How Ecuador Has Found the Antidote to Rising Food Prices
A group of college students from the US helped build this greenhouse on the rooftop of an elementary school in Quito, Ecuador.
Photo Credit: Christian Velastegui
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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.”
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’
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.”