Colombia's hope: less coca, more carnations

Ana Cifuentes has never been in an American florist shop or supermarket. But she knows that's where most of the red, white, pink,40-acre patch of greenhouses filled with colorful roses, carnations, statice, and other blooms. The flowers will be shipped around the world, primarly to the United States.

Most Americans picture the Netherlands when thinking of foreign flowers. But, Colom40-acre patch of greenhouses filled with colorful roses, carnations, statice, and other blooms. The flowers will be shipped around the world, primarly to the United States.

Most Americans picture the Netherlands when thinking of foreign flowers. But, Colombia's farmers supply 6 out of every 10 cut flowers sold in the US.

Colombia's cut-flower industry now amounts to $580 million in annual exports and 150,000 jobs. This success comes after 30 years of hard work and investment - with a huge and growing market only a three-hour flight away. But trade preferences have given Colombia an edge on competitors for the US market, and helped to boost productivity. Since passage of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) in 1991, Colombia's flower industry has employed thousands of people in rural areas who might otherwise have ended up working in illicit crops, industry officials say.

ATPA - which must be renewed every two years - allows Colombian flowers to enter the US tariff-free, saving growers from 5 to 7 percent on sales. Recognizing the boost ATPA gives the antinarcotics fight, some members of Congress want to help Colombian industry even more.

Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida is one of them. After visiting Colombia in December, he proposed granting NAFTA's free-trade benefits to Colombia and other Andean countries.

"We're saying: Let's at least get ATPA renewal done now, to give investors confidence in these countries and encourage these economies," says an aide to Senator Graham.

Last month, Colombian President Andrs Pastrana set off a minor controversy when he also called for his country's entrance into NAFTA. "A lot of people said, 'Why even talk about Colombia and NAFTA when Chile [first proposed for a free-trade accord with the US by then-President Bush] hasn't been able to get in after a decade,' " says Javier Daz-Molino, executive president of the National Association of Exporters in Bogot. "But even if Colombia never gets near NAFTA, we need to prepare for free trade in the Americas and globalization. So it's a valuable discussion."

Colombian economic leaders estimate the country's garment industry - which would benefit most from the status - would shrink by at least half if NAFTA parity were granted to nearby Central America alone. "Colombia would have 17 percent average tariffs while Central America had nothing," says Mr. Daz-Molino. "So what's in play for us is considerable."

Even though Colombia's cut flowers already enter the US tariff-free, flower-industry representatives say NAFTA status would still be a boost to their business.

"ATPA offers growers a cushion of money to invest in more efficient use of chemicals and water, social programs like day care for workers' children, the kinds of things foreign customers are demanding more," says Cristina de la Vega Vallejo, a legislative specialist with the Colombian Flower Exporters Association. "But there's still the uncertainty of renewal every two years. With NAFTA parity, our status would be a secure fact."

At Cunday Farm, general manager Luis Guillermo Vargas says he's seen huge changes over the 25 years he's worked in the business. For one thing the industry's work force is heavily female (the percentage of men has crept back up recently as Colombia's economic recession hit) - with growing numbers of women filling the higher technical and marketing jobs.

Cunday belongs to a group of five farms, 75 percent of whose 1,600 employees are women.

"And the technological change has been tremendous," says Mr. Vargas. "Over the last three years we've been able to cut our water and fertilizer use by 40 percent with automation." In Cunday's greenhouses a strip of sticky blue plastic (like old-fashioned fly paper) runs down each row of flowers. "That lets us catch bugs without a lot of spraying," he adds.

Cunday participates in Flor Verde ("Green Flower"), a certification program set up by ASOCOLFLORES, the flower exporters organization. The group promotes environmentally friendly growing techniques.

Chemical use is a concern for producers and customers alike. "This is a labor-intensive business with many people working in greenhouses," says Alba Nora Snchez, an agronomist who coordinates Cunday's participation in Flor Verde. "We don't want them to face any health problems. We also want to be able to compete in all markets. And some - especially in Europe - don't accept any chemical residues."

Yet in spite of everything, says Vargas, some things don't change in the rose business. "The American San Valentino is still 20 percent of our business, and the color people want is red," he says.

"The Japanese want them still closed tight, the Russians want them wide open, and the Americans want them in between." But, he shrewdly notes, "We get each what they want, because we've learned the customer is always right."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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