The iguanas can stay, but everything else must go

January 12, 2001

As Ecuadoreans queue to leave, Oxford academics are working with local groups to put the country's economy back on track. Rob Stepney reports.

Giant iguanas used to hang out in the trees, but more obvious were the assorted beggars below. The old waterfront of Guayaquil city used to be derelict. "It was a no-man's land, a duelling place," recalls Tito Fernando Davila, who knows the area well and who is a principal architect of its restoration.

Traffic on the waterfront was also anarchic. Accidents and muggings meant this part of town was somewhere tourists were warned not to go, however bored they were waiting for a flight to the Galapagos Islands.

The area was left stranded when the city port moved downstream. Instead of connecting Guayaquil with the river, which was its reason for existence, this scruffy space acted as a barrier to it.

But regeneration of the abandoned waterfront is clearly seeding renewal of Ecuador's major port. "The tide has turned. The city has a way back to dignity," says Stuart Parker, an architect and director of the International Development Projects Office at Oxford Brookes University.

In collaboration with consultants from Peru, Argentina and Ecuador, the IDPO has played a major role in the regeneration of the Guayaquil waterfront.

The trees are still there; so are the iguanas. But the beggars and the traffic have gone. In their place are riverside restaurants and cafes, street signs based on pre-Inca designs, public sculptures, a mile of promenades, a Plaza C!vica used for concerts and fireworks, a covered market, hidden car parks and a National Museum of Modern and Pre-Columbian Art that is three parts completed.

"Shops and restaurants have opened in parts of the city that had long been boarded up," Parker says. "Much more needs to happen. But the project could eventually put Guayaquil on the international tourist map and make the city a major entry point for South America."

The work in Ecuador is a project that Oxford Brookes University vice-chancellor Graham Upton is happy to support. "The establishment of an international development office reflected the shift towards entrepreneurial activities that occurred in many universities, along with the trend of allying academic skills with private-sector partners," he says. "But there is also an important social agenda with this project."

Along with other institutions making the same change in status, when Oxford Brookes became a university it lacked established research activities in many areas covered by the older institutions. It could not compete with the university down the hill for medical funding, for example, nor with Cambridge for work on silicon chips. But it could build on local strengths to attract research funds from the private sector and the matching government money that follows.

At the level of undergraduate degrees, this sort of flexibility has paid off handsomely. Recognising that many of the world's most successful Formula One racing teams were within a 30-mile radius, Brookes redesigned an ordinary automotive engineering programme to concentrate (as the vice-chancellor puts it) on "cars that go very fast". The move paid off. So too have initiatives in course design related to Oxford's important publishing industry. "We try to be useful," Upton says.

The involvement in South America also has its source in local strengths. The work in Ecuador draws heavily on the university's Centre for Development and Emergency Planning. The centre, which last November won a Queen's Anniversary prize for its MSc in development practice, was established at Brookes in 1985-86 when Nabeel Hamdi moved there from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The university also had on site the experience of Richard Hayward at the Joint Centre for Urban Design. And there were links with the Engineering University of Lima, forged as a result of a British Council programme.

Together, Parker, Hamdi and Hayward form the core team supporting the local project management in Ecuador. They have also involved people from physical planning, environmental assessment and hotel and restaurant management departments.

Their status as academics offers particular advantages over those involved in the private sector. "Because we are not a private concern, we can get involved without seeming to threaten others' interests," Parker says. "And we can easily form links with other people who work in the non-commercial sector and with their organisations - as we did when we started working with Ian Swingland, who founded the Durrell Institute at the University of Kent, and who has been advising us on conservation biology."

Those involved in the Guayaquil project also believe that their work in Ecuador brings major dividends for their teaching activities. In 1998, 20 postgraduate students of development practice at Brookes and ten from MIT spent two weeks in Guayaquil on a field course. This month, a group of urban design students from Brookes is joining others from the Catholic University of Guayaquil for similar fieldwork.

That said, there is clearly an ethical imperative at work in Brookes's involvement in the Ecuadorean project, and such considerations might not find natural expression in a strictly commercial concern. "Put simply, we have a broader agenda," Parker says.

Hamdi agrees. "Development driven only by issues of cash and property is not always of help to the poor majority," he says. "The Guayaquil project was not just about making the city look good. Care was taken to create jobs and clean up the environment with minimal displacement of people."

When he was professor of educational psychology at Birmingham University, Upton was involved with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in a programme to help children with special educational needs in Nigeria. "The Guayaquil project may be on a larger scale, but the principle is the same," he says. "Universities should be involved in humanitarian projects."

The international support team has provided advice and an external audit, but the Guayaquil project was locally inspired. It was controlled by the Fundaci"n Malec"n, which brought together the city's commercial, banking, civic and environmental groups. And it was funded by public capital raised within Ecuador. ThFund

is was some achievement since the Ecuadorean economy was shrinking at the time.

In 1999, Ecuador had a gross domestic product of about $13 billion (£8.7 billion) and falling. The per capita GDP was $1,000, the annual rate of inflation 60 per cent and unemployment 10 per cent. Export earnings came from oil, agriculture, farmed shrimp and tuna. But the external debt equalled the country's economic output for the year.

Depending on the state of the international markets, Ecuador's major export might be bananas one year and oil the next. Expanding tourism could bring foreign exchange and a degree of stability to an economy that is otherwise stuck on the roller-coaster ride that comes with dependency on volatile commodity prices. Phase two of the Guayaquil project aims to help alleviate this problem.

The Galapagos Islands are Ecuador's greatest tourist asset. They provide a unique experience of unspoiled nature. But the islands' environment is exquisitely sensitive to outside interference, and expanding the number of visitors will destroy what people go there to see.

Sitting in the river half a mile from the waterfront of Guayaquil is an island of 2,000 virtually uninhabited hectares, undeveloped, fringed with mangrove swamps and home to 45 species of bird and 25 species of reptile. It is not the Galapagos, but Santay Island has potential as a conservation area. Its development could take the pressure off its more famous neighbour, and the island is rich enough to stand on its own as a centre of wildlife tourism.

On the work completed so far in Guayaquil, there is no outstanding debt. But the Santay Island project for low-impact tourist facilities will need substantial external resources. Discussions have started with the World Bank, which it is hoped will act as an agent for the Fundación Malecón in an approach to the Global Environment Fund. Working with their South American partners to achieve this is the next challenge the Brookes academics face.

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