Back in September, I attended Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s World Leaders Forum speech. I remember that while President Lee Bollinger criticized the head of state for his media censorship, Bollinger also praised him for bringing stability and reducing inequality. After all, Correa’s discourse was deeply socialist. According to Bollinger, he had battled against telecommunication monopolies to grant a voice to the most vulnerable indigenous populations of his country.
Intrigued by this stance, I took the opportunity to witness whether his words corresponded with reality during my Alternative Spring Break trip to Ecuador with GEQUA. To my surprise, the indigenous people of Ecuador are undoubtedly launching a revolution. It does not tie in perfectly with what Correa spoke about, but it does defy the capitalistic status quo. It is a one-of-a-kind revolution, a beautiful manifestation of the power of the individual that enabled me to see how Columbia lacks a proactive culture for reform.
During our trip, we worked hand in hand with the Brethren y Unida Foundation, lodging in their beautiful “hacienda”—ranch estate—with endless fields of crops and farm animals. We worked the land, learning how to plant organic lettuce, milk cows, and identify useful maize. Dr. Alfredo Merino, the leader of the organization that received our student group, constantly reminded us that their foundation used sustainable agriculture to implement gender equality.
I must admit that I was initially confounded. How did getting our hands dirty and learning to plant organic lettuce contribute to women’s empowerment in the region? Most of our activities consisted of visiting community leaders in the rural towns around Quito and hearing about how they had started to farm their own organic crops with the help of the foundation. I thought this healthy and economically viable but could not understand how a four-by-four square of beets was granting a voice or political rights to the household-constrained woman.
I finally understood once we met Ximena. Ximena is a young indigenous woman, not older than 35, with a large family of three kids to care for. She owns a personal flower greenhouse with a 60-by-60 plot of plants in which she cultivates thousands of Ecuadorian roses. The male members of her family constructed the structure by hand with the funds of a community microcredit loan system and various personal savings. Ximena’s small four-by-four independent crop field is now a massive and fruitful means of personal production. She had the knowledge to make it happen—after all, she had worked in the Ecuadorian rose industry since she was 13. She quit the day she found out her son was born “sick” due to the many chemical fertilizers used on the flowers. Just like Ximena, many other Ecuadorians work in rose factories to escape poverty, but very few take the initiative to escape a degrading lifestyle.
I measured the impact of Ximena’s initiative when I went for a hike along the Andean mountain range with my Columbia peers. As we looked down into the outskirts of Quito, we noticed that the majority of our view was obstructed by extensive white plastic covers. Rows and rows of rose greenhouses suffocated the city. Endless foreign capital largely protected by Correa’s government had taken advantage of Ecuador’s tropical weather to exploit its resources. And along with the rose industry were many indigenous women like Ximena being exposed to deadly chemicals every day.
What is taking place in Ximena’s humble household is a revolution. It isn’t the socialist revolution that Correa defended back in September. It is a struggle against the government to obtain some of the most basic resources, like water, to then fight against the capitalistic world that has suppressed the indigenous voice for so long. It is not a revolution of violence or rhetoric. It is a struggle with the land and for those inhabitants of the land. In many ways, it is also a struggle toward the defense of culture in a society in which the field is sacred. It is a beautiful manifestation of the power of the individual.
If every rose company worker followed Ximena’s steps, and every consumer embraced their products, then the whole system would topple. Then, there would be a voice for the voiceless that does not have to pass through media censorship.
Every day at Columbia, I witness how our student community is largely shaped by a character of opposition. We protest the system and defy hegemony. However, I had to travel to Ecuador to truly see the fruits of individual enterprise regaining power from the authority.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. She is on the executive board of the Columbia Society of International Undergraduate Students and a writer for Nuestras Voces. From Outside In runs alternate Mondays.