If you have been following the news in Latin America, you probably know about the protests we had in Ecuador a few weeks ago. The unrest was sparked when Ecuador’s long standing fuel subsidy program was abruptly eliminated as part of a complex smorgasbord of austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of a controversial loan agreement. In short, Ecuador took a loan from the IMF, but, in order to receive the IMF money, they had to cut subsidies, increase privatization and eliminate government jobs and benefits. And so, as fuel prices rose dramatically overnight, so too did the Ecuadorian people.
I know that the image of a rowdy protest in which tear gas is deployed and riot gear is used may seem alarming to many in the “developed world”–I know my own parents tend to find it alarming. But the truth is that for those of us living in the developing world, protests are sort of an accepted part of how government works–or a reaction to when it doesn’t work, and not an uncommon occurrence. Most of the time these demonstrations do not impact day to day life and never make the news. The protests earlier this month, however, were disruptive and did make the news. That being said, even this dramatic display of civil displeasure lasted less than 2 weeks; and, upon resolution, Ecuador went back to being completely normal as if nothing had happened, literally, overnight.
Some may see the news in Ecuador, and think, “yikes! I’m not going to travel or send my kid to travel in Ecuador….it’s unstable! There is unrest! Unruly, non-English speaking brown people shouting in the streets–abandon ship!” etc. etc. And maybe as a business, GATA should not be highlighting this particular event–not bring attention to the less palatable aspects of our homes and destinations. Instead, we want to make the case for why the honest fact that Latin America faces real challenges and is not simply a paradise vacation resort makes it even more important to support the work that GATA does and to visit our host communities. Hear me out…
First of all, we are not asking you to send your children into a conflict zone. Our first priority always, always, ALWAYS is safety. Regardless of our bottom line, GATA will not ever risk the safety of any of our travelers. We do not budge when it comes to our standards of safety–but that is a different conversation. What we are talking about is traveling with us when there is not an active period of unrest or security threat.
What we do at GATA is connect people. We give people from different cultures and different ways of life the chance to create relationships with each other. Our travelers have the unique opportunity to experience the life of an Ecuadorian farmer or indigenous community member or local child by suspending their own reality for a week or two and living the life of their Ecuadorian hosts alongside them. GATA travelers are not tourists, we are active participants immersed and invested in a place and its people. We are not here to be served but to serve and to learn and to exchange whatever it is we have to offer, as equals. There are many lessons that our travelers return home having learned, but perhaps most important of all is the humanization of what was once foreign–transforming the faces of national geographic photographs from exotic snapshots into portraits that mirror the friends we have made around the world, the families we have worked with, eaten with, and laughed with.
What does this have to do with civil unrest? Our children are the leaders of tomorrow (especially the kids who go on GATA trips who participate in our comprehensive global leadership program). Imagine if we raise a generation of leaders who, the next time some far flung developing nation is experiencing conflict or tyranny or unrest, instead of saying “unruly brown people–abandon ship!”, they see the faces of their friends and equals in those news stories. What if our future leaders understand the complex and fragile balance of life that allows a family to survive on small scale, sustainable agriculture in the mountains of Ecuador. Instead of thinking that protests were just a bunch of rowdy hooligans in some “backwards” nation, they might understand that the elimination of fuel subsidies can have a devastating impact on a family, a community, a country. It can mean the difference between barely learning to read and getting a college education. It can mean the difference between life and death when giving birth. It can mean the difference between having a home and way of life, and being hungry and begging on the streets.
We recently concluded two trips with an international school in Quito. We took 6th and 8th graders to two different sustainable communities in Ecuador. These students are the sons and daughters of both foreign diplomats and Ecuador’s most powerful and wealthy families. They will most likely grow up to occupy some of the most influential positions in Ecuadorian government and society. By traveling with GATA, they will take the experience they have had in our small communities with them into those positions of power. In 20 years, we are hopeful that we may have leaders who are able to see their countrymen on the other side of the negotiating table (or on the other side of the riot shields) as equals, and understand the impact that policies have on working families or indigenous groups or farmers.
We are hopeful for this future because of the work we do with GATA in connecting people. We have the same hope for travelers who come from the United States–that they will take their experience traveling with us in Ecuador or Colombia or Nepal and use it as a lens through which to see the world for the rest of their lives and as a catalyst to take action and do whatever they can to make the world a little better, a little safer, and a little kinder.
And so, our argument is this: don’t abandon a place just because you see turbulence in the news–embrace it. Isolation only breeds further misunderstanding, conflict, and inequality. Obviously, we always want you to be safe, and to not travel recklessly–but if there isn’t an active threat to personal safety, consider a trip with GATA as a small investment in building a better, more peaceful future for all of us.