Flower industry's growing pains; Colombia: Every year, this exporter is denounced for using underage workers and questionable pesticides in its $550 million industry. But those practices are changing.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FACATATIVA, Colombia -- As regular as Valentine's Day itself, mutters Andres Escobar, are the trumpetings of Italian busybodies just before the holiday that the Colombian flower industry illegally employs young children and uses banned chemicals. This year the Italian lawmakers harrumphed about blocking the importation of Colombian flowers.

Escobar is a flower grower in this rural pueblo on the high-altitude savanna outside Bogota. About 90 percent of Colombia's famous fresh-cut roses, carnations and pompons are grown here. Escobar, administrative director of Colibri Flowers, grits his teeth as he tours his greenhouses. He's heard it all before, and he is sick of it.

"We're tired of getting hit in the head," he grouses. "They're just trying to create a panic."

Italy is a flower-growing powerhouse, he notes. Though only a tiny fraction of flowers sold in Italy come from this Andean nation, the annual accusations on the eve of the year's export zenith put the enormous Colombian flower industry on the defensive and give rise to countercharges of protectionism.

Indeed, the country has a lot to protect. Flowers are a $550 million industry for the nation and support more than 120,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, Asocolflores, the industry trade organization.

Almost all the nation's flowers are grown for export -- more than 148,000 tons, or between 2.5 billion and 6 billion flowers, including more than 50 varieties. More than 80 percent of exported flowers go to the United States. The rest are flown to dozens of countries around the world.

Though the president of Asocolflores denied the Italian government's charges, accusations of bad labor and environmental practices do have some historical foundation. According to environmental and labor activists, as well as representatives of the flower industry and government, the Colombian flower industry has traditionally been a labor and environmental headache, if not a total nightmare.

Poverty and inadequate educational facilities are common in the small towns that have sprung up on the savanna outside Bogota, and sometimes entire families are compelled to work to survive.

Colombian law forbids children younger than 12 to work and severely restricts minors to low-impact jobs. But a 1995 study conducted by researchers at the National University in Bogota found that children younger than 12 sometimes helped their parents on weekends and that children were often exposed to the same risks as adult workers -- such as toxic chemicals during and after the spraying of pesticides and insecticides.

The environmental impacts of the flower industry have also been a long-standing concern. Industry representatives, activists and environmental regulators have raised questions about allegedly excessive and sometimes illegal application of agrochemicals, inadequate worker protection from the harmful effects of those chemicals, overuse of water, poor waste disposal and the contamination of the food chain and ground and surface waters.

According to a study published by Christian Aid a few years ago, 60 to 160 pounds of active ingredients were being used per acre of flowers each year. Chemicals included some pesticides unregistered or banned in Europe or the United States. And local environmental regulatory agencies have historically been ineffective.

"We have worked for many years in the realm of occupational health, but that doesn't mean we were perfect," allows Juan Carlos Isaza, the environmental administrator for Asocolflores. "There were probably errors and faults."

In the early 1990s, several nongovernmental organizations in Europe launched a campaign against labor and environmental conditions of the Colombian flower industry. The foreign pressure, coupled with the work of Colombian activists, has led to significant changes in the industry.

In 1995, Asocolflores formed an environmental-sensitivity program called Florverde, Spanish for "Green Flower." With a small team of administrators, scientists and social services specialists, the program establishes best business practices and audits participating farms for compliance with industry standards and law.

By all accounts, Florverde is a boon and has even helped firms to reduce their operating costs by teaching them to become more efficient and environmentally sensitive, though the number of participating companies is still small and the program is voluntary and self-regulating.

The industry's efforts to correct itself have won praise from its nettlesome adversaries in the Bogota-based activist group Cactus. "There's a relationship that has been opening up between us and the flower industry," says a Cactus spokesman who asked not to be identified. "Asocolflores is turning into an organization that can listen."

Among the changes in recent years is the almost total disappearance of illegal child labor and a considerable reduction in the number of minors legally working in the plantations, according to industry experts. "The problem initially was very critical because many businesses employed minors and paid them badly," says a Cactus spokesman. "This has changed to the point where today it's not really significant."

Still, the companies that are operating at peak environmental and labor sensitivity are few and conditions are generally far from Edenic at many flower farms, the Cactus activists assert.

And with increased competition from other countries, such as Ecuador, which in the past couple of years has gained a significant percentage of the rose market at Colombia's expense, growers here may feel even greater pressure to perform to international standards.

Says a Cactus spokesman: "With the globalization of the economy, there's a globalization of the rules of the game. And it seems that the sector is more intelligent and is learning that if they finally make these changes, it'll result in more advantages for the company."

Pub Date: 3/04/99

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