many Shuar settlements in the same way. In addition, cattle rearing provided people with the income for school fees, health services and manufactured goods.

Over the same period, modern health care helped to reduce under-five mortality from 267 per 1 000 in 1976, to 99 per 1 000 in 1992, and the total population grew by about 4 percent a year. By the early 1990s, population density was already 5.2 people per square kilometre of entitled land - four to five times higher than it had been before colonization - and was expected to reach 10.6 people/km2 by 2006. Nobody in the federation knew whether there was sufficient land to sustain the livelihoods of all these people, and the Shuar Federation started to include environmental sustainability among its major objectives. Farm-level agroforestry was introduced, and new income-generating activities based on indigenous expertise and the diversification of production were tested. Family planning services were provided, despite their low cultural acceptability and the missionaries’ resistance.

Although these initiatives may help to improve the human ecology of Morona-Santiago upland watersheds and prevent environmental catastrophe, none of them will be able to restore the ecological conditions and livelihood strategies that existed before colonization and demographic transition.

Adapted from G. Borrini-Feyerabend, G Pimbert and M. Pimbert. 2005. Sharing power. Learning-by-doing in co-management of natural resources throughout the world. Tehran, IIED and IUCN/CEESP/CMWG, Cenesta. Available at:

last updated:  Thursday, October 4, 2007