In an Internet café in Bogotá, Colombia, you could get the impression that you are in a modern European city. The streets are bustling with cars, vendors hawk mobile phone minutes, delicious snacks like green mangos and a fried doughy delight they call arrepas. Young people are lounging at the local cafes, sipping café con leche, and organizing clubbing events through Facebook. Wealthy Bogotains dress in designer jeans and t-shirts that reflect a pleasant breeze and the cool temperatures that characterize the capital city of Colombia. Bogotá sits at about 8,800 feet on a plain. Cool air and water flow down from the Andes peaks to create a year-round temperate climate and fertile soil. And while the much of Colombia is known for growing another kind of crop, the temperate savannahs of Bogotá are known for growing flowers, more specifically, roses.
In fact this Valentines day, about 250 million roses will be purchased, with the vast majority coming from Colombia. About two out of every three roses purchased originates in Colombia, and 90 percent of all Colombian flowers are sold in the U.S. The flower industry generates over a billion dollars in export revenue annually. It's big business, but it comes at a price. That price is that almost 80,000 women from rural Colombia are working for less than 50 cents an hour to pluck those beautiful bouquets. The working conditions are characterized by long hours and exposure to harsh chemicals. The mandate for pest-free flowers and aesthetically perfect roses, have created agricultural practices that are difficult for workers and pose long term consequences for the environment in Colombia. In short, these romantic icons have some pretty unromantic roots.
In an easily missed news item in late January, Secretary of State Condeeleza Rice was in Colombia promoting a free trade agreement. Over the past year, over 70 CODELS, or Congressional Delegations have come to Colombia to advance a free trade agreement, sighting a country that is trying to make a transition from its violent past. As those CODELS flew into Colombia and descended into Bogotá, one or two may have looked out their airplane window and noticed the hundreds of white squares, covering the landscape, like spilled dominoes. Those are the greenhouses where the flowers and the roses of Colombia's floral industry are grown, and where many of the Congressmen and women, (including Condi herself), would be taken for tours to promote this industry that in theory offers an alternative to the narco-economy that has been plaguing Colombia. I went on such a tour led by an organization called Asocolflores. Asocolflores is a trade association that promotes the Colombian flower industry. The tour especially promoted a label called Florverde, or Green Flower. Florverde is trying to become the dolphin-safe tuna of the Colombian floral industry. They are concerned with workers rights, sustainable agriculture, and reducing pesticide use. But the catch is that only about 40 percent of the farms have agreed to Florverdes standards, meaning that the vast majority of roses and flowers are still produced in a way that makes you think twice before showing love by purchasing that next long stem.
For example in 2006 in neighboring Ecuador, which has a budding (pun intended) rose industry, The Harvard School of Public Health did a study on the children of mothers who were working in the rose industry and had exposure to chemicals. The study indicated that "pesticide use is definitely impacting the offspring in terms of mental and neuro-physical abilities."
In Colombia, the scale of the industry exacerbates the scope of the problem. While organizations like Florverde are experimenting with non-chemical pesticide use, the majority of the industry is still dependent on harsh chemicals, which damage both the ground and the health of its workers. The greenhouses themselves amplify the problem by trapping the pesticides in a closed environment. The high demand for flowers, and the abundant supply of cheap labor means that productivity, not health is the bottom line. Take for instance the case of a worker who was refused employment unless she had her fallopian tubes tied. Couple the hiring practices with the employment practices -- 12-18 hour days for 50 cents an hour, and you have an industry that makes traditional sweatshops look almost bearable. Finally perhaps the most nefarious byproduct of the industry, the long-term toxic effects to the environment including the water supplies and land surrounding Bogotá, remain largely unknown.
So enjoy Valentine's Day. Express your affection for your spouse, domestic partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, mistress. Just be aware when you give that beautiful bouquet of roses to your sweetheart, that every rose has its thorns.
Vanguard Journalist, Kaj Larsen and Jael De Pardo's "Blood Roses and Deadly Diamonds" pod airs tonight at 10PM ET/ 7PM PT in a Special Valentine's day report on Current TV.