Cuts from Colombia

December 29, 2010
Written by Roberta Staley
An enormous bouquet of red roses with corollas the size of a child’s hand takes centre stage within a gleaming forest of trophies trumpeting achievements such as Best World Ornamental Grower of the Year, won at an international flower show in Holland.

planting flowers in a Colombian greenhouse. (ALL PHOTOS, TALLULAH PHOTOGRAPHY)

The blooms sit on a side table in the boardroom of Colibri Flowers, which grows these corpulent red ‘Freedom’ roses. At one end of the boardroom table sits Maria Fernanda Rojas, Colibri’s 31-year-old managing director, who is discussing the biological controls the farm uses to control the insect pests that are enlarged many times life size on a PowerPoint screen.

Maria Fernanda Rojas, managing director of Colibri Flowers
Greenhouses at Colibri Flowers.
Bouquet specialists at Suasuque Flowers.

Located on the Colombian savannah 2,600 metres above sea level, Colibri, a picturesque, 45-minute drive west of the capital of Bogota, is one of the nation’s more progressive greenhouse operations. Colibri, which produces more than 85 million stems a year, is constantly seeking to advance its integrated pest management (IPM) system in an eco-friendly way by improving biological controls for creatures like those currently being displayed.

The international standards that Colibri adheres to are set out in the industry’s Florverde social and environmental program, established by the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores). Florverde, which means “green flower” in Spanish, establishes worker safety and well-being as well as sustainability standards.

When biological alternatives are not available, Colibri tries to limit the exposure of its workers to chemicals by ensuring they wear protective clothing and giving them regular blood tests to monitor possible contamination levels, says Rojas.

Colibri, which also grows carnations, spray carnations, and herbs like basil, chives and sorrel on 36 hectares, has its own laboratory, which monitors fungal and pest contamination throughout the farm. One of the more simple biological controls used is liquefied garlic spray, a turnoff to insects (as well as humans). Other biological controls involve using a predatory insect or fungus to kill off pests. These include the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, for killing moths, and the fungus Tricoderma, which kills off a wilt-causing fungus called Fusarium oxysporum. Colibri also uses the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis to kill Agrolis ipsilon, a black cutworm that feasts on ornamentals. Meanwhile, a soap and water solution is used to control spider mites.

At Colibri, efforts to be environmentally friendly mean that the operation has rejected such controversial advances as genetically modified (GM) flowers. (Japanese growers are producing a GM blue rose.) Colibri’s flowers, says Rojas, are not genetically modified (GM) and are certified as such. “If you grow GMs and put the plants into the ecosystem, you don’t know how it will affect the environment, the birds and the water,” she says.

In an effort to be both competitive and sustainable, Colibri is creating value-added products like paper made from carnation organic waste. This carnation paper can be used as flower wrap with a small plastic “window” for viewing the blossoms. As well, almost everything on the farm is recycled, Rojas says. Plastic containers are cleaned and reused. Empty chemical containers are returned to the factories, where the plastic is ground into pellets and made into fencing.

Northeast of Bogota sits Flores Suasuque, a family farm owned by Lucie de Monchaux de Vélez, 71, who operated the facility with her late husband, Ernesto Vélez, 72, who died this past March. The farm is regarded as being the closest to a chemical-free flower operation in Colombia. At Suasuque, which grows mainly alstroemeria and anigosantos on 13 hectares, pests are vacuumed up, caught with butterfly nets and shaken off flower stems. Managers also use a spray mixture of bicarbonate of soda, chile peppers, garlic and onions for the bugs, says de Vélez.

Such labour-intensive work is only possible when wages are low. Colombia flower workers earn less than 20 per cent of what their Canadian counterparts make. In Colombia, however, these wages are sufficient to sustain a family. Nonetheless, operations like Colibri and Suasuque, which has 160 workers, have instituted social programs to support employees, due in part to an inadequate national social safety net and a population that has been severely stressed by long-standing national strife.

Colombia has an estimated three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to a violent civil war stretching back to the mid-1960s, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

At Colibri, 30 per cent of the 650 staff members are IDPs. Many are single mothers. To help ensure their health and well-being, Colibri ensures the workers receive regular dental work. They are tutored in personal banking and using ATMs and receive housing assistance, Rojas says. Colibri also provides subsidized child care for the workers’ children.

Australian-born de Vélez developed a unique initiative called Cultivating Peace in the Family, which has been adopted by other flower operations. The country’s tragic history of civil war and violence spilled over into the family, and women were coming to work bruised and battered, says de Vélez. The program teaches staff how to diffuse potential conflict at work as well as in the home. “Peace in the country begins with peace in the family.”

A former nurse, de Vélez also introduced a healthy eating program at Suasuque. Worried by the prevalence of obesity among workers, whose diet consisted largely of simple carbohydrates, she introduced well-balanced lunchtime meals for the employees.

Such a broad range of social and environmental programs by flower growers are part of a long-standing effort by Colombia to increase its production of flowers while upholding international standards. Flower production is important to the Colombian economy; it is second only to coffee in exports and employs about 200,000 workers.

Colombia boasts ideal growing conditions for both coffee and flowers. Due to its location in the equatorial tropic zone, Colombia has even hours of daylight year-round and a consistent average temperature of 13ºC. Backed by strong support from the national government, the flower sector, worth just over $1 billion a year, is looking to enhance and refine its competitive advantage globally.

According to Asocolflores president Augusto Solano, Canada comprises five per cent of total exports while the United States takes the lion’s share at about 75 per cent.

Solano considers the Canadian market a natural extension of the American one, saying that it holds great potential for growth. Canadians’ taste in flowers “is more sophisticated in certain ways” than Americans’, says Solano. Most people in the U.S. buy flowers only for special holidays, while Canadians more closely parallel Europeans who purchase flowers on a more regular basis, Solano says.

Flower imports from Colombia have, indeed, been ascending, according to Statistics Canada. Imports in 2009 were $71.8 million, up from $55 million in 2004. The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) is expected to further increase the number of Colombian flowers in Canada as the new legislation removes the duty – up to 10.5 per cent for roses – previously imposed.

Unfortunately, Canadian growers are feeling the pinch. Many Canadian rose growers have shut down in the past few years and some industry experts predict that Canadian-grown alstroemerias will face a similar fate in the near future.

Roberta Staley is a freelance writer in British Columbia.

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