Creating Motivation through Framing

The first step in motivating people to take action is making them aware of a problem. When they launched their local campaigns, Ecuador’s IWM coalitions used diagnostic framing to identify a problem with natural resource use and assign blame. The specific problem identified varied depending on local ecosystem characteristics. Coalitions in Ecuador’s Sierra region focused on water scarcity while those in the Amazon tended to emphasize threats to ecological reserves. Nevertheless, each IWM coalition tried to create a shared conception of the watershed as a territorial site connecting different stakeholders around a collective problem of natural resource use that affected the quantity and quality of water available to stakeholders.

All six IWM coalitions blamed problems of water quantity and quality on behaviors related to economic production, particularly livestock farming, logging, deforestation to expand the agricultural frontier, and contamination of streams from pesticides and animal waste. Celica’s coalition, for example, claimed that “livestock farming constitutes one of the principal problems given that it causes erosion, compacting, and damage to the natural regeneration of vegetation. Deforestation and the slash and burning of brush” to expand production were also identified as main problems (Cuenca 2008, 14). Despite the different environmental contexts, the analysis and language used by coalitions in the Amazon was almost identical. For example, Pastaza’s IWM coalition blamed the lack of safe water on “bad agricultural practices, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and the deterioration of forests and water sources” due to cattle ranching and the cultivation of naranjillas (a shrub producing an orange-l ike fruit) (Foro de Recursos Hidricos de Pastaza 2008, 1).[1]

By identifying agricultural production practices as the main problem, IWM coalitions directly challenged the existing, dominant frame regarding watershed resources. In each case, the dominant frame initially encountered by IWM advocates was a production/poverty frame. In this frame, a watershed’s natural resources should be exploited to expand economic production in order to reduce poverty. Forested or vegetated areas are viewed as “unproductive” or “unused” land. Ecuadorian laws reinforced this view by allowing squatters to appropriate supposedly unused land by placing livestock or crops on it.[2] Expanding the agricultural frontier into ecologically sensitive areas, particularly water catchment areas, was seen as a natural and necessary strategy for socioeconomic development.

A second frame used by some local stakeholders was an “environmental justice” frame, which condemned the inequitable distribution of environmental “goods” (e.g., access to land and water) and “bads” (e.g., pollution). In Ecuador, as elsewhere, indigenous communities are leading advocates of the environmental justice frame due to their historic marginalization. Not surprisingly, this frame was most common in areas with large indigenous populations, like Tungurahua. In practice, the environmental justice frame was tied to an indigenous rights frame, which demanded respect for traditional values and practices as well as autonomous communal management of natural resources.[3] It also incorporated concepts from Ecuadorian indigenous cosmology, which stresses the interdependence of all living things, the value of nature for its own sake, and calls for a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. Watershed resources were seen as both life-sustaining resources to which the poor should have access and valuable cultural symbols to be protected from the vagaries of capitalist development.

Given this conflict between IWM coalitions’ diagnostic framing and preexisting attitudes toward the use of watershed resources, IWM advocates realized they would need to change local perceptions. To this end, each coalition launched an education campaign—albeit to varying degrees—to raise awareness of watershed management problems and present IWM reform as a necessary solution. They did this through meetings, trainings, and workshops with stakeholders; publicity campaigns using radio, television, and print media; and hosting symbolic festivals, like those celebrating International Water Day and Earth Day. In all six cases, IWM advocates initially used these activities to counter the production/poverty frame with an alternative frame. Two main counterframes were used: “market” and “conservation” frames. As I discuss below, IWM coalitions that succeeded did so after displacing the production/poverty frame to include IWM reform. Table 6.2 compares the two preexisting watershed management frames with the three alternative frames promoted at different times by IWM advocates.

Table 6.2 Five Watershed Management Frames


View of Watersheds



Natural resources to be exploited to expand economic production to reduce poverty.

Preexisting Master Frame

Environmental Justice (tied to Indigenous Rights)

Life-sustaining resources to which the poor should have access; cultural symbols to be controlled communally and protected from capitalist development.

Preexisting Frame


Ecosystems producing goods and services that are inappropriately priced and thus over-consumed; sustainable use requires regulation through a market mechanism.



Ecosystems that must be restored and protected for their inherent value and to ensure future access to ecosystem goods and services.


Displaced Production/ Poverty

Ecosystems that comprise part of the economic production chain; their destruction generates losses to production; their conservation and integrated management can reduce poverty.



  • [1] For similar language in Tungurahua, see Metais and Cruz (2003, 44-46); in Zamora, seeCoronel and Jaramillo (2005); in El Chaco, see Yaguache et al. (2005); in Ibarra, see PROFAFOR(2005b, 34).
  • [2] Environmental lawyer with The Nature Conservancy-Ecuador, interview by author, Quito,Ecuador, June 23, 2011.
  • [3] For explanations and analysis of indigenous organizing around indigenous rights, transnationally and in the Andes, see Brysk (2000); Postero and Zamosc (2004); and Yashar (2005).
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