From medicine to flowers: Colombia’s Valentine’s Day rose growth

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Suesca, Colombia – Rose farms in Colombia‘s high-reaching savannas had been all motion weeks earlier than Valentine’s Day.

Farmers wound by way of lengthy rows of rose bushes, clipping deep crimson flowers and including them to a big stack of roses swaddled of their arms like infants.

Men pushed carts brimming with containers of crimson, pink, yellow and white blossoms out of big greenhouses and into the fingers of manufacturing groups.

Workers picked by way of the roses at a speedy tempo, trimming, plucking, sorting and bundling every flower into luscious bouquets that in 48 hours would land in supermarkets throughout the United States.

For flower producers within the South American nation, the vacation is much less a day of affection, and extra a three-week dash to the end.

Colombia roses

Rose farmer Marta Isabel Beltra, 45, clips and collects flowers in Suesca, Colombia [Megan Janetsky] 

Colombia is the second-biggest exporter of flowers on the planet, after the Netherlands. Cut flowers are one of many nation’s largest exports alongside espresso, petroleum, coal and treasured supplies.

This 12 months, Colombia expects to export greater than $1.5bn in flowers – about 660 million blossoms – in keeping with information from Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores). The overwhelming majority arrive within the US, Colombia’s largest commerce companion.

February 14, Valentine’s Day, is an important day for Colombian flower growers like Fantasy Farms, a farm within the highlands near the nation’s capital Bogota. The day alone makes up 20 p.c of their annual gross sales, mentioned Dora Chriva, director of operations on the farm.

“Right now, we say that we’re 24/7,” Chriva mentioned, as flower farmers mill by. It is an important day for growers, although Colombian tradition doesn’t even rejoice the vacation.

“The Valentine’s Day celebration requires extra work,” Chriva mentioned. “The volume of flowers that you have for this celebration occupies a bit more than your established schedule … We work really hard for nearly three weeks in production for the day of love.”

But flower commerce solely took off within the South American nation within the 1990s, and the expansion of the commerce, whereas benefitting the economic system and job market, didn’t have all of its meant results. 

An alternative to coca?

In the 1990s, Colombian drug cartels relied on the cultivation of the coca plant to gas their cocaine empire and the Colombian authorities and US had been on the lookout for methods to curb drug manufacturing.

To provide incentives for different crops, the US below the administration of President George HW Bush handed the Andean Trade Preference Act in 1991, which dropped duties on agricultural merchandise like flowers for Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

“Colombia’s economy needed to diversify away from illicit economies, mostly centred around narco-trafficking,” mentioned Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “The idea from the United States and Colombian governments was to form a series of agricultural products that could diversify Colombia’s economy and drive it away from a coca-centred economy.”

In 2002, then-President George W Bush took it a step additional, changing the commerce cope with the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which pushed nations like Colombia to cooperate with so-called “war on drugs” counter-narcotic efforts.

Colombia used an aggressive aerial fumigation programme, spraying these crops with glyphosate, a chemical thought to trigger most cancers. Between the early 1990s and 2015, when the fumigation follow was suspended, US pilots and Colombian police sprayed 4.Four million acres (17.eight million hectares) of Colombia with the chemical. While the hassle nearly eradicated coca manufacturing, the tactic was deeply controversial.

At the identical time, the federal government promoted authorized options like flowers and occasional.

Colombia roses

A pink ready-to-pick Valentine’s Day rose is pictured inside a greenhouse in Suesca, Colombia [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera] 

Flower exports steadily grew after 1991. Between 2001 and 2020, flower exports from Colombia shot up from $630m yearly to an estimated $1.5bn, Ascolflores information exhibits. Today, about 80 p.c of the flowers lining US market cabinets come from Colombia.

But even because the flower trade bloomed, roses and different crops couldn’t fill the coca’s hole, analysts say.

“You have to understand the issue with the drug war and, in part, the cocaine production in Colombia is that the demand is very inflexible,” Guzman mentioned. “There is an inelastic demand for drugs.”

Cocaine manufacturing continues to soar in Colombia, hitting a file excessive in 2017. After US President Donald Trump threatened to chop off Colombia from support and “decertify” the nation as a companion on its “war on drugs”, the Duque authorities introduced it meant to renew aerial fumigation.

While coca was grown in distant areas, the flowers wanted to be grown in cities like Suesca, the place they could possibly be transported in little greater than an hour to export in Bogota’s worldwide airport. Instead of turning into a substitute, Guzman mentioned roses and carnations as a substitute turned an “alternative”, creating a brand new trade within the South American nation, however failing to fight Colombia’s multi-billion greenback cocaine commerce.

‘Begging us to export them’

Still, the nation and its residents have benefitted from the flower market growth.

In the nation with excessive unemployment and casual employment charges, the trade created 140,000 formal jobs for Colombians. On common, flower staff earn just a bit over Colombia’s minimal wage, round $290 a month, nonetheless. Colombian President Ivan Duque mentioned Tuesday that the nation hopes to double flower exports to $3bn by 2030 by increasing to markets in Asia and Latin America.

Yenny Alexandra Velasquez, 23, was amongst throngs of rose farmers choosing by way of stacks of crimson roses in considered one of Fantasy Farms’ 30 greenhouses.

Colombia Roses

Rose farmer Yenny Alexandra Velasquez, 23, kinds by way of flowers in Suesca, Colombia [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera] 

The farm is tucked in savannas of her home of Suesca, Colombia. The city’s temperate local weather presents the proper circumstances for the cultivations to flourish. Flower rising had been within the younger Colombian farmer’s household for generations.

“Practically all of my family has dedicated ourselves to this,” Velasquez mentioned, clipping flower stems as she spoke. “My mom, my dad, my grandma, my aunts and uncles. … Since I can remember, they’ve been cutting.”

But when Velasquez was a toddler, she remembered it was just some small farms speckling the rolling hillsides. Today, these farms have been changed by miles of greenhouses like these at Fantasy Farms.

While Colombia produces 1,600 totally different sorts of flowers, roses have develop into the bread-and-butter of exports.

Velasquez mentioned the job provided her a chance to economize to attend college and supply for her three-year-old daughter.

“I haven’t had the chance to study,” she mentioned. “So meanwhile I am working here to earn money to pay for my education.”

Colombia Roses

Farm staff in Suesca, Colombia, kind by way of and bundle roses to export to the United States [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

The development of the flower market was clear as farmers equipped for Valentine’s Day this 12 months.

Salsa music echoed by way of manufacturing chains as roses had been vigorously packed and despatched down a conveyer belt, and thru the greenhouses the place farmers like Velasquez examined blossoms with a skilled eye.

“(You know the flower is perfect) from the tips, the tip should be just a little open,” she mentioned, peering down at a bundle of flawless-looking flowers, the deep crimson petals nonetheless sealed collectively like an envelope. “Right now, they are begging us to export them.”