What A Difference A Decade Makes

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What A Difference A Decade Makes

The year 2006 turned out to be very eventful for the Colombian flower sector. Florverde, its social and environmental program, reached its 10th anniversary at the same time that both Colombia and the United States signed Colombia’s entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty will guarantee the permanent tax-free sales of goods among all member countries.

With an estimated US $907 million in flower exports in 2006, Colombia is the world’s second largest flower exporter, only behind the Netherlands. Such business volume also places Colombia in the first position of rose exports and second in carnations. What’s more, this admirable position has been achieved in only 35 years.

Flower production in Colombia can be characterized by assortment. More than 50 species are exported, even though roses and carnations have the main share. Most production takes place in the Bogota plateau (85 percent in acreage). The country has a diversity of producers, with 300 companies and 700 farms. The flower market in Colombia is export-geared. About 98 percent of it is exported to 76 countries. Its high entrepreneurial level has helped to organize the industry at home and to represent it overseas.

Marketwise, the United States emerged as the natural destination to Colombian flowers through the years. It is by far Colombia’s main client, purchasing 80 percent of all flower exports. Trade agreements that allow the tax-free entry of goods from Andean countries into the American market been renewed periodically since the early ’90s. On the other hand, neighboring Ecuador, another major flower producer, has chosen not to join NAFTA. Its flowers may have to face 7 percent import duties. 

Image Overhaul

The picture has not always been so rosy. A big part of the success that the Colombian flower sector enjoys today is due to a change in the vision of what flower production entails and the image it projects. At the origin of Florverde were complaints in the European media in 1990 regarding the sector’s poor care for its workers and the environment. However, intensive floricultural production done right next to the country’s main city (population 7 million) does put an extra burden on the environment. There is competition for water, fertilizer and pesticide use to be dealt with, plastics to be recycled, and so on.

Fearing the negative impact of such news and sighting an opportunity for market boosting, the complaints led a group of growers to create their own quality program. Following its success, Asocolflores (the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters) adopted the idea, introducing the voluntary Florverde program to all its members in 1996.

As an internationally-recognized program, Florverde is based on a code of conduct set by an internal committee within Asocolflores, which establishes rules and procedures that have to be followed in order for farms to participate. In 2003, Florverde became a label, certified by the Swiss company SGS, upon periodical farm audits. As of Jan. 1, 137 flower-producing companies were part of Florverde, corresponding to 167 farms. These farms represent 48 percent of the country’s flower-planted area, or 7,492 acres, employing 45,977 workers. Within this group of companies, 86 have already received official Florverde certification, while the remaining 51 are undergoing the certification process. A complete list of participating companies, as well as detailed information on the program’s standards can be seen at the organization’s new Web site, www.florverde.org.

On one hand, Florverde’s standards are always more stringent than the regular legislation, but on another it doesn’t tell growers how to do it. Different companies have met or surpassed the programs goals by adopting strategies that are best suited to their workforce, operation size and crops grown.

 

Florverde In Practice

Ernesto Velez, president of the board of directors at Asocolflores and a grower himself, is a frequently invited guest at American colleges and floricultural associations to talk about the Colombian flower sector status, its achievements and challenges. At the family farm, Suasuque, he puts into practice what he preaches. The 35-acre operation is run together with his wife Lucie de Monchaux, who is closely tied to the start of one of the main Florverde’s social programs. Originally a dairy family farm with hobby roses, Suasuque became a commercial carnation operation in 1980, diversifying to the present eight cut flower crops in the mid-’90s. The company was part of the first group to join Florverde at its inception in 1996, and in 2004 it also obtained an ISO 14001 certification, the international environmental standard.

Integrated Pest Management practices have been in place at Suasuque since 1997, complete with its own lab for reproducing fungi and bacteria that control insect pests; biological control with insect predators is also used. As a result of both, the measured chemical pesticide use has gone down from 45 to 3 lb. ai/acre/year in 2006, over a 10-year period. As far as fertilizing goes, the increased use of manures, humus, composting and other organic concepts has cut back chemical fertilization costs to one fifth, measured in current dollar costs/acre.

However, it is the average farm worker that has noticed the main improvements. The pay rate among Suasuque’s 130 employees (91 women) is based on a piece-rate system that takes into consideration individual performance and group quality targets. As a result, the company’s wages have been in the top 10 percent among Asocolflores annual salary survey on a 10-year average, or 35 percent higher than minimum wage in Colombia on average. Most importantly, worker turnover has been around 1 percent.

One of Suasuque’s most innovative social actions, Cultivating Peace in the Family, actually became a development program within the Asocolflores framework. The inspiration for it came after de Monchaux attended a course at Asocolflores in which Harvard Business School negotiation techniques were taught to the association directors. Drawing from her psychology background, de Monchaux adapted its methodology to farm workers. Set up as a workshop to train workers to diffuse potentially conflicting situations before they escalate, at home or work, the course has been refined since it started in 1998, and more than 20,000 employees already have attended it in the flower sector.

Using therapy-like tools and relying on the trickle-down effect attitude change has in one’s family and community, the program’s concept has inspired other industries, and even town officials, as instrumental to the peace-keeping efforts. As Asocolflores coordinator for the Social Development Program Committee, de Monchaux is always willing to share her learning experience with anyone interested, anywhere.

“I believe with actions like these we are leaving the world a little better than we found it,” she says. In the end, that’s what Florverde has made for its sector, as well. Naturally, not all the world’s problems have been solved, but essential ones have been addressed, and with this and several other programs, Asocolflores members have invested in their own future, guaranteeing the sector’s sustainability.

Mauricio Mathias is an international freelance writer. You can contact him at mauriciomathias@hotmail.com.

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