Human Flower Project
Friday, December 17, 2004
A Convert to Cut Flowers
After having thrown out floral gifts, vase and all, Sarah M. Crow makes an arrangement and “gets it.”
I learned by teaching poetry (are you already wincing?)… the way to interest someone in a subject is to have them try it themselves.
December 17, 2004
Just so, Sarah Crow recounts how her antipathy for flower arrangements changed. I know how she feels: might-as-well-be-fake fern and some odorless roses with a Mylar balloon attached.
What turned Crow’s head around was growing her own flowers and one dreary afternoon cutting a few to bring inside. In the doing, she “look(ed) at all that beauty close up. No wonder city dwellers frequent flower shops and make heroes of florists.”
If you find flowers negligible, try growing a rose and bringing one indoors for a close encounter.
The Worker Behind the Flower
An international labor rights group, tracking working conditions in the cut-flower industry, asks retailers to buy only certified blooms.
Increasingly, flowers are grown in the Southern Hemisphere for Northern consumers. The U.S. Agency for International Development began bankrolling floriculture in Colombia 40 years ago as a crop substitute for coca. Ecuador, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe are in the business now. And to wean Afghanistan from opium income, the U.S. may try the Colombian experiment again.
European and U.S. buyers see first hand the benefits of equatorial flower farming. What they tend to overlook are the people, primarily women, who grow, tend, cut and package their inexpensive flowers on another continent.
Though it’s more than a year old, this report on Codes of Conduct in the Cut-Flower Industry gives a helpful summary of the global situation and clearer pictures of working conditions in Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
We learn that “only four percent of Colombian flower workers belong to unions,” whereas in Zimbabwe, where 90% of commercial lands have been taken from white owners and redistributed to black farmers, political upheaval had induced more openness to unions. Zimbabwe farms have also more readily accepted a Flower Label Program: outside inspectors certifying that flowers were produced under safe and fair conditions.
So have those carnations you just picked up at the grocery or the roses from your local flower shop been grown on a farm where pregnant women get fired, where workers are poisoned with pesticides and unions are busted? Are your flowers “certified”? Ask! This report, by the International Labor Rights Fund, says that any successful labeling program requires “the active participation of large U.S. importers and retailers.” And retailers may not bother buying certified flowers (or even know about them) unless somebody pops the question.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Rejecting Flowers—The Ultimate Rebuff
Mourners of Filipino movie star and presidential candidate Fernando Poe, Jr. seem to have broken an international taboo when they trampled a condolence wreath.
Fernando Poe, Jr. had been called the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Philippines, a mega-movie star who crossed over into politics. Actually, The Terminator was running a couple of ambitions behind Poe, who died last week at age 65.
A Manila woman mourns Fernando Poe, Jr.
Photo: Erik de Castro for Reuters
Last spring, Poe ran for president of the Philippines, losing a bitter race to Gloria Arroyo in May. Claiming that Arroyo had stolen the election, Poe and his supporters never conceded the election.
“Da King,” as he was known, had “starred in more than 200 films since the 1950s, usually as the strong, silent hero who beat up the bad guys.” His campaign pledge makes clear his constituency: Poe had promised “breakfast, lunch and dinner” for all Filipinos.
Tuesday night during a wake outside Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, mounds of flowers arrived as throngs of Poe’s fans and political supporters filled the street. When the crowd discovered that wreaths from President Arroyo and Speaker Jose de Venecia had been delivered, the gathering erupted, ripping the wreaths apart and trampling the flowers. In one newspaper account, the arrangement from President Arroyo was “torched.”
The incident seems to have shocked both sides. The Philippines Daily Inquirer published an appalled editorial today. A piece in the Philippine Star is less conciliatory. On the question of whether the president should attend Poe’s funeral, scheduled for December 22, the Star’s writer calls Arroyo “the country’s most assiduous burol or funeral goer. But this time, discretion should prevail over valor.”
If a crowd will trample funeral flowers, no telling what else they’ll do.
Pointing the Pesticide Finger
If cut-flower growers outside the U.S. are using the most toxic pesticides, why was it the U.S. that lobbied to keep spraying an ozone-killer?
In the U.S. we hear how foreign flower growers have unfair advantages, because they pay workers so much less and use hazardous growing methods, including pesticides that are banned in this country. Buying locally grown flowers is touted as wholesome and communitarian, as in this piece from the San Francisco Chronicle, a feature story about the Half Moon Bay flower market.
It’s true that wages and labor practices in some foreign flower industries are dangerous and unjust, but before assuming that all U.S. lilies are lily pure, consider this:
Methyl bromide, a pesticide known to destroy the Earth’s ozone layer, was to be banned worldwide January 1,2005. But according to the North County Times (San Diego, CA), the U.S. government pushed for and won a “critical-use exemption” in November, permitting farmers to keep using the chemical for another full year.
Methyl bromide, used on fruit and vegetable crops as well as flowers, is sprayed onto soil to kill viruses and incects.
A San Diego Farm Bureau representative said, ““We’re continuing trying to bridge the gap between methyl bromide and what comes after that. We recognize that methyl bromide is going to go away, but until there is a reasonable alternative, it should be available to growers. The alternative needs to be effective and affordable.”
Aren’t some cut-flower growers in Africa and South America using the same argument to continue exploiting workers? Does it make sense to keep killing a planet until we can find an “effective and affordable” way to kill a bug?
In San Mateo County, home of the Half Moon Bay market, the flower business is huge, producing $180.6 million worth of plants and flowers last year. With strong foreign competition, production is shifting. This used to be prime “chrysanthemum country,” as one seller told the Chronicle. “Now there are fewer mums, as well as carnations and cut roses. Growers are diversifying into other crops such as alstroemerias and lilies,” growing fewer foliage plants, more flowering plants.
The flower business like all successful businesses, changes in response to external and internal pressures. But for some reason (the tragedy of the commons?), the ozone layer doesn’t seem to motivate people in anything like the same strong way that being undercut on the price of a dozen roses does. So growers who can afford methyl bromide, primarily U.S. farmers, will spray methyl bromide for another full year.
Margaret Reeves, a scientist at Pesticide Action Network-North America, opposed the exemption. “Look at the burgeoning organic industry in this country,” she told Lorell Fleming of the North County Times. “It says people can find alternatives. Organic growers have been using alternatives (to methyl bromide) successfully all around the world.”