Responsible consumption adds increasingly pressing obligations to the shopping cart, such as the fight against climate change and other social commitments. At United Way, we believe that this weight, however, is indicative of one of the most effective powers of citizens. That is why we launched the Inhabiting Harvests project, with which we want to aid in the effort to shop in alignment with Human Rights.
Organic bread, eggs, happy chicken eggs, pesticide-free lettuce. . . The mere act of buying seems like a minefield of attacks on the common good, as if controlling the calories and chemical content of what we consume were not enough of a concern. The vigilance of social justice is being added, with increasing force, to the reduction of environmental impacts. But not to fear, we are not asking for a radical revolution, just a moment of attention.
It is unacceptable to us to remain impassive in the face of the certainty that within our borders the labor rights of those who collect the fruit that we throw into our carts are being violated. Our proposal is called Inhabiting Harvests, and focusses on strawberry fields in Huelva, Spain, where the human force that produces the greatest number of strawberries does so under precarious conditions.
United Way came into contact with this reality by the hands of Alba Balmaseda, a professor at the University of Stuttgart and creator of the idea of Inhabiting Harvests. Alba knew about the situation in the fields of Lepe, and the tireless denunciation of the conditions by the immigrants of the area. Abusive work hours, days not listed on the payroll for no apparent reason, non-compliance with labor laws and forced housing accommodations without proper electricity, without drinking water, far from urban centers and without transportation options: completely devoid of services. The consequences? Sickness, fire, assault, violence, and a level of social alienation as high as the invisible walls that the people of Lepe erect against a Senegalese, a Central American, a Romanian, or a Moroccan, when they approach shops in town or try to get an apartment like anyone else. All because they are “from the shantytowns.”
In March 2022, United Way presented Inhabiting Harvests in the Forum of Leadership against Modern Slavery, organized by The Spanish Foundation for Human Rights. There, you could hear the testimony of people from the shanty towns – Seydou Dip and Haya Fosfana –, who discussed things like, “I was never as hungry in Senegal as I am here,” or “when I was in Mali, I never thought to be a farmer worker, but after arriving to Spain I had no other option. I was forced into the settlements.” Both agreed in their perplexity at how it is possible that so many people fall into extreme social exclusion upon reaching the supposed European paradise of prosperity. They also pointed to what they consider to be other evidence: “We are essential; the people of Spain do not know that we live like this, being essential”. They are referring to the impact that their long and difficult working days have on our full stomachs.
And they complain deliberately because they are the makers of their own associative movement; that is, they denounce problems and propose solutions. Seydou and Haya work with ASNUCI, one of the most active associations around the Huelva strawberry fields, with which the United Way is working to help strengthen its push for change.
The first mission of Inhabiting Harvests, according to Alba Balmaseda’s formula, is “to change the view on informality”. In the settlements, not everything is disposable, there are surprising examples of habitability solutions (ancestral heating systems, bread ovens, surprising ideas for insulation) from which learning can be extracted as they are improved. The idea, therefore, is not to eliminate the settlements, but to bring them to decent conditions based on the reality and knowledge of those who inhabit them. “Informality is seen as something negative, but it holds many values; the bravery of survival, the strength of everyday acts in the search for well-being” says Alba, who in addition to having made a detailed diagnosis in Lepe, has been involving the students from various universities (Stuttgart, Granada, Polytechnic of Madrid) in a series of workshops where they learn about materials, energy efficiency and structures from the antipodes of academia, “making transparent how intelligent and sustainable we are when we have no resources.”
This change of perspective, in addition to permeating the consciousness of the students and teaching staff that Alba has brought together, is also happening in the strawberry associative movement itself and, through the action of United Way, in local authorities. The Lepe City Council and the Andalusian defense attorney are already familiar with the project in order to move on to the next phase, which aims to bring real improvement in the living conditions of the community. For the whole community.
How? Gradually transforming the physical environment of the settlements, improving them without completely destroying them, and involving those who inhabit these temporary houses and their neighborhood. “We want to generate new relationships between the labor force in the fields and the host community. We cannot fix all of the problems, but by intervening in something as concrete as habitability we can initiate big changes in everything else:” Words from an architect. New houses tailored to those who already know the area, built on the basis of respect and consensus. Very utopian? More difficult things have been done, step by step, day by day.
Of course, for the novelty to be possible, another fundamental piece is needed: companies. United Way navigates a sometimes-unknown terrain between social action and economic activity where, every movement counts. Inhabiting Harvests needs companies; the ones that produce, the ones that distribute, the ones that advertise. Between the hands of Haya or Seydou and the purchasing power there is a chain of will that we need to add to the cause, as Arcadis, an international sustainable development consulting agency that contributes with corporate volunteering, has already done.
The action of harvesting is, in itself, a project, a form of strategy. We want to use that metaphor so that the link between what is produced and what is bought is free of burdens. Traceability is a good thing, even if it weighs on our shoulders in the warmth of the supermarket (we leave other areas of consumption such as clothing out of this review, celebrating the recent news that Inditex is going to start using recycled fabrics on a global scale).
Given the demand for commitment to moral consumption, logical questions always arise: what are regulations for? And what do I do with this information? To start: spread the word. To continue: choose carefully what you buy. Both are very concrete forms of action. Let’s not forget that at the end of the chain, the power is ours.