Education for change

Norman Wray stood for the presidency of Ecuador. Now he is looking to deepen his studies in conservation leadership.

Law by itself does not bring justice. There needs to be a more profound understanding of the issues affecting us and the impact they have on our lives, a realisation that we are all responsible. That is the role of education. Education is a political process.

Norman Wray

Norman Wray has been at the centre of Ecuador’s political events for the last decade or more and stood as a candidate in the presidential elections in 2013.

After years of political tumult, he now wants to take some time to think more deeply about the best way of achieving the goals that he has spent his life campaigning for. His MPhil in Conservation Leadership dovetails with the Buen Vivir philosophy which proposes an alternative form of development for Ecuador, based on the rights of nature and rooted in the country’s indigenous populations. It is a philosophy which is now embedded in Ecuador’s constitution.

Norman says: “That focus on the governance of the commons, on the rights of people and of nature are central issues for the future and need to be part of a new economy.” The programme comes under the Department of Geography which brings all the themes Norman has been interested in for many years together.

Promoting change through Law

Norman was born in Bogota to Ecuadorian parents who were working there, but grew up in Quito. When he was about 13 he started doing community work at a liberation theology church, working with people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods on access to water, health and education. “It really made an impact on my life and was why I chose to do Law at a public university,” says Norman. “I felt Law should be a tool to help people.”

He opted to study Law at the Central University of Ecuador where he was drawn to constitutional, human rights and environment law. For the last two years of his six-year degree he switched to the private Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador because of a crisis in the public system, doing his thesis on the enforceability of social, economic and cultural rights. He had been working on research projects with indigenous communities in the amazon region which aimed to find mediation tools to solve conflicts in the region between individual rights and traditional justice. Traditional justice was not at the time recognised by the state which emphasised political rights over collective social rights.

Norman also worked for the Centre for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where he used the law as a tool to promote human and environmental rights, collective indigenous rights and social justice and to create the conditions for  sustainable development as well as alternatives to oil and mining. The centre's work supported the Achuar and Shuar indigenous peoples in the South Amazon region of Ecuador.

Ruptura de los 25

On graduating Norman started working on the rights of children and adolescents and women as the national coordinator of a programme to promote Community Defenders. His work focused on improving the skills of mothers from disadvantaged rural towns and urban neighbourhoods with the aim of strengthening their communities, preventing abuse and giving them a political voice. “It was a political process to transform the community from inside and out and to promote advocacy around the individual and collective rights of women and children,” says Norman. “Through understanding the rights of their children, women would question their own rights around issues like domestic abuse. It was a kind of political awakening. At the end of the day, I believe education is political and not just pedagogical. It changes the lives of people.”

In 2004, Norman was one of the founding members of the Ruptura de los 25 which formed part of the movement which brought down President Lucio Gutierrez‘s government. The movement was a founding partner of the left-wing Alianza PAIS coalition which brought Rafael Correa to power in 2006.

Alianza PAIS sought to move away from Ecuador's neoliberal economic model by reducing the influence of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and to promote sustainable development and the Buen Vivir philosophy.

Norman was appointed political adviser to the Ministry of Defence in 2007. His work involved advising on situations ranging from border conflicts with Colombia to developing a military and social plan to help indigenous communities threatened by paramilitary groups.

A year later he was elected to the National Constituent Assembly, set up by the government to draft the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador. “I saw it as an opportunity to create a new political and socio, ecological and economic agreement for the country,” he says. “People were excited about the possibility of a new beginning and a new constitution, a new Ecuador. We wanted a break with the past,” says Norman. “We understood that we were part of something that was bigger than our movement and was about building the future of our country.” He was one of the main advocates of Buen Vivir which promotes rights of nature and water as a human right in the Ecuadorian Constitution.

Norman spent nine months in the Constituent Assembly which acted as a transitional government and then he stood for election for the Metropolitan Council of Quito where he stayed for three years, chairing the Gender Equity Commission and working on environmental issues as a member of the Environment Commission.

Presidential elections and beyond

In 2011 Ruptura 25 distanced itself from President Correa’s government and set itself up as a national political movement so that it could take part in the general election of 2013. Norman was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate.

He describes the electoral campaign as “really tough”. “We committed a lot of strategic mistakes,” he says. The movement had few resources and no media support. Norman won 1.31% of the vote and, due to changes in the election rules, which are still being contested, the movement disappeared.

He says he learnt a great deal from the political process. “As an activist you say what you want to do and you don’t think about how to make it a reality. But you learn about the limits of what you can do and you come up against lots of conflicts of interest, including the vested interests of the media. You have to learn to prioritise and that you have to win some battles and lose others. It is a learning process,” he says.

After the election, Norman found it difficult to get a job. “My work opportunities started to close down. No-one wanted to get involved with someone who opposed the new government. The country was very polarised between the government and its opponents. I was in the middle of nowhere,” he says. He spent a year and a half in Quito without a job and with mounting debts until his wife, who was from the Galapagos, was offered a job in conservation there.

The family moved and Norman was appointed legal adviser to the Consejo Nacional of Ecuador’s judicial system.

He then became programme manager of the Galapagos’ conservation programme and spent the next two years working on issues such as management of Ecuador’s national parks and the Galapagos’ agricultural framework.

His wife, whose father is British, had always dreamed of studying at Cambridge and she was accepted onto a PhD programme which began last year. Norman joined her with their two children [Norman has two older children from a previous marriage] in March. He had taught constitutional law at two different universities in Ecuador for several years and enjoyed being in academia. He decided to apply for an MPhil and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

“I wanted time to think and synthesise all my years in politics and to work on better solutions for the challenges of promoting sustainable development in my country,” he says. Since being accepted on the master’s programme, he has been working as a volunteer for Bird Life International, supporting their capacity building advocacy strategy for the Americas in the fight against climate change.

Having experience the maelstrom of political activism, Norman, who will be based at Darwin College, is keen to look at the deeper issues of how you convert sustainable development policies into action. He says: “Law is the end of the process. First we have to build agreement through translating knowledge into public policy. Law by itself does not bring justice. There needs to be a more profound understanding of the issues affecting us and the impact they have on our lives, a realisation that we are all responsible. That is the role of education. Education is a political process.”