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Deflowering Ecuador: The Bloom Is Off the Rose in Cayambe Valley, Homeland of Your Valentine Bouquet

StoryFebruary 14, 2003
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and a lot of people are going to give or receive roses. We speak with Ross Wehner about his article in Mother Jones magazine, “Deflowering Ecuador,” which documents the harsh conditions faced by workers in Ecuador’s booming rose industry. From Ecuador, we’re joined by Diego Bonifaz, mayor of Cayambe. And from Oregon, we speak with organic farmer Paul Sansone.

Ross Wehner’s piece begins: “The equatorial sun beats down on the clear plastic roof of a greenhouse in the Cayambe Valley of Ecuador. Despite the suffocating heat, the workers inside move at a frantic pace. In two weeks it will be Valentine’s Day, and every rose in sight will be for sale in the United States. Women stand at tables, hands flying as they sort roses by the length and size of the head, arranging them in bunches of 25. Teenagers, mostly boys, run from table to table, carrying the roses to the next room. The flowers have already been treated with chemicals to kill insects and mildew; now they are dunked in preservatives to keep them from rotting during their journey through U.S. Customs. After being wrapped in cellophane and boxed, the flowers are chilled and flown overnight to Miami. By the time they reach florists and supermarkets across the country, a rose that cost less than 17 cents to produce in Ecuador will sell for as much as $8.”

The article goes on to say, “But international agencies and workers in the valley paint a markedly different picture of the industry: Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and soil fumigants used in the greenhouses are causing serious health problems for Ecuador’s 60,000 rose workers — especially the women and children who sort and package the flowers prior to shipping.”

We’re joined by the mayor of Cayambe and an organic farmer from Oregon. We start with Ross Wehner, author of the article in Mother Jones.

Related Story

StoryFeb 14, 2007Valentine’s Day: Labor Conditions at U.S.-Owned Plantations Show Hidden Realities of Flower Industry
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Well, today is Valentine’s Day, and a lot of people are going to give or get roses. I’m going to turn to Mother Jones magazine, Ross Wehner’s piece. It begins, “The equatorial sun beats down on the clear plastic roof of a greenhouse in the Cayambe Valley of Ecuador. Despite the suffocating heat, the workers inside move at a frantic pace. In two weeks it will be Valentine’s Day, and every rose in sight will be for sale in the United States. Women stand at tables, hands flying as they sort roses by the length and size of the head, arranging them in bunches of 25. Teenagers, mostly boys, run from table to table, carrying the roses to the next room. The flowers have already been treated with chemicals to kill insects and mildew; now they are dunked in preservatives to keep them from rotting during their journey through U.S. Customs. After being wrapped in cellophane and boxed, the flowers are chilled and flown overnight to Miami. By the time they reach florists and supermarkets across the country, a rose that cost less than 17 cents to produce in Ecuador will [sell for] as much as $8.”

And it goes on to say that “international agencies and workers in the valley paint a markedly different picture” of the health industry than those that profit from it. They talk about “Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and soil fumigants used in the greenhouses [that] are causing serious health problems for Ecuador’s 60,000 rose workers — especially the women and children who sort and package the flowers prior to shipping.”

Today we’re going to go to Ecuador, and we’re going to speak with the mayor of Cayambe. His name is Diego Bonifaz, and he’s very concerned about what’s happening to the people in his city. We’re going to go to Portland, Oregon, to a farmer who grows organic flowers and is considered an organic rose expert. His name is Paul Sansone. But first we turn to the author of the Mother Jones piece.

Ross Wehner, you wrote the piece, “Deflowering Ecuador: The bloom is off the rose in the Cayambe Valley, homeland of your valentine bouquet.” Can you give us the lay of the land?

ROSS WEHNER: Yes. Well, there’s going to be about 120 million roses exchanged during Valentine’s Day, and most of those roses either come from Colombia or Ecuador. I was in the town of Cayambe, Ecuador, last year, and what I saw there alarmed me. I interviewed a dozen workers who complained of health problems because of pesticides they use in the industry. And I later found out that these problems have been confirmed by studies of the United Nations International Labor Organization. The health problems range from nausea and skin rashes, all the way to birth defects. But I think what alarmed me even more was the fact that in the United States there’s absolutely no consciousness of this problem, and, in fact, the rose importers who do know about this problem refuse to back a green label program that would force these rose farms to ensure better environmental and labor standards for their workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the mayor of Cayambe, where those roses are grown. Diego Bonifaz, can you describe the conditions of the workers?

MAYOR DIEGO BONIFAZ: The conditions of the workers in the rose plantations would be like the conditions of the workers in the Philadelphia coal mines in the 1920s. They are getting more money than the average people in this country. You have to focus the whole social problem in which this country, Ecuador, is going through. In the last year, more than a million people have left the country because there is no jobs. We are going through a big recession. And since there is no jobs, Cayambe is seen as the only place where you can get a job without leaving the country. So, that, obviously, without the protection of the central government — we don’t have — obviously can bring some abuses. But you cannot take out that of the context of the poor country, which is Ecuador, which has found a way to have people to work.

See, while we would like — and I agree with the journalist that we should have better conditions of working, but I think all the chemicals we use are licensed in the United States, produced in the United States and used in Ecuador. The price of the rose has gone from four cents to 17 cents. And it’s sold in the United States up to $8. The people that are really making money here are the American distributors. And the American distributors are not helping the flower plantations to help their workers, because they keep cutting down on their prices, buying roses from Africa and Colombia, which are worse conditions even than ours. And there is actually a wild market, which is this globalization thing, that put us in very poor conditions in which we have to choose: either get an unhealthy job or no job at all.

And I think that there should be a little more fair trade. The producers, to pay their employees and everything, gets a minimum, a very little margin of what the rose goes through, and all the packing and industry is done here. And the production is done here. And we have paid up to $2 a plant on patents to the people that sell the plants to the country. So, the most of the people who are making money off this are really from the people that sell us the plants and buy us the roses and sell it. So, to be able even to regulate better these plantations, which I agree we need, we need to have a little bit more economic profit, because the way we are now, we are very in immersion of production with a lot of plantations with big debts.

On the other side, obviously, I don’t think you could generalize what special cases can happen, but I cannot deny that the conditions are the best of the world — I will not say the conditions are the best of the world, rather, but those are the conditions in which, in the last 10 years, our countries have been getting poorer. And probably the people in the United States do not realize that while they were getting very rich, like in this case, buying roses at 17 cents and selling at $8, a lot of people were getting poorer and poorer and getting poor conditions of work. I guess I have described what the opinion of most of the people of my county, in which there are the best roses of the world produced, is.

AMY GOODMAN: Ross Wehner, you have been to Cayambe. Can you talk about what you saw there? Maybe you can answer that question yourself?

ROSS WEHNER: Yes. Well, I would say that, first of all, we can look at the science. The International Labor Organization conducted a study in 2000 in which they said that 60% of all workers in the plantations suffer from some form of pesticide poisoning symptoms, including, the report said, muscle twitching, nausea, dizziness. I also saw that a lot of workers complained of kidney failure. A lot of workers had rashes. A lot of workers — a lot of mothers I spoke with had babies that had been born with mongoloidism. Mothers complained of multiple miscarriages, vaginal hemorrhaging, very, very serious, very serious health problems, I thought.

And what I also discovered is — I went and interviewed all the doctors in this town, and I found that there were exactly two types of responses. On one side, there were doctors like Mr. Valladares, who’s the head of the Red Cross in Cayambe, and he told me absolutely everything about the skin rashes and the birth defects, just this horrible, horrible litany of problems faced by these workers, who, by the way, speak Quechua, are not literate and are not used to going to see doctors. I would talk to other doctors who — for instance, the head of the public clinic in Cayambe, who said she had never once in her entire career seen a problem caused by the pesticides. And I later found out that she is what they call a médico de planta, a factory doctor, and she is actually employed by one or more of the rose plantations to come in on a regular basis and look at the workers. And the plantations say this is a wonderful thing, because it provides their workers healthcare on site and everything; it doesn’t waste their time. But the other — the flip side is, is that these doctors sweep the problems under the rug, and they’re never reported.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just wondering what role you think the new president, Lucio Gutiérrez, will play in this situation, the new president of Ecuador. He’s in New York. He just met with President Bush. He just got, to say the least, an unusual welcome, spent quite a long time with President Bush. Lucio Gutiérrez, the former Army colonel who came to office a month ago, has found nearly all the doors open to him in Washington as Bush is looking for allies in Latin America. He was met in the Oval Office on Tuesday by the president, talked about Iraq, has also seen four Cabinet secretaries, the White House drug czar, the national security adviser and a series of Capitol Hill lawmakers. Your thoughts about how he plays into this picture, though he’s just come?

ROSS WEHNER: Sorry, I missed the last part of your question.

AMY GOODMAN: How does he play into this picture, though he has just come?

ROSS WEHNER: Yes. Well, I think that Ecuador shares a very important border with Colombia, and that border is where a lot of the coca production is going on. So I think that is primarily Bush’s interest in meeting with the president. I don’t suspect the Bush administration will be much interested in this issue of roses, even though it was on today’s front page of The New York Times.

I think that, for Ecuador, it’s very clear. The economy — that country dollarized in the year 2000. They literally burned all of their national currency, the sucre, and they adopted the American dollar as their official currency. That means that the nation’s coffers are desperate for dollars. And oil and bananas and roses are the three ways in which dollars pour into Ecuador. So, at this point, I don’t think the government is going to be doing anything that would hamper the rose industry. And, in fact, they’re going to do everything they can to encourage it. I think if change is going to happen here, it’s going to happen on the end of the American consumer who begins to demand a green label program for roses in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now, Ross Wehner, to Paul Sansone, who is a farmer outside of Portland, Oregon. You hear the story about the Ecuadoran workers. They seem to — the stories that we’re hearing of them being bathed in pesticide, herbicide and fungicide that pose serious health risks to these greenhouse workers in the area of Cayambe in Ecuador. Can you describe how you, in Portland, Oregon, fit into this picture?

PAUL SANSONE: Well, first of all, it’s just heartbreaking to hear about the human suffering, because it’s all so unnecessary. We do not have to use the chemical means of production to produce beautiful cut flowers. It simply is not necessary. And it’s evolved, and I think the mayor did a good job of explaining how that has evolved, where they’re not even making much money off of it.

Here in Oregon, we have a farm where we produce cut flowers organically and ship them all over the United States, as well as selling them locally. And we grow over 200 different varieties of flowers. And the first thing that jumps out from me on this whole conversation is the emphasis on the rose, when there are thousands of other flowers. And when you have an emphasis like that, it causes this type of monocropping. And really, a vase of roses is kind of boring, when you think of the palette of flowers that exist out there.

So, there are a number of issues here. One is the simplification of flowers to the point that you have something that no longer has fragrance and that is so standardized that they’ve bred it to the point where it’s weak and where the growers in Ecuador feel like they’re forced to use these chemicals. So, you know, we need to evolve back to — we need to view flowers and the landscape and realize where things come from. You know, people 10 years ago didn’t care where their tennis shoes were made, and then the consumer became aware of the sweatshops in Asia, and things started to change. And I’m so grateful that finally people are becoming aware of the fact that — of what our dollars are doing to people in Latin America and Africa. We’ve basically exported our pollution.

AMY GOODMAN: And if people want to go online, where can they look?

PAUL SANSONE: If they want to go online, organic flowers can be bought from www.organicbouquet.com. We supply them with our certified flowers and are recruiting lots of other commercial-scale growers to do the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ross Wehner, the last word, on this Valentine’s Day?

ROSS WEHNER: I’m sorry. Can you repeat that question?

AMY GOODMAN: The last word on this Valentine’s Day?

ROSS WEHNER: Well, you know, I can’t speak for anyone, and, you know, it’s very difficult, because you have Mr. Bonifaz describing very well the terrible economic situation of his country. And the last thing that I hope that all this media attention does is hurt Ecuador’s economy and the people that so desperately need that income. However, on the other hand, I do think that if we, as consumers, demand that our supermarkets and florists, when they buy a product, they know where it’s coming from and they understand how it’s produced, I think that’s a very important step to take. We’ve taken that step in this increasingly global economy with Nike, with sweatshop labor and with The Gap. And I think we need to expand that and keep expanding that. And I’m not suggesting that people don’t go out and buy Valentine’s roses this year, but that they really start to question what they buy and they make sure they understand where things come from.

PAUL SANSONE: Well, and that’s really important, because if they do that, if they go to their supermarkets and ask for organic roses, a green label will develop in Latin America, and those people will not have to be subjugated to those chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us, and Mayor Bonifaz before. Ross Wehner, author of the piece in Mother Jones called “Deflowering Ecuador,” and Paul Sansone, who is speaking to us from Portland, Oregon.

And that does it for today’s show. I don’t know. Flowers causing workers in Ecuador to get sick. Chocolates, often from slave labor in the Ivory Coast. I think on this Valentine’s Day, you should just settle on a kiss.

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