Jadwiga Lopata

Ashoka Fellow
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Z konsekwencją i determinacją, twórczo realizuje działania, których celem jest ochrona i promocja polskiej wsi, zdrowia ludzi i innych istot, zachowanie prawdziwych wartości środowiska naturalnego i kulturowego, promocja nowoczesnych ekologicznych technologii na wsi oraz łączenie tradycji z nowoczesnością.

Ashoka wspiera i promuje jedynie działania Jadwigi opisane w poniższym profilu.

Please note that Ashoka supports and endorses only the particular aspects of Jadwiga’s work described in this profile.

This description of Jadwiga Lopata's work was prepared when Jadwiga Lopata was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.

Introduction

Jadwiga Lopata is creating an alternative "eco-village" economy for rural Poland by introducing family farms to the emerging premium markets for organic produce and livestock, and building a cottage eco-tourism industry around the lifestyle of natural farming.

The New Idea

Jadwiga Lopata recognized that Poland's many small family-owned farms were ideally suited to convert to organic farming methods and thereby benefit from the emerging premium market for organic produce and livestock. In order to be able to make this shift, however, supplemental income was required. Jadwiga's solution was to provide families converting to organic farming with a steady stream of visitors (mostly urban families from Western Europe) who happily pay for the opportunity to stay, eat, and work on the farms. Thus, Jadwiga demonstrates to rural farmers that not only is organic farming viable, but so is their bucolic lifestyle. This tangible material re-valuation of family farming is precisely the antidote required by family farms to enable them to resist the encroachment of large-scale agribusiness.

The Problem

Ironically, having successfully resisted Communist efforts to collectivize agriculture into giant state farms, Poland's substantial family farm sector may succumb to the consolidation of corporate agriculture. According to this economic model, small farms are seen as inefficient and not competitive. In their place, large-scale, highly-mechanized, mono-crop, high-chemical-input approaches are favored. The irony is that in the most advanced consumer economies that gave birth to this capital-and chemical intensive agriculture-and saw most family farms lost to it, there is a strong "back-to-basics" movement that is exploring more sustainable practices.

Because large Western agribusinesses are the principal voices of "modern" agriculture in Poland as Poland enters into the world marketplace, there is a real danger that the chemical agribusiness model will be followed rather than the more sustainable model. Polish banks, in the thrall of the agribusiness model, tend to view small family farms as non-viable, and refuse to lend to them. Government policies similarly show greater receptivity to the interests of chemical agribusiness than they do to family farmers and the rural environment. After all, large-scale agribusiness generates considerable corollary economic activity relating to petrochemicals, transport, packaging and so on. That these activities may actually generate more harm than benefit to society is not considered.

In contrast to the Western situation, where the trend is now to unbundle big chemical agribusiness into small-scale, organic farming, Poland's abundant family farms have a unique opportunity. Poland's two million family farms constitute 60 percent of all farms in the country. Family farmers have a deep attachment to their land and their vocation. They are good farmers, and the latest organic farming methods, which are proving market-worthy in the West, are ideally suited to their 5 to 7.5 hectare farms. As they are now being thrown into the shark-infested waters of the free market, all they need is a destination other than that offered by the competition.

In the meantime, government policy seeks to reduce the number of family farms to 500,000 to 700,000. The countryside is dying slowly. Children are moving to the cities in large numbers for the first time. Forty percent of the Polish population is working the land, a percentage that cannot be accommodated by the large-scale agribusiness model.

The Strategy

Jadwiga is charting the way to the alternative destination: revitalized rural livelihoods. Her strategy is to demonstrate to Poland's small farmers and the Polish government that Poland need not repeat the Western experience with unsustainable large-scale agribusiness, a "sunset industry." Instead, she argues, Poland has a unique opportunity to become a world leader in the "sunrise industry" of organic farming. Like agribusiness, eco-farming has a series of corollary economic activities. These relate to the cottage eco-tourism industry. Unlike agribusiness and its spin-offs, eco-farming and eco-tourism are broadly based and overwhelmingly positive for society and the environment.

There are three main strands to Jadwiga's implementation strategy. One strand works with farmers to prepare them to shift to organic farming and to cater to eco-tourists. Another strand involves marketing Polish eco-tourism nationally and internationally. And the third strand involves rolling out further economic activities from the base in eco-farming and eco-tourism. Jadwiga consolidates these subsidiary economic activities under the rubric of "eco-villages."

Initially, Jadwiga provides training to farmers who wish to produce organically. Poland has an internationally recognized certification process for organic goods carried out by Ecoland, a sister organization that works closely with Jadwiga. As the organic farming market is increasingly well-developed, Jadwiga has to do little here beyond providing initial orientation and training in meeting Ecoland standards.

Once a farm meets Ecoland standards for at least half of its products, it may participate in Jadwiga's tourism program. (Ecoland alerts Jadwiga immediately if one of her participating farmers falls below the threshold.) She provides the farmers with orientation and training in catering for tourists. The educational program includes small business skills, health, tourism, and the underlying philosophy of sustainability. She brought her first 400 tourists from Western Europe to 14 Polish eco-farms in 1993. In 1996, the movement accommodated 1,200 tourists on 59 farms. With mounting interest from Polish farmers in Jadwiga's pilot region in southern Poland, the challenge now is to attract larger numbers of tourists.

This should be possible, as the satisfaction levels of those taking holidays in Jadwiga's program are exceptional, with 95 percent indicating that they would repeat the experience and recommend it highly to others. A typical holiday involves walking in the mountains and countryside, riding horses and swimming in ponds and lakes, often with the farmers' and tourists' children going off together. Tourists often participate in farm life, including taking on farm chores such as harvesting fruit, milking cows and making cheese, butter and jam. Collecting herbs, berries and mushrooms is very popular, as is baking bread.

Jadwiga has long prepared for this moment by creating a mechanism to advertise and market Polish eco-tourism. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, she studied the emerging "nature tourism" industry, which was principally oriented toward wilderness and wildlife activities. Jadwiga became convinced that there was a market for a new variation that involved immersion in Poland's small farm lifestyle-healthy, relaxed, and picturesque. She relocated to Holland for two years to improve her language skills (she now speaks English, Dutch and German) and work directly in the nature tourism industry. While there she co-founded ECEAT (European Center for Ecological Farming) to promote eco-tourism. ECEAT now has 60 members in ten countries in Europe and North America and does most of the international marketing for visitors to Polish eco-farms. Jadwiga writes a handsome annual guide to the participating farms, "Eco-tourism-Vacations with Eco-farmers" that is published in Polish, English, Dutch and German.

As part of her ongoing commitment to public education, Jadwiga has also written a guide, "Life in the Country-side Is Healthy and Interesting," and a brochure, "Developing Ecological Awareness." She has also produced a video on these themes.

Despite this well-organized marketing campaign, Jadwiga believes that the principal way that the movement will spread is by word of mouth. "As far as farmers are concerned, once the idea is demonstrated to them in practice, they quickly adopt it," she notes. "I see a media strategy and urban outreach as particularly useful for communicating the wider vision and developing relationship with new groups, such as 'green consumer' cooperatives."

Through their experience with tourism, the farmers have come to see the benefits of greater cooperation. As the numbers of farmers that participate grows, Jadwiga is introducing the idea of further areas of economic collaboration using the well-known techniques of cooperatives for credit and bulk buying, production (e.g., for jam, juice, dairy, cereals), and distribution (by joint ventures with cooperatives of "green consumers"). She is working with two bulk buying co-ops in pilot stages and in the process has discovered that the elderly remember co-ops from before World War Two.

Now that Jadwiga's eco-tourism plan is beginning to take off, she has embarked on a more ambitious project: the eco-village. In 1996, she bought a small farm near Syryszow, her home, to create a village that will apply ecological solutions in education, tourism, energy use, and waste treatment and disposal. The first step was to convince local farmers that organic farming can be profitable and that small-scale tourism is a viable way to supplement farm income. She also had to convince the community of her vision. Having won over the Stryszow authorities, Jadwiga received a small grant to "promote local tourism." Groups of ecologists from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Krakow are providing technical support to the initial group of twenty farmers who are meeting monthly to explore the possibilities.

On a parallel track, Jadwiga believes that urban Poland has a major role to play in the emerging alternative sustainable rural economy. She is marketing the notion of "eco-education" through summer camps on the organic farms for urban Polish students and teachers. She is working with the mayor of Bielsko to start organic gardens in the city. She networks with those most active in the cities (such as ecologists, other nongovernmental organizations and health food shops) to spread the message of "eco-living." For those who actively promote the movement, Jadwiga offers rural holidays at reduced rates.

The Person

Jadwiga was born in a small village and lived there until she was eighteen, inheriting the values associated with village life, such as helping neighbors and loving nature. In grade school she and a group of friends responded to the poverty they saw around them by crafting clothes, bags, clasps, and the like from natural materials. In high school she founded a tutoring group helping others in varied subjects, especially mathematics.

The true course of her life was set when she had to resign from her post-university job in computing due to the effects that the computer was having on her eyesight. This experience caused her to begin an ongoing reflection about personal health and the way in which we organize our economies and societies. An interim period spent starting up and running a children's clothes production business confirmed her business management and entrepreneurial skills. The experience of starting a successful small business provided Jadwiga with the confidence to follow her inclination to initiate support programs for family farmers.