No bed of roses: UTSC Prof’s new ethnography spotlights the Ecuadorian cut flower industry and its indigenous workers

Woman tending to roses

The north of Ecuador is one of the largest producers of cut flowers in the world, exporting mainly roses for the North American market. The massive farms push up against the boundaries of indigenous communities throughout the region, employing huge numbers of people but competing for resources with those same communities.

Ecuador Fields

When Prof. Christopher Krupa was doing fieldwork on Ecuador’s indigenous movements in 2001, he realized that he needed to understand the effects of these huge agribusinesses on the surrounding communities. There was just one problem: no researcher had ever been allowed inside one of the farms.

“They are quite imposing things,” said Prof. Krupa, “There are these huge windbreaks that surround them, and they are all enclosed under greenhouses with armed guards at the gate. I think there’s a lot of mystique around it, preserving it as a distinct space. They have these huge guard towers, protecting them from robbery. The farms are built on the idea that they are new and technologically advanced, while outside are these really poor, backward peasant communities.”

However, a series of accidents gave Prof. Krupa access to this previously restricted world. At the time, Prof. Krupa was completing his doctorate at the University of California, Davis, which happened to be one of the premier agricultural universities in the world, and had pioneered the cutting-edge cold storage techniques that made the flower industry possible. For Prof. Krupa that opened more doors than if he’d been from Harvard, he notes.

Soon he had offers from several different plantations to do fieldwork inside them. This fieldwork is the basis of his new book, A Feast of Flowers: Race, Labour and Postcolonial Capitalism in Ecuador, published by University of Pennsylvania Press. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted over more than 15 years, the book is an examination of how capitalism expands in post-colonial conditions, and the legacy of the racial constructs that colonialism imposed on the region.

“The legacies of colonialism are still the central axis of social, economic and political life in certain parts of the country,” says Prof. Krupa. “The question I ask in the book is how this aggressively neoliberal, capitalist system, premised on providing luxury consumer goods to a north American market, engages with this very postcolonial reality and its stark racial divisions.”

Woman cultivating crops

The north of Ecuador has no history of global agribusiness. Up until the 1970s it was all organized under the old system of haciendas, estates where indigenous people lived and worked producing crops for local markets. The flower industry sprung up as the global south was inundated with credit, encouraging rapid industrial expansion but sparking a debt crisis. An emphasis on developing export markets to qualify for loans meant that the industry grew quickly, beginning in the 1980s and becoming the third-largest producer of cut flowers in the world by the mid-90s. While the farms became huge employers in the area, many locals had misgivings about the devastating ecological effects these huge plantations had, as well as the competition for resources such as irrigation water. Not to mention that fact that farm managers were almost universally white people coming in from the cities.

“There’s a huge sense of conflict,” said Prof. Krupa. “People were struggling for irrigation water and also communities were at the same time trying to reinvent themselves as politically and socially viable units. There were struggles over how much of people’s time work on the farms was demanding, and struggles over resources. In addition, the farms are regarded as devastating to human health, as well as waterways, land systems. There is a huge anxiety around the ways the intense chemicals used in the growing of flowers is changing the world around us. A lot of interpretations of this see it as a sort of violence.”

In addition, there was a deep mystification about what the commodity was actually for. Prof. Krupa spoke to people who had worked in the flower industry for years, but had no idea what people actually did with the flowers. “They knew I came from a place the flowers were destined to go,” said Prof. Krupa. “They would ask me about what it was we did with all these things, because they had no idea what was happening to the product of their labour. The title of the book is a reference to that, because one of the first warnings I would always get was not to eat the roses, because they were full of chemicals.”

A Feast of Flowers: Race, Labor, and Postcolonial Capitalism in Ecuador is available from University of Pennsylvania Press.

Photos by Christopher Krupa