Pam Martin: Buen Vivir, A Life Well Lived

By Connie Barnard

Pam Martin: Buen Vivir, A Life Well Lived

This is the story of a good life and a small South American country which many of us could not spot on a map. The story belongs to Pam Martin, a beautiful Penelope Cruz look-alike, with a personal story that would be easy to covet if we did not admire her so much. A Fulbright scholar with a Ph.D. in International Relations and a highly regarded teaching career at Coastal Carolina University, Martin has fluency in three languages and a contagious passion for the pristine rainforest and primitive culture found in a tiny corner of Ecuador where she spends portions of each year, often accompanied by her husband and two young children. It is a good life, buen vivir, as Latin Americans refer to well-being in its purest and broadest sense.

Pam fondly remembers childhood vacations to the Carolina coast. Its pristine estuaries and dense untouched woodlands imprinted themselves deeply and permanently on her soul and drawing her back again and again, especially after her parents settled in Pawleys Island. Pam completed her undergraduate work in New Jersey then began graduate studies in International Relations at the University of Maryland. She recalls, “While studying in Berlin, I called my parents often. Again and again they talked about this nice man, a landscape architect named Bill, whom they thought I’d really like. Here I was, calling from across the Atlantic, researching exciting global issues, and they were trying to fix me up with a guy in Pawleys Island!” Well, as we all know, you should listen to your parents. On a visit home to South Carolina, Pam met and fell in love with Bill Martin. They married and are living happily ever-after with their two bright and beautiful children, Gabriella (8) and William (5). Each week Pam enjoys a 10-15 mile “meditative jog” from her home by the river to the ocean and back, soaking in the beauty and magic of this special part of the world.

Pam’s Master’s and Ph.D. research focused on predicting civil and ethnic conflict. The topic first interested her as a young girl when she learned about people living in other countries who worked to create democracies despite all odds: “Growing up during the Cold War, I was inspired by Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel.” Later she was further inspired by the madres de la plaza (mothers of the plaza) who fought for information regarding the lost children who disappeared during a time of military dictatorship in South America. “Over time,” she says, “I became acutely aware of how very personal politics can be around the world.” Originally, her research had centered on examining potential conflicts in the European Union. However, her highly respected professor, Ted Robert Gurr, encouraged her to examine the emerging conflicts in Latin America, particularly those surrounding the Yasuni’ National Park’s pristine Ecuadorian rainforest and the oil-rich soil beneath it. The topic quickly captured Pam’s interest, flaming a passion for this most biologically diverse area on earth and its native people, some of whom have chosen to live in voluntary isolation.

Since Pam’s first trip to Ecuador, she has become deeply entrenched in the global dimensions of energy policy and conservation in the Amazon while also teaching at the University of San Francisco in Quito. In addition to fluency in Spanish, Martin also mastered Kichwa, one of several native dialects spoken by indigenous groups within the Yasuni Park. By choice, the Kichwa and other tribes live self-sufficiently, some as hunter-gatherers, much like their Stone Age ancestors, surrounded by over 655 species of trees, 4,000 plant species, 173 species of mammals, 610 bird species, and countless other threatened animal species. Their way of life, however, is threatened by the monumental presence of yet another natural resource: approximately 846 million barrels of crude oil lying beneath its pristine surface.

Over the last two decades, oil companies have cut service roads through the jungles, disrupting the indigenous tribes’ simple way of life and exposing them to disease and other dangers while leaving reservoirs of toxic sludge which threaten the rainforest’s fragile balance of nature. The native people have fought with a range of weapons that includes ancient primitive spears, modern law suits, and the strength of 423 women leaders proclaiming, “Let us live in peace, and we will guard this land for our children.” Caught between the economic boon provided by the oil companies and a need to protect the country’s biodiversity and indigenous population, in 2007 the Ecuadorian government proposed an initiative to refrain indefinitely from exploiting oil reserves in the Yasuni National Park in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves ($3.6 billion over 13 years) from the international community. Since then, the Yasuni ITT Initiative has received enthusiastic support from environmental groups, celebrities, and several European countries. The extent and duration of its success, however, remains unclear.

Despite the exotic mélange which makes up her life, Martin refers to herself simply as “a wife, a mother, and a teacher.” Regarding her classes in politics and international relations at CCU, Martin says, “I truly love teaching. There is an exciting freshness as I start each semester. I particularly like working with freshmen, opening up whole new worlds and having the opportunity to be with them for four years.” She also works with Coastal Carolina’s student exchange program which has placed students in ten different countries. One of these, Sean Dove, is currently studying at the University of San Francisco in Quito where Pam first began her academic journey into the rainforests of Ecuador.

Martin has high praise for CCU’s administration and her faculty colleagues, a relationship that is clearly mutual. Political Science Department colleague Dr. Richard Aidoo said of her: “Pam Martin is indeed a rare teacher. She has made it her calling not to just walk in and out of the classroom but to positively affect and transform the life of every student that comes into contact with her.” She has been recognized with a number of teaching awards including the International Studies Association’s Award for using technology to globalize her classroom and the Deborah Gerner Award for Innovative Teaching. She has published numerous articles and three highly praised books. One, An Introduction to World Politics, is a text used in freshman political science classes. Her recently published work, Oil in the Soil: the Politics of Paying to Preserve the Amazon, presents an overview of her extensive research on ethnic conflict in Ecuador, particularly the Yasuni ITT Initiative.

Dr. Min Ye, a department colleague of Pam’s, says one of her greatest contributions has been the establishment of two Model United Nations programs, a collegiate one on the CCU campus and a newly initiated elementary school program at the Coastal Montessori Charter School in Pawleys Island. The Model U.N.’s goal is to assist students in becoming global thinkers and, ultimately, world leaders, by viewing the world through the eyes of diplomats in various parts of the world. Dr. Ye says, “In the past ten years Pam has helped hundreds of students understand the U.N and how it can make the world a better place.”

At the same time, one of Martin’s priorities is mentoring young women and encouraging them toward positions of leadership. “Women are natural political leaders,” she says, “especially in safeguarding families and natural resources.” Despite a common perception, Latin American women are in positions of power and authority at every level. She cites the leadership roles of women among the indigenous tribes, their influential positions in the rising middle class, and the phenomenal example of Ecuador’s Ivonne Baki who has served as Minister of Foreign Trade, President of the Andean Parliament, and leader of the ITT negotiating team. “In Latin America,” she adds, “the term Mother Earth has both symbolic and pragmatic significance.”

In her own life, Pam Martin is clearly a role model for her students and for her young daughter who is bi-lingual and closely connected to both cultures. Pam says, “Our area is so rich in natural beauty and resources. I want my children and all who live here to recognize the responsibility that comes with this great gift we must never take for granted. This concept represents a way of living that respects all life on this planet – past, present, and future – as well as the values and ethics that support it. In today’s rushed world, buen vivir represents a much needed balance in our personal lives, as well as harmony among countries. Every semester I try to start a personal and professional dialogue regarding positive change. As I get older, I realize that life evolves to new goals and new insights which re-adjust our lens and shape our future. This is buen vivir – evolving in harmony and peace with nature and each other. It is a goal worth striving for.”

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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One Response to “Pam Martin: Buen Vivir, A Life Well Lived”

  1. Geoff Wickes says:

    I’m a college roommate of Bill Martin and I would enjoy reconnected. Please pass my name an contact on to him if possible.

    Great article! Pam sounds amazing.

    Geoff Wickes

    Thanks so much,


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