In 1967 David Cheever, a graduate student in horticulture at Colorado State University, wrote a term paper titled “Bogotá, Colombia as a Cut-Flower Exporter for World Markets.” The paper suggested that the savanna near Colombia’s capital was an ideal place to grow flowers to sell in the United States. The savanna is a high plain fanning out from the Andean foothills, about 8,700 feet above sea level and 320 miles north of the Equator, and close to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Those circumstances, Cheever wrote, create a pleasant climate with little temperature variation and consistent light, about 12 hours per day year-round—ideal for a crop that must always be available. A former lakebed, the savanna also has dense, clay-rich soil and networks of wetlands, tributaries and waterfalls left after the lake receded 100,000 years ago. And, Cheever noted, Bogotá was just a three-hour flight from Miami—closer to East Coast customers than California, the center of the U.S. flower industry.
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After graduating, Cheever put his theories into practice. He and three partners invested $25,000 apiece to start a business in Colombia called Floramérica, which applied assembly-line practices and modern shipping techniques at greenhouses close to Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport. The company started with carnations. “We did our first planting in October of 1969, for Mother’s Day 1970, and we hit it right on the money,” says Cheever, 72, who is retired and lives in Medellín, Colombia, and New Hampshire.
It’s not often that a global industry springs from a school assignment, but Cheever’s paper and business efforts started an economic revolution in Colombia. A few other growers had exported flowers to the United States, but Floramérica turned it into a big business. Within five years of Floramérica’s debut at least ten more flower-growing companies were operating on the savanna, exporting some $16 million in cut flowers to the United States. By 1991, the World Bank reported, the industry was “a textbook story of how a market economy works.” Today, the country is the world’s second-largest exporter of cut flowers, after the Netherlands, shipping more than $1 billion in blooms. Colombia now commands about 70 percent of the U.S. market; if you buy a bouquet in a supermarket, big-box store or airport kiosk, it probably came from the Bogotá savanna.
This growth took place in a country ravaged by political violence for most of the 20th century and by the cocaine trade since the 1980s, and it came with significant help from the United States. To limit coca farming and expand job opportunities in Colombia, the U.S. government in 1991 suspended import duties on Colombian flowers. The results were dramatic, though disastrous for U.S. growers. In 1971, the United States produced 1.2 billion blooms of the major flowers (roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) and imported only 100 million. By 2003, the trade balance had reversed; the United States imported two billion major blooms and grew only 200 million.
In the 40 years since Cheever had his brainstorm, Colombian flowers have become another global industrial product, like food or electronics. That became apparent to me a few years ago as I stood in front of the flower display at my local supermarket before Mother’s Day (the second-biggest fresh flower-buying occasion in the United States, after Valentine’s Day). My market, in suburban Maryland, had an impressive display of hundreds of preassembled bouquets, as well as fresh, unbunched roses, gerbera daisies and alstroemeria lilies in five-gallon buckets. One $14.99 bouquet caught my eye: about 25 yellow and white gerbera daisies and a sprig of baby’s breath arranged around a single purplish rose. A sticker on the wrapping indicated it had come from Colombia, some 2,400 miles away.
How could something so delicate and perishable (and once so exotic) have come so far and still be such a bargain? It’s no secret that the inexpensive imported products Americans buy often exact a toll on the people who make them and on the environments where they are made. What was I buying into with my Mother’s Day bouquet? My search for answers took me to a barrio about 25 miles northwest of Bogotá.
In cartagenita, the buses rumble over ruts and potholes, moving slowly up and down steep hillsides lined with cinder block houses. “Turismo” is painted in flowing aquamarine script on the buses, but they are no longer used for tours. They carry workers to the flower farms.
Cartagenita is a neighborhood in Facatativá, a city of about 120,000 people and one of Colombia’s largest flower hubs. Only a few of Cartagenita’s streets are paved, and the homes are connected like town houses but without any plan, so one sometimes stands taller or shorter than the next. The barrio ends abruptly after a few blocks at open pasture. Aidé Silva, a flower worker and union leader, moved there 20 years ago. “I’ve got a house here. My husband built it,” she told me. “He worked at Floramérica, and in the afternoons and when Sunday came everybody worked building that little house.” In the years since, she said, thousands more flower workers have bought cheap land and done the same. Cartagenita has the vitality of a working-class neighborhood. There’s a buzz in the evenings as workers come home, some heading for their houses and apartments, some to hang out in the bars and open-air convenience stores.
More than 100,000 people—many displaced by Colombia’s guerrilla wars and rural poverty—labor in greenhouses spread across the savanna. Seen from an airplane, the greenhouses form geometric gray-and-white patterns reminiscent of an Escher drawing. Up close, they turn out to be bare-bones structures of plastic sheeting stapled to wooden frames. But the low-rent look is deceptive; the operations are highly sophisticated.
At a farm called M.G. Consultores, I stood on a platform above a sprawling assembly line where about 320 workers (triple the usual number—this was the run-up to Mother’s Day), most of them women, were arrayed along two long conveyor belts with 14 parallel rows of workstations on either side. The work was divided into many small, discrete tasks—measuring, cutting, bunching—before neat bundles appeared on the belt, which were then dunked in a foamy antifungal solution and boxed. Latin pop music reverberated off the corrugated metal walls. The workers were handling 300,000 rose blooms a day.