To Ecuador, With Love

Fair trade grows in the flower industry

| July-August 2008

On a clear day, Norma and Marcos Toapanta have a spectacular view of Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano, from their small home. Today, however, the mountain is swathed in clouds and fog, and a light rain falls as Norma leads a group of visitors down a path worn through tall grass.

The air smells of wet earth and manure. A cow pauses to watch the unusual parade of foreign visitors, who are here to see for themselves whether their efforts back in the United States are paying off.

There is nothing special about Norma’s house, a rectangle of concrete blocks with a cement floor, split into a few small rooms. Nothing special, except that the house belongs to Norma and Marcos, who welcome guests as proudly as if they were showing off a sprawling hacienda. Marcos points to a nearby dwelling made of weathered wood and tin. That’s where they used to live, with his parents and too many other people to count, he explains with a laugh.

Their new house has a kind of rooftop patio where the Toapantas can take in the majesty of the surrounding Andes. Marcos points to rebar extending past the roofline. Someday, he says, he will add a second floor. Marcos is, finally, a man with a future.



A month or so earlier, thousands of miles away in Oakland and Austin and other cities, pallets of Ecuadoran roses arrived in Whole Foods Market stores. They were huge and beautiful, with heads the size of softballs in deep reds, pinks, and purples.

Even though they were more expensive than other roses, they flew off the shelves. The customers were undoubtedly thinking about loved ones, not about Norma Toapanta, when they bought the roses.

Anthony Fiallo
6/26/2008 8:53:19 PM

I have to reluctantly agree with Cecile. I am a transplanted Ecuadorian and, although I can feel good about the benefits accruing to the native workers in Ecuador (who are notoriously mistreated and underpaid), I too must ask and what of the Amerikan jobs that were lost. Roses have not dropped in price so I must assume that the importers are reaping the real rewards....lower costs = higher profits. Let's not allow rapacious business interests to sell us a bill of goods, no matter how good the impact is on the foreign workers, we must never forget the cost to our own domestic labor force.


Cecile Mills
6/22/2008 11:00:27 AM

Fair Trade Flowers are a band-aid on an amputation. I live where hundreds of greenhouses sit vacant, where our tax money goes for arms deals and flower deals with nations like Columbia. Where the flowers are grown the same way they were in the U.S. and then flown here. Transportation costs steepen as local growers are staggered with debt. To think by paying something into a workers fund will help people is to delude yourself. While it is better than the previous wage, it is merely a step in the corporate search for profit-making situations. The next country—Africa—is already gearing up for flower production. Begin thinking about locally grown flowers. Support local CSAs that include flowers in the weekly share. Think of the consequences of playing the game of global economies: people in our communities going broke while others a half-world away are paid pennies on the dollar so the end-of-the-year report for the global corporate flower producer is rosy.