PROFOUND REGIONAL, ETHNIC, AND social divisions continued to characterize Ecuadorian society in the 1980s. The country's three main geographic regions, differing in their histories and economies, provided one of these divisions, and there were also ethnic and social cleavages within the regions. The Oriente (eastern region) traditionally was a neglected backwater, isolated geographically and culturally from the rest of the nation. Its population was limited to dispersed groups of indigenous tropicalforest Indians who lived by slash-and-burn agriculture or hunting and gathering. European intrusion was limited to the occasional missionary or trader. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the Oriente experienced colonization by land-poor peasants from the Sierra (Andean highlands) and exploration by oil companies. Both colonization and exploration had a devastating impact on the indigenous population.
The Sierra, the region of earliest European settlement, was ruled for most of its history by a narrow rural oligarchy whose power base lay in the sizeable haciendas they controlled. The haciendas dominated both social and economic relations. Most of the population depended to a greater or lesser extent on the largess of the white elite who controlled land. This elite ruled virtually without challenge until the mid-twentieth century. Between this white elite and the mass of Sierra Indians, were the mestizos or cholos--persons of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry. In values and identity, they were closer to the dominant whites. The Sierra Indians, who stood at the bottom of the social pyramid, had very limited opportunities for economic security or social advancement. Both mestizos and whites regarded Indians as immutably inferior. The latter's only hope for improvement lay in assimilating the norms and values of the dominant ethnic groups, thereby changing ethnic affiliation.
Like the hacendados of the Sierra, the elite of the Costa (coastal region) also had its roots in agriculture and the control of land, but its attention focused primarily on export crop production and commerce. Ethnically more diverse than the Hispanic elite of the Sierra, the Costa upper class included successful immigrant families drawn over the years by the region's expanding economy. Most of Ecuador's blacks, the descendants of the small numbers of African slaves who came to work on the region's plantations, were also costeņos (residents of the Costa).
The twentieth century saw the rise of an Ecuadorian middle class whose interests were genuinely distinct from the narrowly based rural oligarchy, and the demise of the self-contained, autonomous hacienda. Changes in the hacienda economy created a mobile, rural-based labor force, and by the end of the 1980s, society consisted of a small, privileged elite; a more numerous, diverse, and politically active middle class; and the mass of impoverished small-scale peasants, artisans, and wage earners. The middle class transformed Ecuadorian politics.
Like many other Latin American nations, Ecuador had enacted agrarian reform legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. These laws brought little substantive improvement in the lives of most peasants, but rather afforded Costa and Sierra landlords an impetus and an opportunity to replace their resident and permanent laborers with temporary workers. In the Sierra this trend, coupled with increased population pressure on land, continued a pattern of migration to the Costa and the Oriente that had begun in the 1950s. The volume of rural-urban migration grew in both the Costa and Sierra until, in the early 1980s, nearly half of all Ecuadorians lived in cities.
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