homo ecos: volunteer Zane Zaķe recently finished a 12-month project in the capital of Belgium (and Europe!) Brussels. She worked as an EVS volunteer for the European umbrella organisation for organic food and farming “IFOAM EU“. This is her story:
First things first
Coming to Brussels was an easy decision for me. I was always interested in international working environments and volunteering for IFOAM EU felt like a great opportunity to experience that in a long term. Soon I realized that being in IFOAM EU would be much more than just volunteering – it would also be an opportunity to be an insider in the NGO environment and the world of policy decision-making.
From the very first moment I had to ‘’jump’’ in the new working environment. The 9th European Organic Congress in Riga happened in June, less than 2 months after I came to Brussels. This is once-in-a-year event which was organized by IFOAM EU in a partnership with Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Ministry of Agriculture of Republic of Latvia and Latvian Association of Organic Agriculture. The Congress gathered together more than 150 participants from 21 countries all over the Europe. I will not explain in detail but this is an opportunity to discuss newest organic regulation, policy and future goals for the organic sector in Europe. This long term process is very crucial not only for policy makers but mainly for such a vulnerable group as farmers. My role was to help organizing logistics and communicate with speakers throughout the preparations process for the Congress.
The Congress Venue, the National Library of Latvia, was recently opened and everything around us felt fresh and nice. Definitely this was a good start for my EVS period. I had a really good feeling from the beginning that this would be more than just work!
Exploring the culture of Europe once again
In my first months in Brussels I experienced how unpredictable the weather can be. Locals say that you can feel all 4 seasons at the same day and I can only confirm this is absolutely true. However, I was excited to discover the capital of Belgium and the nearest cities around it.
After a not really satisfying first months of summer later in August and September I was finally able to enjoy summer fully. The great end to my summer in Belgium was a 5-day farm week in one of the nicest areas in Belgium in Eastern Wallonnia at La Ferme Du Montaval located near a small village Senzeilles. I was positively surprised how one person with only help of 2 extra workers can manage such a big territory for farming, a small shop and a bakery as well.
November came with a lot of bad surprises regarding terrorist attacks in Paris. During this time Brussels experienced a total city-blockout (the metro did not run, many public places were closed down) in fear of new attacks. This was probably the most depressing week in my term as a volunteer. However I was deeply touched seeing Brussels society standing in unity with people from all around the world who are forced to experience such tragic events in their daily life – including Brussels itself later in March which was a huge shock for me and good learning experience how not to get confused and after all realize that life goes on!
Finalizing my experience
The last months were really busy organizing different events. In some of them I was also able to participate. Participation in one of them – the BIOFACH Trade Fair for Organic Food in Nurenburg, Germany in February came as a surprise. Because one of my colleagues unluckily dislocated her ankle one day before the event I had to go instead of her.
The 10th European Organic Congress was definitely one of the most successful IFOAM EU events in 2016. Organised in terms of Dutch Presidency by IFOAM EU and the organic farming umbrella organization in The Netherlands, Bionext. This Congress was called “Transforming Food and Farming” and gathered key players on the political, advocacy and scientific scenes, who discussed and engaged with each other and with the congress participants. I took a part in this event as a part of the Congress organising team. Compared to Riga this year in Netherlands atmosphere was really relaxed. The Congress was located in the small city of Driebergen to the south-east of Amsterdam next to the forest.
After coming back from the Congress in April, I already felt like going back home although I knew I would not leave Brussels for long time. In April EVS volunteers organized a workshop about climate change and welcomed other EVS and trainees working in Brussels.
Good-bye for the long term Director of IFOAM EU
April was not only the last month for EVS in Brussels but also for the Director of the Brussels team, Marco. He worked at IFOAM EU for 12 years. This was a very emotional moment for all the office team to deal with. Marco gave me some really good advise for my professional life and two main things I can learn from him are the positive attitude and effectiveness as a key success in work.
Continuing organic lifestyle
In my first weeks of being in Brussels I was really interested in knowing more about organic lifestyle. To find out how organic my colleague’s lifestyle lifestyle was, I asked them to answer some questions and results came out quite interesting:
Regularly buying organic food – 56,3%
Sometimes – 37,5%
Rarely – 6,3%
In Brussels organic food is commonly found in supermarkets. This is why it is not a big surprise that those 68% who don’t buy their food in organic markets regularly look for them in the supermarkets. However, organic food in Brussels is usually 2 times more expensive than conventional food. Overall people are aware of the positive effects of organic food. Some of my colleagues mention it tastes better, for some it is important to encourage a more sustainable lifestyle and not to promote the use of pesticides. The need for the stronger bond between producers and consumers is also important issue why to choose organic.
Being in Brussels and working with organic issues raised a high interest in me to continue this field of work when I come back to Latvia. I am planning to stay in Brussels more for 6 months because I had the opportunity to continue working as a trainee in IFOAM EU. I am sure this experience will continue to form my professional career in a more sustainable way and my personal life as well.