Oscar Martinez grows a Colombian crop with an addictive appeal, a major market share and a healthy profit margin.
Not cocaine. Roses.
Like Colombian coca, the plant that produces 90% of the cocaine on U.S. streets, Colombian roses have come to dominate the U.S. market.
An estimated one of every two roses sold for Valentine’s Day this year originated in Colombia, symbols of love from one of the world’s most violent countries.
“Colombians are hard workers,” Martinez said this week, surveying the dozens of women in bright red smocks snipping roses in the greenhouses he runs outside of Bogota, the capital. “They can work hard for the good, but they can also work hard for the bad.”
In less than 30 years, the Colombian flower industry has grown to become the second biggest exporter in the world. It reaches its frenzied peak in the days before Feb. 14, when as many as 35 planes a day leave for the U.S. This year, that amounted to 124 million roses from Colombia, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
From the U.S., Colombian roses and other flowers such as carnations and chrysanthemums travel all over the world. The cut-flower industry has almost surpassed coffee as Colombia’s most valuable legal agricultural export, bringing in $610 million in 2001.
Colombia’s flower business is more than just a globalization success story. It’s also testament to the remarkable perseverance of Colombians.
Even though a guerrilla war, the world’s biggest illegal drug business and everyday criminal violence claim 35,000 lives a year, Colombians have not only managed to endure but also thrive.
The major cities here, especially the capital, are pleasant places that include bike paths, public transit and verdant parks.
Colombian artists ranging from Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to painter Fernando Botero to singer Shakira have seized world attention.
And Colombia’s economy, with a nearly unbroken record of growth, has long been the envy of its Latin American neighbors.
The story of the rose business helps to explain the secret of this country’s success in matters both criminal and corporate.
“Our difficulties have hampered us. Colombia would have advanced even more without them,” said Augusto Solano, president of the Assn. of Colombian Flower Exporters, or Asocolflores for its Spanish name. “But our difficulties have also made us learn to work harder and be in a hurry about it.”
From the arrival of the Spanish about 500 years ago, Colombia was never an easy place to settle. An obscure backwater during Spanish colonial times, Colombia’s high mountains blocked easy transit between population centers. And it lacked natural resources, like Peru’s gold.
As a result, Colombians developed a creed that prized hard work and entrepreneurship. The idea was to get ahead with whatever resources were available. Morality often took a back seat.
Pablo Escobar, the Medellin-based drug lord who rose from being a petty car thief to one of the world’s richest men, was one product of that laissez faire attitude. Starting in the 1970s, he and other Colombian drug dealers streamlined and consolidated control of the drug industry.
Today, with much of the control of the drug industry in the hands of leftist guerrillas, Colombia has more than 350,000 acres of coca and an additional 10,000 acres of opium poppies, which produce heroin. But if the drug business is the dark side of the Colombian drive, the rose business is the bright part.
Starting from nothing, a group of Colombian businesses used agricultural studies from the University of Chicago and University of Colorado to develop a business that today accounts for 14% of the world export market. Only the Netherlands, with 56% of the market, ships more flowers.
Today, huge chunks of the savanna that stretches out from Bogota are occupied by plastic greenhouses. Inside, workers, most of them women, hover over long rows of carnations and roses bursting with color: reds, yellows, whites, pinks. Beneath the rustling plastic roofs, they work quietly in seemingly endless rows. They cut the flowers, then whisk them to nearby buildings for sorting.
There, still more women stand in long rows surrounded by the green detritus of cut stems and leaves. They bunch the flowers, then send them to chill in refrigerators. From here until they arrive at stores in the U.S., the flowers remain cooled to preserve appearance.
About 15,000 acres are now devoted to flowers, providing about 160,000 direct and indirect jobs.
“Colombia dominates two markets in the United States, one of which we’re very proud of, flowers, and the other that we wish we had nothing to do with, coca,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, the ambassador to the U.S.
The flower growers have achieved an astonishing degree of specialization. The sorting rooms serve as a barometer of international tastes, providing a look at the likes and habits of people in different countries.
Russians and Americans like big open blooms. Europeans prefer closed buds. The Japanese like their flowers wrapped in cardboard, the Americans in plastic. The French want their flowers in metallic paper.
U.S. customers prefer bright red roses. Russians don’t like yellow flowers, though Taiwanese prefer them to mark transition moments like graduations.
“This is not McDonald’s. We have to be cooks making different cuisines. Some customers like lobster, some like steak,” said Reinaldo Garcia, whose carnation company grows 50 varieties.
The industry has not been without controversy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were accusations of child labor violations and mishandling of agrochemicals among the workers.
In response, the nation’s flower association -- whose members make up about 65% of Colombia’s 400 growers -- created an aggressive environmental and social program that has become a model for local businesses.
In cooperation with existing government programs, association members provide their workers with education, child care and housing benefits.
Reinaldo Garcia, director of Colibri, one of the most progressive flower companies, takes pride in showing visitors the firm’s child care center, which looks after workers’ children ages 1 to 5 for a monthly fee of $6, and a housing development that the company helped build with government funding.
Colombia’s flower growers have learned that the social investment pays off in keeping and attracting skilled workers, who must learn details about plant cuttings and growing cycles to produce high quality flowers, said Garcia. His farm has about 500 workers in Facatativa, a dusty town about 20 miles northwest of Bogota.
Colombian growers who participate in the social programs claim to have worker turnover rates as low as 1% to 2% a year. The Times was given access to workers at two flower farms. Of a half-dozen employees interviewed, all expressed satisfaction with job conditions and salary, which typically amounts to about $114 a month, the Colombian minimum wage. “The salary is good, the benefits are good. Everything is good,” said Diane Torres, 26, who was trimming buds in a vast row of carnations. Like many workers, Torres is a single mother with children.
But the growers’ low labor costs created friction with their counterparts in California, the giant in the U.S. market, supplying nearly 70% of U.S.-grown flowers. California and other U.S. flower growers repeatedly filed “anti-dumping” complaints in the 1990s against the Colombians, accusing them of unfair trade practices.
In the end, however, the decade-long battle resulted in an alliance: Both the Colombian and the U.S. flower growers created a trade group to promote year-round buying in the U.S., where customers tend to purchase flowers only on holidays.