| CHIA, Colombia
CHIA, Colombia Feb 7 Colombian flower
exporters face a loveless Valentine's Day, hurt by rising labor
costs, income received in wilting U.S. dollars, and customers
too worried about a recession to buy roses.
In the United States, which accounts for about 80 percent
of Colombia's flowers exports, residents are battening down for
an economic slump.
But Valentine's on Feb. 14 is the biggest day of the year
for Colombian flower producers who employ almost 200,000
people, mostly women who might otherwise be caught in the
violence and poverty caused by the country's four-decade-old
Colombian plantations, which sell about $1 billion worth of
flowers annually, have had to lay off 20,000 workers over the
last several years. They are pinched between the weak U.S.
dollar, which dilutes export revenue, and higher costs driven
by inflation and oil prices.
"We now have the same revenue we had in 1999 and 2000, the
last time the dollar was this weak, but our costs are 68
percent higher," said Felipe Arango, a flower industry
consultant trying to help the MG farm in the Bogota suburb of
Chia find ways to cut costs.
Two out of every three flowers sold in the United States
come from this Andean country, but as the U.S. economy slows
American buyers are in no mood to help out by paying more for
roses and carnations, Colombia's two biggest sellers.
The weakening U.S. dollar, which has fallen about 14
percent against the Colombian peso over the last year, means
that exports to the United States are worth less when the sales
are translated back into pesos, the currency in which farms pay
their rising bills.
Labor is the biggest cost for flower producers. Wages are
linked to inflation which rose to 5.7 percent in Colombia last
year as high oil prices pushed up transportation costs.
"We have increased productivity. That is the only thing
that has kept us from having to lay people off," said a manager
at the MG plantation, which has 1,000 employees.
As he spoke men wearing rubber suits, respirators and
elbow-length gloves dipped bunches of roses into vats of
disinfectants, the last step before the three-hour flight to
Miami where the flowers are put into refrigerated trucks and
distributed throughout the United States.
But they are headed into a thorny market this year.
"Flowers are high on the list of things that U.S.
households will cut if the United States goes into a
recession," Arango said. "So, here we are, squeezed by
increasing costs and the inability to raise prices."
A BUFFER AGAINST VIOLENCE
Colombia is in an armed conflict, fed for the last 20 years
by the drug trade, as a mosaic of armed groups fight over
lucrative cocaine-producing land.
Flower farms clustered around the main cities of Medellin
and Bogota offer jobs to people displaced by the war, enabling
them to live in safe suburbs rather than slums that serve as
makeshift refugee camps preyed upon by crime gangs.
Alex Monsalve, 31, fled his hometown of Puerto Nare,
Antioquia province, after right-wing paramilitaries tried to
recruit him at gunpoint three years ago.
Now he works at La Plazoleta flower farm near Bogota. His
job as a flower packer gives him health and social security
benefits as well as other perks that are generous by Colombian
"I don't like to think about where I would be without this
job -- probably displaced, fighting for the paramilitaries or
dead," said the father of two.
Colombian flower farms are clamoring for the U.S. Congress
to enact a free trade deal. Capitol Hill Democrats object,
saying Colombia's conservative leader, Alvaro Uribe, has not
done enough to prosecute paramilitaries who have killed labor
union leaders as part of a dirty war against leftist rebels.
The growers fret that the U.S. economic slowdown will make
Democrats even more reluctant to vote for trade pacts that
could put American jobs at risk.
Colombia gets duty free access to the U.S. flower market
under a preference program that expires at the end of February
this year. The White House wants to replace that program with a
trade pact that would make those benefits permanent.
"Investors need to know those benefits are locked in," said
Augusto Solano, president of the Colombian Association of
The Bush administration is lobbying for the trade deal as a
way to fortify Colombia, an ally bordered by leftist
governments in Venezuela and Ecuador that are critical of
Colombia has a "window of opportunity" until May to persuade
Congress to pass the trade deal before U.S. presidential
election campaigning complicates a vote, Colombian Trade
Minister Luis Guillermo Plata said last week.