Sarah McGee admires the structure, partially wrapped in mesh and sun-protective plastic, and smiles approvingly. “We made a wall,” she says. “It actually looks like a greenhouse now. It was a carcass for a week.”
Photo by Christian Velastegui
For nearly two weeks this summer, McGee and a handful of fellow college students have constructed a greenhouse on the rooftop of an elementary school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. McGee, a 19-year-old sophomore attending the University of California, Los Angeles, was born in the mountains of Japan and raised by hippies in the beach town of Santa Cruz. “I’ve always been interested in sustainable projects and how to make that work in Third World countries,” she says.
But she and her friends didn’t travel to this developing South American country to study or share their knowledge. They’re the labor. Some afternoons they go to Quito’s historic district to assemble a greenhouse behind an art museum, as requested by a group of women who felt squeezed out of their community and wanted to stake a claim. Residents come together, decide to grow their own food, and the process begins. They get a little help from a municipal economic development agency called CONQUITO that promotes organic urban farms in this city of 2.1 million people located on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active volcano in the Andes.
Ecuador ranks as one of the world’s top users of agricultural pesticides. The record of pesticide use, combined with increasing awareness of the dangers of chemicals, has created a demand for organically grown produce. But there’s another critical reason for these gardens: Ever since the country adopted the US dollar as its official currency in 2000, Ecuadorians have suffered rising food prices along with hunger and malnourishment. The country’s vulnerability to floods, droughts, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions further jeopardizes food security.
These urban farms put the power of local food production back into the hands of people, and it’s happening with assistance from international volunteers such as UCLA student Steven Moracho, who on this warm summer day appraises nearly a dozen planter boxes sprouting vegetables on the school’s rooftop: “I wish this is how my elementary school was — to have plants everywhere.”
‘We can harvest it ourselves’
Photo by Sena Christian
The college students arrived at Escuela Fiscal Mixta Bogota after an hour-long, bumpy bus ride from the bustling, smoggy city center to south Quito, a relatively rural neighborhood with minimal vehicle traffic, plenty of dilapidated buildings, and stray dogs roaming the dusty roads. Shak Gonzales accompanies the Americans to the site. He works for Triple Salto, a nongovernmental organization that coordinates volunteers to assist CONQUITO on urban farm projects. “This is a poor area of Quito, so now they have access to healthy food and aren’t just eating meat and rice everyday,” Gonzales says. “It’s excellent for them. They work here. They live here. They don’t go into the city. They need to have their own crops.”
Sixty-seven percent of Ecuadorians live in urban centers, according to the CIA World Factbook, and that number is expected to grow. Triple Salto partnered with CONQUITO 10 years ago to launch the Participatory Urban Agriculture Project to support healthy nutrition and economic growth among groups of city dwellers. These groups often consist of female-headed households, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Or they are based in low-income neighborhoods and at rural schools, says Triple Salto Founder Alicia Guzman.
“Most of the world’s population will live in cities in the near future,” she says. “This program is not a goal in itself but the means to achieve social cohesion, economic inclusion (and) strengthening of communities, peace building, cultural inclusion, and access to credit based in solidarity.”
Her organization also aims to create stability — a word not typically associated with Ecuador, which gained independence from Spain in 1822 and has suffered instability off and on ever since. In 1999, a severe banking and economic crisis ravaged the country, prompting dollarization. While this change may have stabilized the nation’s economy, it also increased food prices as salaries stayed the same. “One day I was paid in sucre, the next in dollars,” says Alexandra Rodriquez, who manages CONQUITO’s agriculture program. “What I earned in sucre was then divided up by 25,000, which in turn was only worth $1. I basically earned nothing, but food still cost the same. Those were difficult times.”
In 2007, leftist economist Rafael Correa became president promising a “Citizen’s Revolution.” His administration increased spending on housing, health care, and other social programs, and Correa is now the country’s longest-serving president since 1979. The government also passed its 20th constitution in 2008, which happens to be the first in the world to recognize the rights of nature.
But for many Ecuadorians, Correa’s reforms are slow to improve their daily lives. While poverty has decreased, 28.6 percent of residents still live below the poverty line. That’s compared to 15.1 percent of Americans living in poverty in 2010. The country has a chronic malnutrition rate of about 26 percent, with Indigenous people, Colombian refugees, and children especially vulnerable, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. In 2011, Correa announced his government’s intentions to eradicate malnutrition by 2015.
Meanwhile, on the rooftop of a poor school in south Quito, the focus — at least for these kids — is on proudly showing off the radishes they’ve grown. “We can see the whole natural process and we can harvest it ourselves,” says 12-year-old Nicole Serlad, in Spanish. “I like that the lettuce goes from small to really big and we make sandwiches with it.” Many of the children say they didn’t particularly care for vegetables until recently. Now they grow radishes, lettuce, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and more, which they harvest for homemade soups and sandwiches. Lessons from growing organically even inspired a school-wide slogan: “We try to live in a world without chemicals.” The kids have also become staunch recyclers, turning plastic soda bottles into watering cans and leftover food scraps into compost.
As 12-year-old Marco Lopez waters plants using a refashioned soda bottle on this summer day, Amanda Haas, a 21-year-old American the children nicknamed Senorita Gringa, helps wrap the greenhouse in plastic. “When the kids work with it, it has more meaning for them,” she says. “And we’ll leave tools for them to have. The plastic will need to be replaced in a few years and we’ll teach them how to maintain it, so we don’t have to come back.”
‘The community decides’
Photo by Julia Christian
Rodriquez sits at a desk in an open office on the second floor of an expansive building called the Knowledge Factory where she runs the Participatory Urban Agriculture Project. “The community decides they want to do this and they reach out to CONQUITO,” she says. In addition to providing training, technical assistance, materials, tools, and microcredits, her staff teaches growers how to pickle and can food and achieve organic certification. CONQUITO connects these growers with roughly a dozen farmer’s markets throughout the city where they earn money from their harvests.
The project relies heavily on alliances with other groups including Triple Salto, on monetary donations, and on the labor of international volunteers who perform critical tasks such as wrapping a greenhouse on the rooftop of a school in mesh and plastic. This keeps the inside temperature uniform year-round and blocks out wind, explains 21-year-old Daniel Block, a global studies and economics major at UCLA. “This is sustainable,” he says, motioning to Escuela Bogota’s greenhouse. “The community is part of it and there are people here to take care of it after we leave. We don’t just dig a well and leave and the well caves in.”
In the decade since the urban agriculture project began, CONQUITO has trained some 7,500 residents on how to grow — and sell — their own food. They’ve helped transform abandoned areas into abundant gardens and, in the process, strengthened the self-esteem of marginalized communities. They’ve helped launch 750 gardens so far and they have no plans to stop.
“I think all governments should implement this type of project, not just in Third World countries or undeveloped countries,” Rodriguez says. “The issue of healthy diets is permanent. It’s important that people have a healthy diet, made with your own hands. People need to know that food doesn’t just appear in their refrigerators or from the supermarkets. Children, especially, should be educated on where food comes from. We all should know what it takes to grow corps. We need to value nature. If we are educated, then we’re more likely to (show) appreciation.”