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Número 1(2)

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Migration in the Peru/Ecuador Boundary Region

Vanessa Gil, Huston J. Gibson
and C.W. Minkel*
                                                                                                                                       PDF Version                                   

Resumen.  El 26 de octubre de 1998 se firmó un tratado de paz entre Perú y Ecuador, con el cual terminó una de las disputas limítrofes más largas y volátiles en la historia de América Latina. El reto mayor que ahora subsiste es la  integración  y  desarrollo  de  la  región  fronteriza.    Entre los obstáculos sustanciales para la integración y el desarrollo se encuentra la emigración masiva.   El objeto de esta investigación fue identificar la naturaleza de esta migración, sus causas y consecuencias, y ofrecer una mejor comprensión de la región fronteriza. Se buscaron las respuestas a interrogantes tales como los siguientes,  relativos a las “cabezas de familia”,  término  que se refiere a las personas a cargo de la unidad familiar,  o a solteros sin hijos y económicamente independientes:  edad, sexo, lugar  de  nacimiento,   estado  civil,   número de hijos,  nivel de educación,  profesión u ocupación,  razones para migrar, probabilidad de migrar otra vez, y visitas a otros países.
Epígrafes: Perú, Ecuador, límites, migración

On 26 October 1998, a treaty of peace was signed between the Presidents of Peru and Ecuador, ending  one  of  the  longest and most volatile boundary disputes in the history of Latin America. Now, a major challenge facing the two countries is integration and development of the boundary region.   Most  of  the  conflict  occurred  over  almost  empty  territory  in  the  Amazon Basin, but  development  will  most  readily  occur  to  the  south and west where some settlement and infrastructure already exist.   Therefore,  for purposes of this research,  the  boundary region is defined as the three northern departments of Peru (Tumbes, Piura and northern Catamarca) and the three southern provinces of Ecuador (El Oro, Loja and Zamora-Chinchipe) (Map 1)**


Among  the  substantial  obstacles  to  integration  and  development of the boundary region is a massive  out-migration  from  the  poor,  rural  Andean  areas to the major urban centers on the periphery and to foreign destinations,  such as Spain and the United States.   This  research  has sought  to  identify  the  nature of this migration,  its causes and consequences and to provide a better understanding of the boundary region.   Within  the  region,  three  primary  cities  (Piura, Sullana and Loja)  have  been  studied,  as  well  as  two secondary cities,  Ayabaca and Macará. Answers  were  sought to questions such as the following relative to “heads of household,” that term  referring  to  persons who are in charge of the family unit or are single,  without children, and economically independent:

Age          •   Level of education
Sex          •   Profession or occupation
Place of birth    •   Reasons for move
Civil status        •   Likelihood of moving again
Number of children   •   Visits to other countries


The  methodology  employed  for  this  study  involved  the  prior  development  of  a  detailed questionnaire  to  be  used  in  personal  interviews  with  selected  heads  of household.  These interviews  were  conducted,  by  carefully  trained teams of personnel,  at residences stratified randomly  in  urban sectors according to the estimated population of each.  By interviewing the number  of  heads  of  household indicated in Table 1,  a minimum 95% level of confidence (+/- 5%) was obtained.
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Suscripción (Gratis)

The Five Cities

Each  of  the  five  cities  has a special character,  depending on its history,  size and geographic location.   All  are  involved in the migration process and in efforts to provide for the welfare of their  population.   Understanding  of  their  mutual  problems  and cooperation among them are essential for boundary integration and development.


Piura is the fifth largest city of Peru and the largest in the Peru/Ecuador boundary region. It is on the  northern  coastal  plain  and  was the first Spanish settlement founded in Peru (1532).  It is a desert  oasis  with  a  long  history  of cotton cultivation and textile production but is not a major industrial center. Rather, it is the capital of the Province and the Department of Piura, with some offices  of  regional  government  and  the  national  government,  as well. It is also an important educational  center,   including  two  major  universities,  and  the  focus  of  regional  trade  and commerce.   The  adjacent  community  of  Castilla  is  separated  by  the  Río Piura  but is fully integrated  within  the  Piura metropolitan area and therefore included in the study.  Piura/Castilla has been the destination of nearly 10,000 persons per year since 1993. This migration is reflected in  the  widespread  expansion  of  inferior  housing  in  zones known as “pueblos jóvenes,”  plus extensive unemployment and underemployment,  and  a  lack of adequate public services such as water, sewerage, paved streets and health facilities.

Only  38%  of  the  heads of household  were born in the Districts of Piura or Castilla,  but 45% were born in the Province of Piura and 87% in the Department of Piura.  Hence, while migration to Piura has been extensive,  it has not involved moves of great distance.  Within the Department of  Piura,  there has been a particularly strong wave of migration from the impoverished Andean provinces of Ayabaca,  Morropón and Huancabamba  and  lesser flows from the coastal lowland provinces of Talara and Sullana (Map 2). Since Ayabaca has been the leading source of migrants, it was deemed worthy of separate analysis.


Sullana and its adjacent community of Bellavista are located 24 miles (39 kilometers) northwest of Piura via  the  Pan Americana Highway.   Sullana is the capital of Sullana Province,  one of seven provinces within the Department of Piura.  It is located on the Río Chira,  which has a larger and more  dependable  flow than does the Río Piura.  Therefore,  agricultural crops,  particularly rice, cotton and variety of tropical fruits, are grown in abundance and are processed locally. Migration to Sullana has been intensive, but “pueblos jóvenes” are neither as widespread nor conspicuous as in Piura.

Of the heads of household interviewed, more than 60% are native to the Province of Sullana, and 93% were born within the Department of Piura.   Talara  is  the  leading  source  of  in-migration, followed closely by the provinces of Piura and Ayabaca (Map 3).  The movement of people from Talara appears to be due largely to a decline of petroleum production  in the area and privatization of  the industry,  leading to extensive unemployment.   In Sullana more than 40% of the heads of household are unemployed or have only occasional employment.   Of  those  who  are  employed, more  than  70%  lack  a  specific  profession  and,   therefore,   have  quite  limited  incomes. Opportunities for post-secondary or professional education are also limited.


The  Province  of  Ayabaca  is  located  in  the  mountainous  region of the Department of Piura, bordering  on  southern  Ecuador.   It  has  a  wide  range  of  elevation,  temperature and crops. Sugarcane, bananas and other tropical fruits are raised in the lowlands; yucca, corn and potatoes are raised at progressively higher elevations; and there is livestock grazing throughout.  The total population  is  138,000,  of which 90% is rural,  living mostly on small farms or is landless,  and poverty is widespread. There is little surplus produced for sale outside of the province, a situation compounded by primitive roads, hardly any of which are paved.  Other forms of communication are similarly deficient.

The  city  of  Ayabaca,  capital  of  the  province,  lies at an elevation of about 8,900 feet (2,715) meters) and is 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Piura, the departmental capital. It is primarily the commercial and governmental center for the province,  but  is  famous  throughout the region as home  of  “Señor Cautivo,”  an image of Christ in the local cathedral that is the object of a major pilgrimage during each October.   Slightly more than half of the heads of household were born in the city, while 43% were born in rural areas of the province.   Thus, Ayabaca illustrates a typical stage,  or  step-wise,  migration  from  countryside  to  city,  then  to  larger  urban  centers and, eventually, perhaps to national capital or abroad.


The city of Loja, capital of both Loja Province and Loja Canton, lies in a high Andean valley at an elevation of 7,300 feet (2,225 meters).  It therefore has a cool climate suitable for the production of  grain  and  livestock,  for which  it  serves  as  a  regional market.   It also has two important universities,  one  national  (founded 1943)  and the other private (Catholic).  Its major problems include isolation and a poorly developed system of transportation.

Loja  has  been  long  noted as a center of out-migration,   especially during periods of excessive rainfall or severe droughts in the surrounding region.   Nevertheless,  the  city  has  grown  at an average rate of about 3,000 per year, due to both a high natural birth rate and steady in-migration from the rural areas of southern Ecuador (Map 4). With a growth rate less than one-third that of Piura, the city has been able to cope better with the need for expanded housing and urban services. It is, in fact, a conspicuously attractive, well-organized community.

MAP 4   ECUADOR CANTONS   -   Heads of Household who have migrated to Loja

Macará, like Ayabaca,  has had a modest growth of population in recent decades but is notable as a center of out-migration to other parts of Ecuador. Its elevation is much lower,  however (1,475 feet or 450 meters),  since it lies in the valley of the Río Macará,  which here forms the boundary between Ecuador and Peru. The city is the capital of Macará Canton, an agriculturally productive part of Loja Province.   It  is on  the  main route between Piura and Sullana,  Peru;  and Loja and Quito, Ecuador, and is an increasingly important center of international commerce.

Nearly all heads of household were born in the Province of Loja,   and  three-fourths  were  born within Macará Canton.   Most  have  a  rural,  agricultural background and have had only limited educational  opportunity,  hence few have any specialized training.  Considering that Macará is in close  proximity  to  the  international boundary,  remarkably few heads of household report ever having  visited  Peru.   This  situation  is  likely  to  change soon with the increase of tourism and cross-border commercial opportunities.
Heads of Household Characteristics

Of all the heads of household surveyed in the five cities,  most are male (66-76%); the minority is female  (24-34%).  Masculine gender is more than double that of feminine,  especially in the three Peruvian cities (Figure 1).
Figure 2  shows  that  the  age of heads of household in the five cities ranges from 20 to 95,  the average being 40 years old.
Very  noticeable  is  the high  percentage of married and very low rate of divorced and separated heads  of  household  in  each  of  the cities  (Figure 3).  All cities are predominately Catholic, a religion that condemns divorce.
Most heads of household in the five cities have some formal education.  Piura  and  Loja have the highest percentage of superior with college degree, likely reflecting the existence of universities in these  cities.   Macará and Ayabaca have the highest  percentage of heads of household with only primary  education,  which  might  be  expected  since  these  cities are smaller and more rural in nature. Macará has the highest percentage among all the cities, almost 10% (Figure 4).
The principal type of employment of heads  of  household is permanent.   The cities of Ecuador, particularly  Loja,   offer  more  permanent  employment  (77%),   perhaps  because  economic conditions are currently better in the Ecuadoran sector of the boundary area.   The  other  cities have a relatively high percentage of temporary employment (Figure 5).
Ayabaca  notably has the highest percentage  (55%)  of heads of household who would prefer to live in another place  and is the primary source of migrants to Piura and Sullana (Figure 6).  Only 35 and 39 percent of those in Piura, Sullana,  Loja and Macará would like to live in another place, but even this number reflects a relatively mobile population.

Among heads  of  household who would like to live in another country,  The United States is the first  choice  of  those  in  Piura,  Sullana and Macará;  Venezuela,  Spain  and Ecuador are other choices,  where  the  language  is  probably  an  important  factor.   Residents of Ayabaca chose Ecuador,   perhaps  because of proximity and familiarity,  but it is notable that it is the only Latin American country in the first-priority list (Table 2).
Table 3  shows  the  places  where  heads of household would like to live within their respective countries.  Trujillo is the city picked by those of Piura and Sullana,  and Piura is the city selected by residents of Ayabaca, which also has the highest rate (40%).
Loja is the only city in which the percentage of heads of household reporting  that  they  have  not visited  the neighboring country is higher than the percentage that have visited it.   Macará  is  the city with the larger number that have visited Peru,  likely  because  that  city  is  very close to the boundary (Río Macará) between the two countries (Figure 7).
Considering  that  the  lights of Ecuador are visible across the valleys at night from Ayabaca,  it is remarkable  that  the  percentage  of  heads of household in Ayabaca who have visited Ecuador is about the same as for those in Piura or Sullana, many miles away. However,  from Ayabaca there is no easy foot passage or public transportation to Ecuador.  Rather, one must first make a rough six-hour trip to Piura, then catch the “Ecuador bus” back to Macará and beyond.

The  average  age  of  heads  of  household  when  they  first moved to each city is 20. Piura and Sullana registered the youngest age (18) (Figure 8).
Work is by far the main  reason  that  heads of household in each city left their previous location, but Macará registered the highest percentage (83%) and Piura the lowest with 34% (Figure 9).
Most  heads  of  household  have  no profession,  but teaching is the most common one in Piura, Sullana, Loja and Ayabaca (Table 4).  This may be partially due to the presence of universities in Piura  and  Loja,  also to the teacher placement system in Peru.  There,  after  students  graduate from  college with a teaching degree,  they sign a contract with the national government and are placed where needed.  Hence, in Ayabaca,  for example,  there is never a shortage nor surplus of teachers,  but  they  are  most  likely to come from Piura or Lima.  No such system operates for professions such as engineering or architecture.
Although  the  percentage  of  heads  of  household  with no profession is high,  most people are employed,  and  the  predominant type of employment is business. It should be noted,  however, that  “business”  may  include selling trinkets or minor household items from tiny in-home stores (“tiendas”),  by  bicycle,  or  on  foot.   Under-employment and unemployment  are  widespread throughout the region.
The  province  or  canton of birth of most heads of household in each city is most commonly the one in which they presently live. Ayabaca and Macará have a conspicuously higher percentage of birth in their respective province/canton,  being  primarily centers of out-migration rather than in-migration  (Table 6).

Among the 1,769 heads of household interviewed during this study, only one lives on the opposite side of the international boundary from which he was born.  This is a male Peruvian born in Piura Department but currently living in Macará.   It  is  apparent  that  the  international  border  was  a significant  obstacle  to  trans-national  migration  prior  to  the  Treaty  of  Peace in 1998.  A few individuals have been deported from each country for illegal activities, but no major incidents have occurred to mar relationships between the two countries since that date.


The migration of people from one place to another is not necessarily a bad thing. However, when the influx of migrants vastly exceeds the ability of receiving communities to provide employment and basic services,  such as adequate  housing,  water and sewerage,  education and health care, paved streets and personal security,  basic problems are created for all concerned.  Such are the conditions in much of the boundary region in northern Peru and southern Ecuador. Yet, there are many  positive  trends  to  indicate that peace may be permanent and that steady progress will be made toward the resolution of continuing problems.

The mayors of cities of both sides of the boundary meet regularly  concerning matters of mutual interest, as do the university rectors, business leaders and military officers. Tourism between the two  countries  is  on  the  increase.   Even school children who were taught for generations that people of the neighboring country were their “natural enemies”  now meet for special events in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. Under such conditions, no challenge is too great to overcome.

Abstract. On 26 October 1998, a treaty of peace was signed between Peru and Ecuador, ending one of the longest and most volatile boundary disputes in the history of Latin America.   Now,  a  major  challenge  is  integration and development of the boundary region.  Among the substantial obstacles to integration and development is a massive out-migration. This research has sought to identify the nature of this migration, its causes and consequences and to provide a better understanding of the boundary region.   Answers  were sought to questions such as the following relative  to “heads of household,”  that  term  referring  to  persons who are in charge of the family unit or single, without children,  and economically independent:  age, sex, place of birth, civil status,  number of children, level of education,  profession or occupation,  reasons for move,  likelihood of moving again and visits to other countries.
Key words: Peru, Ecuador, boundary, migration.


Gibson, Huston John.  2001.  Ayabaca, Peru: Migration and land-use analysis 2001. Knoxville,
       University of Tennessee.
Gibson, Huston John  and Michilot,  Luis Cruz. 2003.  Ayabaca,  Piura,  Perú:  Análisis de los
       patrones migratorios y del uso del suelo, GeoTrópico, online, vol.1 (1), 77-86.
Minkel, C.W. and Ramalhosa, Francisca. 2003. Características de la migración en la Provincia de
       Loja, Ecuador, Revista Geográfica, Número Especial, Instituto Geográfico Militar, Quito,
       Ecuador, April, pp. 27-42.
Minkel, C.W.; Thomas, Robert N.;  Ibañez Talledo, Oscar, et al. 2001. Estudio de migraciones en
       la ciudad de Sullana-Bellavista. Piura, Universidad Nacional de Piura.


Dr. C.W. Minkel,  Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee,  Faculty Member,

Vanessa Gil,  Department  of  Urban  and  Regional  Planning  at  the  University of Tennessee, Graduate Student,

Huston John Gibson,  M.S.P,  The Curtis and Kimball Company,  Urban and Regional Planning Consultant,


**In Peru, the lesser political divisions are known as departments, provinces and districts, whereas in Ecuador the corresponding units are called provinces, cantons and parroquias.

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