ECUADOR: The Ecuador Reader

When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.

As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.

The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.

ECUADOR: By drone

Join me on a neat little trip by drone, starting in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and a major trading port.

Then the beautiful rugged Andes in the middle of the country, and Quito, located high up in them:

Then down past the volcanoes into the Ecuadorian Amazon forest of the interior:

And to come back as far as you can go in the other direction, and watch the sea turtles from above in the Galapagos:

ECUADOR: Real life on the Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George in 2006 – Source

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being an incredible untouched wilderness with some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; species that gave Darwin the insight into developing his theory of evolution. These islands were uninhabited by humans initially and only visited by whalers and explorers until the 19th century, when it was annexed by Ecuador.

The human impact on the Galapagos’ ecosystem has been immense – the introduction of goats (leading to Project Isabela and the use of Judas goats), invasive species and diseases, consumption of tortoises and other wildlife for food, permanent human habitation, the massive tourism industry that has grown over past decades, climate change, and plastic pollution.

Radiolab made an incredible podcast on the reality of the Galapagos – asking how and if conservation can actually work, and if we can ever really return nature to a “primeval” state. They also touch on Lonesome George, goats, Darwin’ finches, but also the politics in Ecuador, including with voters permanently living and working on the Galapagos. Listen here.

For those living on Galapagos, the reality isn’t too rosy either – there’s deep poverty and a sense of being ignored by the central Ecuadorian government, while trying both to support a livelihood and not destroy the wilderness that provides this livelihood.

As for the rare and varied wildlife itself, there’s a lot of classic and current documentaries, with the BBC / David Attenborough ones clearly setting the gold standard for nature docs. However, I wanted to share a REALLY old school one from the 60s, narrated by Prince Phillip, of all people.

ECUADOR: Project Isabela and the Judas Goat

So the video below is really entertaining but frames Project Isabela as a ridiculous human-animal war like the Australian Emu War of legend, but really, it’s more like Australia’s attempts to stop invasive species like cane toads or rabbits, or New Zealand’s war on land predators. However, unlike in the Antipodes, this project has actually been quite successful.

Goats had been introduced into the Galapagos Islands a few centuries ago, and were so successful that they were consuming all the plant life needed for native species like the Galapagos Tortoise – the ecological devastation was so severe that the tortoise was near extinction in the late 20th century. However, using extreme prejudice (sharpshooters in helicopters) and tricks like Judas Goats, the Ecuadorian government was able to eradicate the goats and work on restoring the natural habitat.

Here’s a bit more serious look at the same from the BBC, including comments from Ecuadorean conservationists. (Warning – video shows goats being shot).

Unsurprisingly, shooting down thousands and thousands of animals, even if an invasive species, was controversial. However, it was successful – in 2006, the Galapagos Islands were declared free of all large introduced mammals that were threatening the native wildlife: goats, pigs, and donkeys.

What did I learn: GABON

This month I learned more about Gabon – a country I had very little knowledge about when I started!

I focused a lot on politics in Gabon, especially President Ali Bongo – who holds power despite ill health, and inherited control of the country from his father Omar Bongo on his death (while Ali’s mother has taken her career in a different direction). The 2016 election still resonates deeply around Gabon’s politics and culture – the opposition almost ousted Bongo democratically, but vote rigging and then a violent crackdown balanced the tables back in Bongo’s favour.

France’s role in Gabon also kept coming up – like most of French Africa, Gabon is economically and fiscally tied to the former colonial power, and Gabon is particular was the poster child for La Françafrique – France’s neocolonial method of keeping control and access to resources in its former colonies.

Gabon’s own natural resources play a big part in the country’s story – the export of oil and timber, the deposits of uranium (including a rare natural nuclear reactor), and Gabon’s interesting new position as a climate leader, where it uses a carbon-negative status to garner international investment.

Gabon’s thick forest is also home to incredible natural wildlife, some of which is vanishingly rare in the rest of the world – forest elephants, beach hippos, and western lowland gorillas. There’s some amazing videos of them in the wild (including the famous mirror test). I also got a chance just a few days ago to see some of these Gabonese animals in-person at the Calgary Zoo – they’re part of an international western lowland gorilla breeding program, as the species is critically endangered. I even got an up-close from a soon-to-be mother who had propped her feet up on the glass to relax.

Nature and politics aside, Gabon also has some really interesting culture and media – lots of good podcasts, radio, tv shows like Mami Wata (please point me in the direction of episode 2!), movies like Boxing Libreville, Yannis Davy Guibinga‘s photography, and Angèle Rawiri’s novel The Fury and Cries of Women. There’s also great music, including modern pop from Shan’L, Arielle T, Latchow, J-Rio, 80s disco from Ondendo, and traditional musical instruments like the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow. On top of that, I got to learn more about beautiful traditional weddings and Bwiti healing.

As for Gabonese cuisine, I definitely got to try a lot of new things – nyembwé chicken with rondelles was really tasty, and iporo is a great way to cook cassava leaves. I also found some good instant fufu and a great baked banana recipe. However, I may have had my biggest culinary failure of this year (not great since it’s only February) – I learned a hard lesson about checking an ingredient’s freshness with odika chicken.

GABON: More podcasts

Boulevard Triomphal, Libreville – Source

Some more podcasts from and about Gabon – language as marked!

The Talking Point: African Perspectives – Gabon (En) – If you’re looking to get your head around just the basics of Gabon, this South African podcast has a good interview with the head of a Gabonese ex-pat organization in the country. The interviewee wants to get more into the meat of the political struggles, but also wants to show Gabon well and promote the lovely things about it.

France Culture: Gabon, comment sortir de l’impasse? (Fr) – French analysis from 2016 during the contested election between Ali Bongo and Jean Ping – it covers the vote rigging, the violence, and the media blackout, but also covers the political history that lead up this, including France’s involvement in Gabon’s politics – all in 7 minutes.

Sky News ClimateCast: How do you put a price on nature? (En) – Gabon is one of the most forested countries and has some of the lowest levels of deforestation, making it not just a home for incredible biodiversity, but as a vital carbon sink. This makes Gabon is one of the few carbon-negative countries, taking in through its forests more carbon than it emits – even with an oil industry. However the podcast looks into Gabon’s economic choice over its forests as its oil reserves begin to run low – it could log the forests, or it could solicit investments from other countries to keep its forests intact. The question is if other countries will pay to stop Gabon from logging, and would this model work elsewhere?

RFI Couleurs tropicales – Sémaine Speciale Gabon Ep 1 (Fr) – The first episode of a multi-part series on RFI’s African music show focusing exclusively on music from Gabon and its diaspora. It’s more of a DJ set with a bit of interview clips and artist details mixed in (all the artist names are listed in the description). Really high energy and fun, with a host with a lot of national pride about Gabon’s music scene.

Urban FM: Mystères Urbains (Fr) – This is so much fun if you like spooky campy stuff, this Gabonese podcast covers urban legends, occult, and monsters from across the country. I listened to one on an urban legend of the “Devil’s Cat” – a lesson in kindness to animals that builds off superstitions around black cats.

GABON: Streetviews

I’ve been having fun poking through the streetviews of Gabon on Google – there’s hasn’t been comprehensive street-by-street coverage yet, so it’s just what individuals have uploaded themselves. There’s a total mix – some beautiful and scenic views and some very prosaic or random ones. One of the prettiest is this sunrise drone shot of Libreville.

Also on a quiet early morning in front of a fancy hotel in Libreville. It makes me feel like that first jetlagged morning on vacation when you wake up at an unholy hour and go out for a walk just as the day wakes. There’s also an nicely decorated mosque next door and flags of neighbouring countries in front.

A nice shot of the beach in Loango National Park, a large park with rare protected ecosystems and wildlife, including the famed “surfing hippos“.

A view from the top of the Kongou falls, way in the interior.

I like this one, because it not only gives you a sense of the thick forests around the country, but this one guy seamlessly getting three times in the shot.

There are lots of really random streetviews of offices, stores, and other buildings. I like this upstairs of a homegoods store mainly because I really want that multi-coloured square rug.

This one I like for no other reason that this random office in Gabon has the exact same colour combination as my own living room.

We’re two of a kind.

GABON: An all-natural nuclear reactor

In a mine in Oklo, near Franceville in southeastern Gabon, scientists in the 70s found a rich vein of uranium ore. However, when they tested it, they found it was weirdly missing a certain isotope – it had a makeup more like spent nuclear fuel than natural radioactive material. This was something that shouldn’t happen with untouched natural uranium.

It turns out that two billion years ago, specific conditions underground created a natural nuclear reactor, one that used water to transfer heat and moderate output much the same way that power plants do. That used up the radioactive isotopes, so by the time humans evolved, figured out nuclear power, and went looking for uranium, they were long gone. Here’s a good explanation of how it worked: