Second year SAIS MA student Stephanie Billingham, spent her summer volunteering on an Organic Coffee Farm in Ecuador. Her goal was to become fluent in Spanish before beginning her second year of study at SAIS DC. Her experiences, which she chronicles below, were life changing.
In her own words, she writes,
‘When I ended up deciding to volunteer on a coffee farm in an isolated part of Northern Ecuador this past summer, all I thought I would learn was Spanish. Following a year of study in Bologna, off I went to immerse myself in another language and culture in the hopes of keeping my Spanish sharp to move up a language level by September. Instead, those two months transformed the way I think about development, labor, foreign land ownership, and energy policy. As a result, I have chosen to do a minor in Latin American Studies alongside my main concentration in Conflict Management, and am avidly signing up for courses on Latin American history, energy policy, international labor law, and economic negotiations. I am also reading everything I can find by or about Simón Bolívar and Eduardo Galeano.
I had never studied Latin America before, except within the context of American Foreign Policy. I had never travelled there. The only real tie I had with the region was the language I was learning. And yet, I fell in love with Ecuador this summer. I spent those two months working on a coffee farm with three other volunteers and the two permanent workers, Jorge and Maricela, who lived there. I cannot wait to go back!
The first thing I learned about Ecuador is that its people are unimaginably generous; with their time, their food, and their friendship. The region in which I was living in is very poor, though about to experience an economic boom, thanks to the advancing copper mining companies keen on exploiting the enormous deposits of copper hiding under their mountains. The coffee farmers, who started their businesses in concert with a local coffee co-operative in efforts to provide alternative employment to those jobs offered by the mining corporations, barely break even financially. They still hire seasonal workers to provide the community a minimal source of income. Friends will help each other with their businesses for a little extra cash (there are no ATMS, or banks). As everyone participates in this exchange, the money is shared.
The days were busy, but wonderful. The four volunteers, me included, would wake-up at six with the roosters, have breakfast with Jorge and Maricela at six thirty, and climb up the mountain to start the coffee-picking with the seasonal workers promptly at seven. We would know it was ten o’clock when Maricela would appear with fresh juice she made an hour before. At noon, we’d troop back to her house, where she always had lunch ready and waiting for us. Depending on the day, after our hour long lunch break, we would help her harvest yucca and avocado (carried in wicker baskets hung over our backs), go down to the river and help Jorge wash the coffee, or sit at a table and sort through 50lb bags of dried coffee beans to pick out the bad ones. Some days, we would work seven hours, others ten. At seven at night, we’d troop back over to Jorge and Maricela’s house and have dinner with them. (If we were lucky, some nights, Jorge would pull out his guitar and sing traditional Ecuadorian songs.) It was lovely.
Coffee harvesting was not the only thing that kept us busy. Though they were not grown in quantities large enough to sell for significant profit, other crops such as bananas, yucca, naranjilla, beans, oranges, papaya, pineapple, and avocadoes grew all over the mountainside in between the coffee plants. We would help Maricela collect baskets full of them.
Despite the physical fatigue, these were the pleasant side of working on the farm. The hard, difficult parts dealt with the pressure of trying to appease the greedy land owners of the farm, who were keen on receiving confirmation that the farm’s profits were expected. I learned later that Maricela had been paid half of what she had been promised and seasonal workers had been fired because profits were not met. (Our volunteer labor was preferred instead of hiring local workers. If more profits were lost, Jorge and Maricela could be out of work the following year. It was painful to see how Jorge and Maricela were exploited.)
I could fill books with stories of Maricela and Jorge’s abuse at the hands of their landowner. At SAIS, in studying development issues and how different labor standards between countries have been exploited, I now saw first-hand these abuses. Viewing up front the exploitation of workers has impacted and changed the context in which I view and interpret my education.
Despite these difficulties, what impacted me most was Maricela and Jorge’s way of looking at the world, so different from my own. When I asked them what their favorite part of Ecuador was, they both said, “Right here.” Both of them had been to other areas, for work and visiting family, but they always quickly returned to the mountains. They preferred their own little stone house. When I returned home to Canada for two weeks before school started again in DC, I looked around and thought, ‘They would hate living in, or visiting my home country.’ Life on the farm had given me a new perspective. Everything is so loud, whereas on our farm, no matter where you are you can hear the river running.
Despite how hard their lives on the farm can be, including lack of material possessions, Maricela and Jorge are happiest exactly where they are, and completely dedicated to staying a part of the community.
For me, as someone who will probably live internationally for the foreseeable future, such strong ties and loyalty to a place had initially been a foreign concept to me. This is no longer the case. I’m already planning on going back; I have a Christening, and three birthdays for which I promised to return for. When I left this summer, I imagined I would be returning to the northern mountains in Ecuador. The friendships I made this summer will prevent me from ever truly leaving.