Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban-System Evolution on the Frontier of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban-System Evolution on the Frontier of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Like the North American frontier, Ecuador's Amazonian margin has advanced in periodic waves. But the impetus has been extremely varied, interlacing periods of socioeconomic crisis with times of prosperity. Recent events in eastern Ecuador confirm that urbanization is a fundamental component of frontier development in South America. The urbanization process is not a sign, however, of regional economic strength. Capital gains at the periphery are transferred to the nation's core region. Even the larger boom towns display little functional specialization; they are, instead, precariously dependent on employment in the public-service sector. Nonetheless, urban centers in the Ecuadorian Amazon continue to grow and to drain surrounding rural areas of younger and more educated individuals. Keywords: Amazon, boom towns, Ecuador, frontier regions, regional development.

The he six provinces of the Ecuadorian Amazon--the Oriente--account for 48 percent of the nation's territory but contain only 4 percent of the population (INEC 1991). When oil was discovered there in the late 1960s, new access roads brought an end to the isolation of the region and facilitated large-scale spontaneous colonization of rain forest-dominated terrain. In the prepetroleum era colonists had been restricted mainly to the piedmont or the banks of navigable rivers, but the new waves of pioneers rapidly thrust the agricultural frontier deep into the northeastern Oriente (Figure 1).

Boom towns have become a fundamental feature of the frontier's landscape. To demonstrate this, we first review the literature on urban systems at the South American frontier, then present detailed analyses of Puyo and Nueva Loja, the two largest boom towns in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Our emphasis is on factors that have influenced their development: rural-urban migration, local primacy, and spatial interaction with other towns in the Oriente. We include references to the findings of other researchers of frontier development and compare the development of pioneer towns in the Ecuadorian Amazon with those in the coastal plain-the Costa. Our final comments focus on an examination of current negative and positive perceptions of the potential resilience of the Oriente and its urban network.


The ambiguous term frontier can be applied to either a relatively static border zone between neighboring states or a dynamic peripheral region in the throes of absorption into the national and global economies. John Friedmann recognizes two kinds of dynamic frontiers: those characterized by settlement and those dominated by extraction (1996).

Settlement frontiers are colonized by farmers who migrate from the established heartland of a nation to thinly populated margins in search of land. Ensuing pioneer rural communities are accompanied by remarkable boom towns that articulate the frontier economy with the rest of the nation and the world at large. As in the frontier characterized by Frederick Jackson Turner, the wilderness is tamed and the landscape evolves through successive stages of economic development (Turner 1920). Historical evidence reveals that settlement frontiers do not necessarily advance at a uniform rate. Expansion of the North American settlement frontier in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was sensitive to long-wave Krondatiev economic episodes. Prosperous periods associated with a push to the west alternated with stagnation of the frontier during economic depressions (Earle 1992; Berry 1996).

Extractive frontiers do not involve permanent rural settlement but are penetrated primarily to extract minerals, fuel, or timber for export to industrial regions. As in Alaska, the Canadian North, or the Australian interior, it is assumed that extractive frontiers will remain sparsely populated (Elazar 1996). In the absence of rural settlers, towns established for resource-extraction purposes eventually decline and become ghost towns once the resource is exhausted. …

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