Fair Trade Internship in Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador
Experiencing The World Fellowships
Ecuador - 2017
It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in my introduction to international development class at Notre Dame, totally engrossed in learning about the different theories regarding human development. I never could have imagined that in a few short months, I would be experiencing both human and economic development for myself firsthand in the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador.
As an intern for the only indigenously owned and operated chocolate company in Ecuador, I witnessed firsthand both the beauty and challenges of fighting to develop a small business in the face of limited resources and tough competition. Association Wiñak, a passionate and driven Kichwa-run organization stationed in the small rainforest town of Archidona, is working to improve the quality of life for local cacao farmers and preserve the biodiversity of the rainforest. The farmers use a system of farming called chakras, which is a way of cultivating products by mimicking the natural rainforest. The products are planted in very complicated, specific patterns according to knowledge that has been passed down through generations of Kichwa farmers. The chakra system promotes and preserves biodiversity, produces many different types of products, and is completely organic. I was able to witness firsthand the passion, expertise, and care that the Kichwa farmers use to cultivate their chakras, as well as their concern for the environment that provides for them. The farmers who plant cacao in their chakras then sell their cacao to Wiñak, who dries, ferments, and processes the cacao into chocolate. I was able to take part in and learn about the process of harvesting and sorting cacao, and making chocolate. I spent many hours in the greenhouses alongside student workers gathering and raking dried cacao beans, preparing them to be sent to Italy, Japan, and the United States. I watched as a customs officer inspected our cacao, as we all waited anxiously to see if he approved our product for exportation, the fruit of many weeks of hard work.
In addition to my work in the cacao processing chain, I worked alongside the administrative staff in Wiñak’s office. My role in the office included developing a new website for the company, teaching English to the office, redesigning product packaging, and translating documents. Due to Wiñak’s limited resources, they have been unable to translate many of their grant proposals to numerous NGO’s and INGO’s into English, which I was able to do. I was also able to witness the process of receiving organic certification from the FDA, which was very time consuming and costly for a company of Wiñak’s size. To be a part of an organization that is working endlessly towards sustainable community development gave me great perspective on what development really consists of, both when it works and when it does not. I was consistently overwhelmed with the purpose, passion, and hardworking nature of my coworkers at Wiñak, all of which was driven by their desire to improve their communities. Profit from the chocolate goes to ensuring that the farmers and their families have access to healthcare, education, and other basic services, meaning that the administrative staff is paid very little. However, they are continually motivated to work hard every day to ensure that they are making a positive difference and developing sustainably, a passion that I find to be extremely admirable and inspiring. I was often reminded that in order for sustainable and meaningful development to take place, the local people must determine what “development” means to them, and must have the passion and motivation to work towards whatever that is. The most useful thing I was able to do for Wiñak was to offer them another set of hands with a new set of capabilities, through which I learned about, observed, and participated in development strategies taking place. These experiences have not only increased my knowledge of economic concepts and international development directly, but have also given more depth and dimension to my new classes back on campus.
By living and working with the Kichwa people, I was able to gain a deep understanding of their culture, including their difficulties, joys, and way of life. The Kichwa culture is beautiful, welcoming, and rich, full of traditions and accompanied by a unique language. I exercised my language skills not only in Spanish, but also in learning parts of the indigenous language as I struggled through the challenge to communicate fully in an indigenous community. I was able to take part in many different aspects of Kichwa culture, including being treated by an Amazonian medicine man, partaking in a traditional guayusa ceremony, and preparing traditional meals with my host family. My host grandmother, a 93-year-old woman who speaks only Kichwa, rubbed herbs on my stomach when I was sick, and my 7-year-old host sister asked hundreds of questions about my life in the United States, including what my freckles were. I was able to have many conversations with my coworkers and family about issues of rights of indigenous groups in Ecuador, climate change, the struggle against foreign oil companies, and suppression of indigenous groups, from which I learned perspective and became passionate about issues that I previously didn’t know existed. By living with a host family, I was able to witness the simplicity of the Kichwa lifestyle, which is focused on community, family, and sharing. The hospitality and generosity that was consistently extended to me over my stay in Ecuador overwhelmed me and reminded me that it is often those who have the least that give the most. Living in Ecuador for an extended period of time not only allowed me to become acquainted with the beautiful parts about life in Archidona, but also with the hardships that the Kichwa people struggle to overcome. Getting to know a new culture has not only put my own into perspective, but taught me that learning about culture and development is so much more than reading about it in a textbook.
It is difficult to put into words the magnitude of the way my experience in Ecuador has shaped the way that I now view the world. In addition to giving me the gift of a new perspective and invaluable experiential knowledge, I now have a second family who I will always feel connected to in a special way, even though they are many miles away. My time in Ecuador has enriched my life by teaching me lessons that will be useful both in my personal and professional lives. Although I have learned so much in Ecuador, I am equally humbled by the experience, as it has opened my eyes to how much there is that I don’t know, including the beauty and nuances of the many cultures, issues, and passions that exist around the world.