When I began working for Fundación UTOPIA, the word “Utopia” tritely exaggerated the impact that the organization seemed to make. Every other Saturday, my coworkers and I set up Community Baskets – or Canastas Comunitarias1 – in order to provide paying customers easy access to organic produce at an affordable price. That’s pretty much it, it seemed. Besides tending to the vegetable garden in the back, there really is nothing to do in the office. Due to this absence of work, I thought UTOPIA was run by obnoxiously savvy foodies fueled by the idea that “Whole, organic products are good for the soul!” If a utopia is what they were going for, these Canastas Comunitarias barely touched base. Yes, eating healthily and organically is great, but I didn’t see any Garden-of-Eden imagery or futuristic advancements in doing so.
Part 1: Enemies
It wasn’t until Ecuador’s Second Annual Agroecological Forum2 that I realized UTOPIA’s overall mission of their impact. As the various speakers grabbed the microphone to speak, I noticed the scientists, farmers, and non-profiteers from around the country speak about their own perspective and solutions for this concept called Food Sovereignty. Food Sovereignty is the idea that farmers and consumers determine food system policies, rather than the market demands of big businesses and corporations. Monsanto, a US agricultural biotechnology corporation was especially under critical fire. The scientists flogged Monsanto for encouraging genetically modified produce laden with pesticides into our bodies and the natural environment. Of course, the environmental and health implications of pesticides and genetic engineering aren’t unheard of, but it surprised me to learn that, in the case of farmers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides reveal an economic impact
GMOs and pesticides allow food companies to produce as much food as possible, as efficiently as possible, thus maximizing profits for the company producing the food. However, if farmers buy the genetically modified seed, they must compliment it with the purchase of pesticides and “super soil” that the company produces as well. The farmer is then dependent on the company in far too many aspects of the farming process, thus throwing the farmer in a vicious cycle of debt and dependence under the company. Fortunately for Ecuador, GMOs have been prohibited by the 2008 constitution, but even so, newly reelected president Rafael Correa commits to repeal this law in order to “address the countries food security concerns” (Groundswell International). This, of course, would be devastating for Fundación UTOPIA. Reallowing GMOs into Ecuador’s soil can cause terrible things for Ecuador’s poverty. Taking a drive through the countryside, one would see that farmers, for the most part, live in poverty. Living in the campo, campesinos do what they can with their land and farm for a living, and it’s not uncommon at all to see these farmers literally lined up outside credit unions for loans on their farm. I’m not aware whether their loans are easily paid off, but I know that allowing GMOs on the market would convince farmers to invest in artificial seed and become indebted to the vicious nature of profit-focused companies, thus exacerbating the poverty already found in Ecuador’s countryside.
Additionally, GMOs threaten poverty unto even those who farm organically, and threaten Ecuador’s cultural diversity as well. My supervisor at UTOPIA, Fernanda Ramos3, recounted her grandfather’s experience with GMOs. Farming grains like barley and wheat, he would save seed to sell, grow, and eat. However, GMO pollen contaminated his seeds, and to support his “new” crop, he required pesticides and other products of which he could not afford, and became unable to sustain his crop. From this, I realized that GMOs not only ruin other crops, but can potentially eliminate natural crop varieties like corn. Ecuadorian culture is evident in the different corn varieties, and it wouldn’t be unrealistic for campo communities to lose their own varieties of corn to cross pollination with GMOs.
Part 2: Efforts
My first exposure to my supervisors’ work “in the field” took place in Santa Lucia, Guayas in the community of La Paz. To reach this community you must exit downtown Santa Lucia, cross a river by ferry, and drive thirty minutes past huge stretches of rice fields. The rice farmers, who live with their families in rustic shacks littered across the coastal campo, congregated in the community church4 where they participated in a workshop about capitalism and networking, with UTOPIA facilitating the workshop5. It was my first time seeing UTOPIA work to help the farmers, the very people their mission represents. My supervisors taught them how capitalism is a feudal system in disguise, with the winning profiteers at the top of the pyramid and farmers and laborers generally at the bottom. They taught that Capitalism, an economic system based on profit, would mean that money would generally pump up towards the top of this pyramid, thus making it difficult for farmers to make and save money.
One effort to keep money within the communities, according to the workshop, is to create community banks. In this type of bank, every member of the community is a banker, and rather than receiving loans from actual banks in the cities, community members can loan each other when they need to. With this method, money stays within the community and the community can decide the interest and rules for the loan. Although interest can be placed on the loan to keep each other accountable, the interest on the loan should not be viewed as a form of profit. The point of these loans is to create a community of solidarity, one where the focus is not to gain financially for oneself, but to gain financially as a community.
It took a while for me to realize, but the Canastas Comunitarias also form a community of solidarity. Firstly, each family that orders a canasta is required to help organize the canastas at the Canasta Comunitarias at least once a year, otherwise it would cost more to produce them. Secondly, I thought the biweekly Canastas were simply an effort to make organic food more accessible to consumers. But upon asking my supervisor Fernanda if selling the canastas (sacks of organic produce) sufficed to support UTOPIA financially, she negated my question and said that the money the consumers use in order to buy the canastas is only used to purchase the produce for the next week’s canastas. The money goes straight to the farmers, and UTOPIA acts only as the connection between the farmers and consumers, and as a mediator to keep the prices fair on both ends. Because financial dependence on the canastas is out the question, UTOPIA focuses only on the principal goals of the Canastas Comunitarias: bringing the consumers together with the farmers, allowing consumers to know where their food comes from, removing the anonymity of farmers so that they gain respect from the community of consumers, giving the producers a stable audience to sell to, and of course, providing affordable access to organic produce.
I found it quite inspiring that UTOPIA sacrifices that source of income for the cause. However, it did make me curious – where does their money come from? Fernanda says that she and my other supervisors gain a bit of income from community leaders or other organizations for giving workshops like they did in Santa Lucia. But the most fascinating source of funding for UTOPIA comes from another supervisor of mine, Roberto Gortaire6. Roberto works in a governmental institution called COPISA (Conferencia Plurinacional e Intercultural de Soberanía Alimentaria). COPISA works directly with the government to regulate, form, and defend the laws concerning food sovereignty in Ecuador. Through Roberto, COPISA funds Fundación UTOPIA to function and fulfill its daily tasks.
UTOPIA never fails to surprise me. I was not previously aware that my supervisors worked with the food sovereignty laws as well; in fact, Roberto Gortaire contributed to the 2008 Constitutional Law to prohibit the production and use of genetically engineered organisms in Ecuador! I felt awestruck. UTOPIA works both the on the ground with the farmers, and from above with the policy makers. In reality, incredible ideals and works are realized within Fundación UTOPIA, and here I am, finally aware that I’m caught in the middle of a Food Revolution.
Part 3: Utopia
About eight months ago, funding from Heifer International (a U.S. based organization aimed at ending world hunger) dwindled to nothing after a three-year project partnership to augment Fundación UTOPIA had terminated. Thusly, when I arrived about six months ago in October 2012, the UTOPIA office was lacking in activity; to me, the organization even seems dead at times. Walking around the office, I see UTOPIA shirts, UTOPIA jackets, UTOPIA cookbooks, pamphlets, DVD’s, notebooks, calendars, and aprons all branded with Heifer’s ubiquitous cow logo7. These remnants of UTOPIA’s past productivity trap me in an awkward phase of post-party depression, and I know my supervisors can feel it too. They are very aware of the office’s inactivity, and are currently working on starting another project with Heifer within the next year along with seeking other forms of funding in order to get things rolling once again.
It’s true, and it does upset me, that my bridge year is taking place within UTOPIA’s stagnant productivity between projects. I don’t blame them, though; I’m aware of the financial rollercoaster that a non-governmental organization can be. As a result, I’ve found opportunities to teach English at a primary school, high school, and even a university, as well as working on an indigenous, organic farm in order to fill in my time. This, though, is the reason I’ve come to understand UTOPIA as an organization at such a glacial speed. If my skills weren’t so limited, I’d work to improve the organization at the level my supervisors work at. They need all the help they can get, especially because their problems extend beyond financial difficulties, which include Rafael Correa’s zeal to overturn the prohibition of GMOs within Ecuadorian agriculture is surely affecting Roberto’s and COPISA’s goals and agendas. Meanwhile, Fernanda no doubt is thinking of the effect of the new Supermaxi Supermarket in town, which is bringing in imported brands that don’t help Ecuadorian farmers economically and may even be made with GMOs. Its strategic location in the wealthier sector of Riobamba will likely affect negatively how the Riobamba citizens think they must purchase their food; Fernanda expressed to me that many consumers have this idea that shopping at supermarkets is indicative of wealth and class, and I’m afraid this stigma may exacerbate the already difficult state of Ecuador’s farmers now that Supermaxi has come to reinforce it. Additionally, UTOPIA has encountered problems with the Canastas Comunitarias. Unfortunately, it is impossible for every type of organic product to come in from trusted farmers every two weeks, so we buy in bulk at the mayorista market what we can’t buy from our partnered producers. Recently, a batch of corn we bought was covered in a blue powder that helped the corn grow artificially in size, though we hadn’t seen the powder because we bought it at four in the morning without any sunlight to see. Even when it comes to buying produce at a normal market, nothing can ever be sure.
My time with Fundación UTOPIA in Ecuador is now coming to an end, and I am at a stage of reflection. Although I admit that I probably had no effect at all on this organization, I have learned so much about agriculture and its societal implications as I’ve spoken with and observed my supervisors. As a chemistry major in college this coming fall, I know my experiences with UTOPIA will play a role in my studies. But beyond my professional ambitions, UTOPIA also made think of who I am as a person. I have witnessed the effect of greed on a large scale, and how greed has pushed businesses and corporations to care more about profit rather than the integrity of their product. I am not ready to combat greed on such grand scale, but I know I can deal with it on a personal level. It is part of my personality to be greedy of time; I hoard it to myself and use it only to improve who I am and help my own situations. But I want to share my time with others as well. I have learned the importance of community togetherness, solidarity, and support of because of UTOPIA, and now that I am at the end this road with them, I understand the utopia they are going for. The definition of utopia is no longer fast cars, pretty buildings, and efficient systems. I have come to realize that a utopia is where greed does not exist, where everyone helps his fellow fellows, and where everyone is valued. Utopian ideals resonate from WITHIN us, and I will take these ideals with me for the rest of my life to strengthen and connect the communities I am a