Ecuador’s vice president talks biodiversity protection

Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner spoke to a packed Perry World House about protecting the environment while balancing economic growth.

Two people on a stage sit in chairs on either side of a cube shaped table that reads Perry World House on the front.
Ecuador’s Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner speaks during a talk moderated by Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at Penn.

From banning plastic bags on the Galápagos Islands to coaching cattle farmers on how to preserve Amazon rainforest, Ecuador is working to preserve its environment while trying to help citizens improve their quality of life, said the country’s vice president. 

Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner spoke to a packed house at Perry World House (PWH) on Feb. 27, and discussed the challenges of biodiversity protection in Latin America, handling the influx of migrants from Venezuela, and managing eco-tourism in the Galápagos Islands.

The talk was moderated by Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Penn. Weisberg has been conducting research on the Galápagos for several years and co-leads community science and conservation initiatives there.

Sonnenholzner, who is PWH’s Distinguished Global Leader-in-Residence this year, met with Weisberg’s Galápagos team. He heard from the team leads, including Galápagos guide Ernesto Vaca, about their work supporting the islands’ communities to conserve their unique environment. He also participated in a podcast.

During a keynote conversation at PWH, Sonnenholzner highlighted Alexander von Humboldt’s trip to Ecuador in the early 1800s, which helped the German naturalist/explorer become one of the first people to describe human-caused climate change. 

“Why do I start with Humboldt? Because you cannot speak about climate change or biodiversity without starting with this guy. He was a visionary,” Sonnenholzner said. 

Humboldt’s writings about the region also inspired Charles Darwin to explore the Galápagos Islands, he said.

“That’s how influential he was; that’s how inspirational biodiversity is,” Sonnenholzner said. “It motivates, it moves you forward, and it gives you a reason to fight for something.”

Person wearing a suit and a tie gestures with both hands.
Sonnenholzner speaks to attendees.

He commended Penn for the work students and faculty are doing in the Galápagos Islands to make locals aware of the treasures they have in their midst.

“As my wife said, You cannot love what you don’t know, and you will never take care of what you don’t love,” he said. “We have to start knowing what we have so that we can take care of it. That’s what Penn is doing at Galapagos, and I really applaud it.”

Speaking of migrants fleeing Venezuela for Ecuador, Sonnenholzner said the crisis is a challenge for cities that simply don’t have the infrastructure to handle the influx, and he sees no signs of a slowdown, or of a solution.

He said his country, too, faces a battle against fake news.

Asked about the attempt to end over 40 years of fuel subsidies that led to an eruption of violence in the fall, and the eventual scrapping of the plan, Sonnenholzner said he later toured villages to speak with locals about why they were so upset, trying to build a bridge to create understanding. He said many villagers believed fake news reports that the government may instead give the revenue to Venezuelan migrants.

He said the subsidies make “no economic sense, no social sense, and no environmental sense.”

A person on a stage speaks to a crowd of people sitting in chairs, with a sign reading Perry World House behind him.
Sonnenholzner speaks to a packed room at Perry World House.

He also discussed how the country prohibited the use of plastic bags on the Galápagos Islands two years ago and has started rewarding companies that have a “circular economy initiative” with tax breaks and other incentives.  The Coca-Cola Company last week eliminated all plastic packaging from the Galápagos Islands and replaced it by glass, he said.

“Small step, huge change,” Sonnenholzner said.

All photos by Erica Xin.