Book review of Christopher Krupa's A Feast of Flowers: Race, Labor, and Postcolonial Capitalism in Ecuador (2022)
by Yui Sasajima
Published onJan 06, 2023
Book Review: A Feast of Flowers
A Feast of Flowers: Race, Labor, and Postcolonial Capitalism in Ecuador, by Christopher Krupa (2022). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
In A Feast of Flowers: Race, Labor, and Postcolonial Capitalism in Ecuador, Christopher Krupa sets the flower at the intersection of plantation life, the global economy, and the deeply entrenched legacy of colonialism in the Cayambe highlands of Ecuador. Through this tale of rapid capitalist expansion, the flower figures as a colonial artifact, a unit of investment, and a luxury commodity that demands exorbitant amounts of labor, land, and water. In this close examination of global and regional histories, Krupa draws on nearly three decades of working in the Indigenous communities around Cayambe to trace back the unlikely-yet-meticulously engineered developments that have turned Ecuador into the third largest global exporter of commercial flowers.
A growing body of literature has explored different anthropological approaches to studying Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation. Krupa’s approach generates fresh insight into primitive accumulation as a genre of elite historicity: narratives of transition, he argues, enable elite highland landowners to re-imagine plantations as sites of salvation for poor and unfortunate Indigenous populations. Over the course of the book’s four parts, Krupa analyzes the processes of rural capitalization, regional transformation, and the encroachment of the labor-intensive flower-industrial complex in Cayambe.
In Part I, Krupa examines the foundation of the cut-flower industry that was laid in the 1970s, when Ecuador was predominantly an oil-exporting country. With a drastic increase in both sovereign debt and domestic revenue during the global oil boom, Ecuador’s financial sector became increasingly dependent on foreign financial flows. The country’s banks thus accumulated a large supply of credit, and the emerging cut-flower industry stood out as the optimal sector in which to invest this surplus. By the 1990s, the first cut-flower growers were prospering with ample support from domestic banks and a declining exchange rate between the weak sucre and the strong U.S. dollar, resulting in a decrease of production costs and an increase in profits. In the 2000s, however, this financial bubble burst. All at once, the banks that had sustained the emerging flower sector collapsed or withdrew their support. Specialized in the mass production of a non-essential commodity that is contingent on the whims of customers in the Global North, the cut-flower industry was among the first to crumble in the face of economic downturn.
Part II picks up the story in 2000, when Ecuador decided to make the U.S. dollar its national currency. In the aftermath of the 1999-2000 crash, the flower-plantation owners were pressed to figure out a way to internally generate profits by shifting production practices and optimizing their workforce. Krupa pieces together the regional history and narratives of industry pioneers to understand why Cayambe turned out to be the ideal location for the flower industry’s second act. Having emerged from the shadows of the Spanish hacienda system that dominated the region in the centuries prior, the valley cast a haunting image of “beforeness”—the term used by Krupa to reference a past plagued by the suffering and misery of Indigenous peasant communities. In this conjuncture, a new generation of elite highland landowners turned to economic interventions that would distinguish their practices from the oppressive management of the hacendados of yesteryear. They took what was left in the ruins of colonialism and constructed a moral project that would solve the so-called “Indian problem” with the introduction of wage labor and capitalism.
Conceptions and constructions of indigeneity are further amplified in Part III, where the story takes a riveting turn, inviting the reader to experience the plantation’s scientific strategies for labor optimization. Krupa shadows the highly trained psychologists at work in Cayambe’s flower plantations, as they administer psychometric exams to potential workers during the hiring process. These psychologists rigorously assess human-figure drawings made by applicants to point out indications of their innermost attributes and habits, from anger issues to alcoholism. The interpretations of these drawings reveal deeply embedded logics from postcolonial racialist thinking, with the plantation managers claiming insight into Indigenous subjectivity through this formalized method. Supplementing discussions of the body within the context of industrial psychology, this section represents a foray into much broader questions of racial politics in postcolonial Ecuador.
Part IV focuses on how plantation-labor processes reproduce and alter social divisions in Cayambe, framing the industry as a socially transformative project of cultivating not only flowers, but also the workers themselves. Observing the managerial styles of plantation managers and supervisors, Krupa makes clear that beyond producing cut flowers for export, “a material change effected in the plantation produces material changes in workers’ homes and communities, which produces new habits, worldviews, and so on” (p. 245). For the Indigenous workers, Cayambe’s plantations have become sites of assimilation and inscription, as their employers continuously obligate them to pursue self-improvement through compliance with intensifying labor regimes.
This book is an exemplary model of how anthropologists can explore new avenues to understand primitive accumulation via the themes of morality, value, and power while paying special attention to historic specificity. Reaching beyond an investigation of industrial exploitation and extraction, Krupa brings to life how capitalist expansion unfolds on the ground and how those with power actively re-imagine labor structures built on pre-existing racialized differences from the prior colonial system. As such, the landowners’ narratives of transition frame the acts of dispossession and extraction as necessary “progressive” interventions that they believe will ultimately improve the lives of their workers.
A Feast of Flowers is a fascinating exploration of the inner workings of agro-industrial spaces, providing a compelling case study for how to approach the hidden histories behind everyday commodities. The importance of Krupa’s timely ethnographic approach lies in its careful dissection of boom-time capitalism and the complex links between race relations, regional history, and subjectivity. This book will supplement conversations across anthropology, geography, economics, and Latin American studies, as it poses important questions for those interested in industrial-labor conditions and transnational commodity networks and, for that matter, anyone who has ever purchased or received cut flowers.
Yui Sasajima is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Cornell University. Their current research centers around Peruvian-Japanese fusion cuisine and the transformation of native Andean crops in the hands of both highland farmers in the Colca Valley and celebrity chefs in Lima.
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