In Ecuador the cities of the Sierra are located at an altitude of between 2,500 and 3,000 metres, with most being the centres of fertile agricultural basins. They are all exposed to the dangers of landslides and lahars, huge flows of mud, ice and snow provoked by sudden melting of snow caps at levels above 4,500 metres. A large landslide in the mountains of southern Ecuador, near the city of Cuenca, is the subject of the present discussion. The principal focus is on reactions to the landslide and the apportionment of blame for it. One key question is whether this disaster and others like it should be treated as 'social nature' - a combination of human and natural forces - or as a natural event which cannot be avoided given the environmental conditions. In terms of policy, this is important. Is it possible to adopt a positive policy of landslide prevention, knowing how mankind relates to nature, or should the focus be on adaptation and reactions to each event? Here, we first describe the landslide event, examine possible causes and report on local actors' apportionment of blame for the slide. Finally, the role of different agencies after the event is reviewed, giving some guidance as to how future events of this kind may be dealt with.
Cuenca city lies at around 2,500 metres, enclosed by high mountains reaching to over 4,000 metres, one of a necklace of such intermontane basins which reach from Quito southwards to the Peruvian border. The area around the city has a dense rural population, working small farms of only one or two hectares, in subsistence farming based on maize but with a variety of animals and vegetable crops. The basin is drained by the Paute river and its tributaries (Figure 10.1). Leading out eastwards to the Amazon by cutting through a major mountain ridge in a valley of near-gorge-like proportions, this river has a powerful flow of 1,200 cubic metres per second, and carries a high sediment load from its strong natural erosion on the slopes of the upper tributaries.