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Better Food than Flowers

Trade and human rights, especially in Colombia, have been a hot topic of debate, played time and time again in political campaigns. An article titled “Better Roses than Cocaine” pointed at the collateral damage on the livelihoods of Colombian flower workers that the “go-it-along cowboys” –referring to both Clinton and Obama- have caused with their opposition to signing a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia on the basis of human rights concern.

Certainly, Ms Reynosa’s and thousands of flower worker’s income depend today on the booming flower industry. However, since the article partly aimed at sensitizing and granting peace of mind to conscious consumers in the United States, then we should take a look at the bigger picture.

The booming flower industry has a record of human rights abuses that cannot be ignored. In a letter addressed to both Colombians and the U.S. Congress, Colombian flower workers opposed signing a free trade agreement, stating that working conditions are worsening for the about 100,000 people -65% of whom are women- in the 600 flower production centers.

Among the abuses cited in the letter were the intensification of work till the point of exhaustion, as required by multinationals such as Dole Fresh Flowers, health-related illnesses with serious long-term consequences, poor salaries, and the evasion of payment of social benefits. In addition to such abuses, the consequences related to unionization in Colombia are far from similar to unionization in the United States. In Colombia, it becomes a matter of life and death. When workers try to unionize their right of association is violated through the denial of union registration, hostility, firing threats, and persecution.

As Mr Kristof points in his article, “businesses are reluctant to invest in flower farms or garment factories unless they know that they will be able to export to the U.S. for many years to come,” and, I should add, unless they know that their investment will be protected by the granting of rights to multinational corporations, key in the signing of free trade agreements. If Colombia were to improve its human rights record -very hard to accomplish thanks to the profitable Plan Colombia that feeds a military complex that continues exacerbating attacks on afro-colombian and peasant communities- and specifically in relation to the protection of workers’ rights, then businesses will be definitely reluctant to invest in flower farms or garment factories, better known as sweatshops.

Also, we cannot ignore the fact that multinationals investing in Colombia are benefitting greatly from Colombia’s internal conflict-driven displacements. After all, as people flee from conflict, and they are evicted from their land they have no other choice but to move to crowded and poverty-ridden urban areas, and it is then that the booming flower industry and a potentially blooming sweatshop industry become attractive to Colombians. It’s a choiceless choice after all.

The consequences of signing a free trade agreement with Colombia would mean more displacement of the rural population, more obstacles to the construction of sustainable agricultural initiatives, and the violation of a basic human right, already under threat: the right to food.

In the midst of a global food crisis, in addition to a booming flower industry that already constitutes a threat to hopes for land reform, there is another monoculture industry being promoted as the savior for displaced Colombians: the agrofuels industry.

Would agrofuels be considered better than cocaine? Better yet, would growing palm oil for the production of agrofuels in Colombia be a better and even greener alternative than growing coca? Let’s not be fooled by the false promises of so called “biofuels.” Palm oil plantations in Colombia are known for their impact on human rights and food security of Afro-Colombian and other peasant communities, as well as for the destruction of water resources, rainforests and biodiversity. The expansion of these plantations is a threat to their livelihoods and a threat to their hope to return to their land after years of living as refugees as a consequence of violence and displacement.

Agrofuels, as flowers, are the result of a commodity, export-led growth model of development that continues to be imposed by Western countries. If we are to act in solidarity with the most marginalized people of Colombia, not only do we need to demand that U.S. corporations respect the rights of workers in Colombia, but we also need to question our own fault in advancing the same system that we are allegedly fighting.

As a result of a recent visit to South America, where I am originally from, if there is one thing that I am sure of, is that there is more than enough intellectual capacity, creativity and enthusiasm to construct alternative models of sustainable and equitable development. With the rising visibility of social movements throughout the Americas demanding an alternative model of development based on food sovereignty, we cannot ask whether it is better to grow roses than cocaine, but whether there are alternatives being constructed by Colombians for Colombians that will improve their own livelihoods.

What the north can do in solidarity with the south is to remove the obstacles that impede such initiatives to bloom. In order to do this though, the conscious consumer in the United States must come to terms with the fact that social movements in the global south have rejected the paternalistic approach to international development from the north. In the north, people must start thinking in a different way by departing from the idea that we are doing a favor to the poor Colombian workers in the south when buying that Mother’s Day bouquet. In solidarity with Colombia, if that were to be the objective, we should learn from what their demands are, and not impose what we think is best for them.

Buying fair trade organic commodities and advocating for equitable trade policies is a step in the right direction. However, if our intentions are true, and we are to consume and vote in solidarity with the global south, then it is fundamental that we are considerate of what the demands and the proposals are in the south by the south.