Vexed Valentine: How Can Colombia Keep Its Roses-For-Coca Effort From Wilting?

Feb 12, 2018

South Florida has petal power. Just about all the flowers that enter the U.S. come through Miami, where they're the No. 1 import.

So in recent days, jetliners carrying half a million boxes of roses and carnations have landed at a UPS facility at Miami International Airport – part of the barrage for Valentine's Day (which, by the way, is Wednesday) when almost a billion stems arrive in this country.

Three-quarters of them are from Colombian growers like Elite Flower. On Monday, Elite's executive vice president, Galo Sánchez, watched the flowers being unloaded at UPS and proudly calculated that his company’s contribution of 100 million stems is “the equivalent of, like, 80 767 aircrafts.”

But as execs like Sánchez will tell you – in a talking point they claim reflects national as well as corporate interest – that signifies more than just rosy revenue for Colombia, the world’s second largest flower exporter. It can also mean helping to make Colombia’s new peace agreement work after half a century of civil war.

“It is extremely important for the country,” says Sánchez. “People start dedicating their lives to flowers instead of going into the fields of cocaine.”

READ MORE: Papal Peace? Francis Visit Post-Civil War Colombia - Now a  Political Minefield

Flowers are supposed to play a big peace process role in Colombia because they offer poor, rural campesinos jobs in something besides growing coca. That’s the key ingredient in cocaine – a drug whose astronomical profits helped fuel the violence that killed more than 200,000 people over the last half century.

Yet despite all the Colombian flowers we buy, especially this week, the so-called roses-for-coca campaign has failed to meet expectations.

“I am disappointed, but I’m not surprised that flowers have not absorbed the kind of Colombian labor that was anticipated,” says Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor and Colombia expert at the University of Miami.

Additional aid is absolutely fundamental in guaranteeing the success of the peace process, and we have emphasized the exact opposite. So roses-for-coca has not been fully realized as a program yet. –Bruce Bagley

Bagley points out that for more than 20 years, the U.S. has given Colombia favorable access to the American flower market to help it grow and lure that labor away from coca. But in recent years, the area of Colombian land under coca cultivation has instead more than doubled – and the U.N. estimates a record 75,000 Colombian households now farm the illicit crop.

“It comes down to risk-reward just like any other person that’s trying to make money for their family,” says Jim Walsh, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“Right now we have too much reward going for them when it comes to growing coca.”

Walsh admits a big reason growing coca remains so profitable in Colombia is that snorting cocaine remains so popular in the U.S. But he also argues that coca cultivation started taking off again three years ago when Colombia stopped aerial spraying to kill the crop, largely because the herbicide was linked to cancer.

The U.S. and Colombia are looking for a safer alternative that might lead the government to start spraying again.

“If we put enough risks in the equation – if they’re growing an illegal crop like coca that can get destroyed – that’ll change that farmer’s mind,” says Walsh.

TRUMP DUMP?

Bagley warns there isn’t enough reward in the equation, either.

Attracting campesinos away from coca requires subsidies and other incentives. President Trump tried to slash that kind of aid to Colombia in 2018 – and last week he said he wants to “stop it” altogether in 2019.

“Additional aid is absolutely fundamental in guaranteeing the success of the peace process, and we have emphasized the exact opposite,” says Bagley. “So roses-for-coca has not been fully realized as a program yet.”

A Colombian worker cuts roses at a flower farm outside Bogota.
Credit Asocolflores

Colombia’s flower industry says what’s needed is a bigger U.S. market. Seventy-five percent of its exports go to the U.S., representing more than a billion dollars. And that helps it employ 150,000 people. But it sees vastly more opportunity.

“About only 30 percent of the households in the U.S. buy flowers,” says Augusto Solano, president of the Colombia Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores) in Bogotá. “So the potential is huge.”

Solano believes if Americans bought flowers at the rate Europeans do, his producers could hire many more Colombians away from coca. He thinks the U.S. could help both Colombian producers – and struggling U.S. producers affected by the preferential treatment for Colombia – drum up more American business.

“We need resources to promote the flowers and partner with U.S. producers,” says Solano. “Instead of fighting for a larger piece of the pie, we should work for a bigger pie.”

Other products are pegged as alternatives to coca: rubber, macadamia nuts, palm oil. And of special note at Valentine’s Day: cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate.

Whatever the crop, it will take not only subsidies but things like improvements to Colombia’s abysmal roads – a barrier to getting crops to market – to make coca substitute projects work.

This week Colombia’s just counting on Americans to buy those hundreds of millions of Valentine’s roses arriving in Miami.