Fausto López

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1996
Fundación Arco Iris
This description of Fausto López's work was prepared when Fausto López was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Fausto López has drawn the link between water management–a high-profile problem in Ecuador–and another urgent problem that does not enjoy the same level of public attention: environmental protection. As an environmental activist and public educator, Fausto has demonstrated how to raise and mobilize public opinion and state institutions to protect fragile ecosystems and thereby preserve vital natural resources such as water. His innovative education and campaigning techniques are defining the way forward for the movement for sustainable development in Ecuador and the wider Andean region.

The New Idea

A brilliant environmental educator, Fausto López had the seminal insight that if society could see the link between Ecuador's chronic water shortages and environmental conservation, then it might be possible to dramatically strengthen national environmental protection efforts. Building on that insight, Fausto devised and implemented a series of environmental education activities and environmental action campaigns in his home region in southern Ecuador that succeeded in reversing patterns of harmful economic exploitation in the area's great watershed–the Podocarpus National Park. The fact that this watershed was already designated a national park was in itself insufficient to stop widespread mining, road building and other economic activity that was devastating the fragile ecology of this relatively small area of globally-significant biodiversity. Despite its small size, for example, Podocarpus has over 700 species of birds that live in or pass through its magnificent forests.Fausto is now consolidating his activities around Podocarpus while beginning to export his methods throughout Ecuador and the wider Andean region.

The Problem

Environmentally-destructive patterns of development are perhaps Latin America's, and humankind's, greatest long-term threat. Ecuador, with its highly biodiverse and fragile ecosystems, is among the countries that are most vulnerable to environmental collapse, in large measure because of its chronic water shortages, even at the current levels of water consumption. Unless Ecuador revises its approach toward development to take into consideration the carrying capacity of its environment, it faces social, economic and natural disasters of catastrophic proportions. In recent years, a severe "drought"–an artificial notion used to describe what are in fact historically-normal rainfall patterns for this dry region–has dramatized for all Ecuadorians their vulnerability to natural systems. Agricultural decline has accelerated the flight of small farmers to Ecuador's cities. In many rural areas, as much as 40 percent of the local population has migrated in the past decade. Soil erosion and desertification are rampant.In addition, Ecuador is dependent on hydroelectric plants for much of its electricity. Current levels of rainfall have led to severe power shortages, forcing the rationing of electricity nationwide. From December 1995 through most of 1996, Quito was cutting electrical power approximately ten hours per day on a rotating basis.To shift the prevailing economic growth model 180 degrees in the direction of sustainable development will require a massive change in popular understanding and public and private action. Yet there are very few voices pointing out the new direction. For example, until Fausto went to work in the Podocarpus National Park, over 800 mining companies or individuals sought to establish mineral claims in the park, and the waters were highly contaminated with mercury used in gold mining. There was no governmental or other plan for the sustainable development of the area. Nor were there focused or coherent ways to bring civic pressure to bear to defend the environment on the basis of natural resource management, economic or even environmental interests.

The Strategy

At the broadest level, Fausto's strategy is to draw the link between "hot-button" issues in society–such as water management–and the need for environmental protection. He does this through a wide array of creative and energetic education and public campaigning activities. Having piloted his approach in southern Ecuador, he is now consolidating the environmental agency he founded, the Rainbow Foundation, as the base from which to spread his approach throughout Ecuador and the wider Andean region.Even while working to save Podocarpus, Fausto deployed combined local and national thrusts that utilized direct action, stakeholder dialogue, and public education.At the local level, he is working to organize and educate the people who live around the Podocarpus National Park to help to protect the park and the areas bordering it. Fausto's efforts include stimulating community groups to investigate and adopt sustainable ways to benefit economically while protecting the fragile ecosystem of the park and surrounding areas. He is encouraging environmental rehabilitation through education, restoring watersheds, changing mining methods, and planting trees.Nationally, Fausto's team at the Foundation is seeking a determination by the Constitutional Guarantees Court that the "right to live in an environment free of contamination" is a human right. In an initial victory, the Court issued an order to the Director of Mines not to authorize new mining permits in protected areas. Fausto is researching the existing water protection laws at the local, regional and national levels, exploring ways to strengthen and expand them. The Rainbow Foundation produces a very high quality newsletter that provokes discussion of water quality issues and brings activist attention to current crises, such as the need to tighten mining laws to reduce mining-related water pollution. The newsletter gets its widest reach through its "syndication strategy," which involves feeding articles to a number of leading journalists who now rely regularly on the Foundation for environmental news. Fausto also appears regularly on national television to articulate the need to protect water resources.Two cross-cutting features distinguish Fausto's approach and may explain his extraordinary effectiveness. First, he stays sharply focused on the need to encourage and sustain citizen participation. His local direct action campaigns, such as those to find sustainable ways for locals to derive material benefits from Podocarpus, are always designed to be fun and to provide direct benefits to the participants. His public education work always looks for hooks that could enable wide participation. One successful example is his "cisterns campaign," which involved thousands of Ecuadorians putting bricks in their toilet cisterns to reduce bathroom water consumption.Second, he emphasizes dialogue and cooperation among all stakeholders, on the grounds that only non-confrontational methods will yield the change in attitudes that will sustain long-term behavior changes. He has started dialogues with authorities to enforce the laws, and used water quality arguments to stop a road from being constructed in a fragile area bordering the park. Mining has long been a major source of pollution. With support from the Constitutional Guarantees Court, Fausto convinced the National Director of Mines to prohibit new mines in the Podocarpus National Park. His series of meetings of local and national authorities, non-governmental organizations, local leaders and mining industry representatives convinced the Director of Mines to cancel the outstanding mining claims and work with the miners to leave the park peacefully. Also with the support of the Secretary of Mines, Fausto is working with mining companies to help them find solutions to the contamination problems through the use of new technology. He has persuaded several mine owners to alter their extraction methods while building broad consensus on the need to protect and improve watersheds. One mine owner has even joined with local inhabitants to advocate alternative businesses, including eco-tourism.Not surprisingly, Fausto's ideas and methods are in demand in other parts of the Andean Region. Indeed, his ambition is to create a model that could be applied to a wide variety of situations in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America.

The Person

Fausto's intensive personal involvement with environmental causes began in 1989, shortly after graduating from university, when he and a group of friends organized the Rainbow Foundation, the only environmental organization in southern Ecuador, primarily to protect the Podocarpus National Park and the areas bordering the park. In the early nineties, Fausto coordinated campaigns against mining and an environmentally-unsound highway deep into the park's interior. He also organized the successful effort to incite the Constitutional Guarantees Court to demand that the government enforce the laws against mineral extraction in the park.In 1994, Fausto received the Nature Conservancy's John and Harriet Dunning Prize for his work in the protection of forests in South America and his brilliant work in protecting the Podocarpus National Park.Fausto brings to his work a creative, non-threatening style, focusing on the life-affirming protection of water resources. His willingness to dialogue, and to explore many alternative solutions, signals a different and successful approach to environmental protection, one that rests on changing both the attitudes and the behavior of mining and logging companies in the region.The popular slogan used in the Podocarpus campaign communicates not only his message, but also a great deal about Fausto himself "Podocarpus is Water. Water is Life."