The Colombian flower trade – success at a price

Flowers represent an important sector of the Colombian economy supplying many parts of world with attractive bouquets. The international demands of this business, providing pristine, blemish-free products, lead to an array of adverse health effects among the workers —some pesticide-related. Mary Matheson investigates the poor health and labour standards and the action to alleviate  the problems.

Women sorting freshly sprayed flowers in Columbia, Photo: Tim Ross, Christian Aid

At first glace Colombia’s flower sector is a huge success  story. In 25 years a handful of flower farms has blossomed  into an industry with 450 companies, making Colombia the  world’s second largest flower exporter after the Netherlands.
    The plains surrounding the country’s capital, Bogota, provide a competitive advantage for flower growers—a perfect climate, rich soil, plentiful cheap labour and proximity to an international airport.
    Britain is the largest single market in Europe for Colombia’s flowers. According to a 1994 Christian Aid report on working conditions in the flower industry, British consumers buy more than half of their carnations—about 33 million—from Colombia(1).
    But there is a dark side to the flower sector’s success. To ensure that the flowers are not rejected by importing countries, Colombian flower farmers douse the plants in pesticides to prevent any disease or blemish. The result is poisoned workers, contaminated water and parched soil.
    In general Colombia has excellent health and safety standards. But up to 20% of commonly used pesticides in Colombia are banned or not registered in Europe and the United States(2). The rules are changing, slowly. In 1993 and 1994, the Health Ministry added several new names to a list of banned organochlorines, including lindane, aldrin and dieldrin.

Poor health supervision
NGO workers and researchers investigating the pesticides used in the flower industry say the biggest problem is with control. An intramural study carried out between 1993 and 1995 by the National University, former flower workers, NGOs and trade unionists—the Inter-institutional Flower Committee (CIIF)—heavily criticized the government’s lack of supervision of the flower industry. “Worse still, is the absence of the state in terms of supervision and control of environmental and labour problems”(3). In its census of 56 flower farms near Bogota, CIIF discovered two companies selling zineb, a pesticide banned in Colombia. Workers regularly complain of nausea, dizziness, skin rashes and headaches. Some recount near-death experiences—women miscarrying in flower fields, children with respiratory problems and workers suffering from paralysing neurological illnesses.
    One 27-year-old flower worker died in 1993 of a paralysing disease, similar to multiple sclerosis. Doctors said the disease was occupationally-related, but the company refused to take responsibility. According to medical experts, repeated exposure to certain pesticides can often produce a reduction in the cholinesterase level of humans. “This then causes nervous alterations and changes in the entire organism,” said one doctor(4).
    Cholinesterase tests, measuring the level of contamination by organophosphate pesticides, are conducted regularly, according to workers. But workers rarely know the results of these tests. Some workers testified that they had been dismissed after tests apparently showed dangerously low levels of cholinesterase(5). Little empirical evidence has been gathered examining the direct effects of pesticides on the health of workers in Colombia’s flower industry. Dr Heriberto Pimiento Patino, director of Santa Matilde hospital in Madrid, a municipality in the Savannah of Bogota, says there is no proof linking the population’s illnesses to pesticide exposure. He says the cancer, miscarriages and neurological diseases suffered by Madrid’s inhabitants could be due to several factors other than pesticide poisoning—the dusty savannah, malnutrition, air pollution and contaminated water(6). Another doctor in the area, however said daily he treats up to five patients suffering from poisoning(7). Flower workers suggest that doctors are afraid to speak out against the powerful flower sector.
    “The flower companies here have a lot of influence and it could cost a doctor his job if he speaks the truth, so the staff cover it up,” said Elvira Rincon, a former flower worker.
    Adding together workers’ testimonies, research carried out on pesticides in other agricultural sectors and individual cases shows how Colombian flower workers are suffering from working with dangerous pesticides. On 28 and 29 December 1994 13 adult patients entered San Pedro Claver Clinic in Bogota with a loss of strength, muscular weakness and tingling in their legs. The doctors diagnosed periferal polyneuropathy. All the patients came from a flower farm where in the previous eight days they had been exposed to a product, Karate, whose active ingredient is lambda cyhalothrin(8).
    A recent study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that women agricultural workers exposed to certain pesticides during the first three months of pregnancy had double the risk of giving birth to deformed children. Some of the chemicals used in the study—dichlorvos, aldicarb, mancozeb, captan and naled—are used in the flower industry and other agricultural activities in Colombia. More than 60% of flower workers in Colombia are women(9).

Endosulfan concern
Recently in Colombia there has been a vociferous debate about the organochlorine, endosulfan. Endosulfan has been severely restricted world-wide including in Britain. In Colombia it is used to stop broca (Hypothenemus hampei) and thrips, a leaf-destroying insect affecting flowers, cotton, rice, some fruit and vegetables.
    The damaging effects of endosulfan can be seen in studies carried out in Colombia. A study in Risralda, a state in the south-west, found residues in the blood and urine of 18 out of 31 coffee workers(10). Another study shows that endosulfan has negative effects on the chromosomes of cells of the medulla ossea of living rats(11).
    Although endosulfan was prohibited by Health Minister Alfonso Gomez Duque in January 1995, the law was never published in the Official Gazette, which means it cannot be enforced. Despite a series of legal wranglings, endosulfan can still legally be used in Colombia.
    AgrEvo, the world’s principal producer of endosulfan, agreed to voluntarily withdraw Thiodan (endosulfan’s trade name in Colombia) from the flower industry and agreed not to sell the product in cold parts of the country. But in July 1995, CACTUS—a group providing support to flower workers—found Thiodan sold without restriction in agrochemical stores in the plains of Bogota(12).

Box 1. Pesticides used on Colombian flowers, indicating WHO classification
acephate   fungicide (III), aldicarb   insecticide (Ia), benomyl   fungicide, captan   fungicide, chlorothalonil   fungicide, copper hydroxide   fungicide (III), copper oxychloride   fungicide (III), cypermethrin   insecticide (II), deltamethrin   insecticide (II), dichlorvos   insecticide (Ib), endosulfan   insecticide (II), fenvalerate   insecticide (II), lambda cyhalothrin   insecticide (II), malathion   insecticide (III), mancozeb   fungicide (III), methamidophos   insecticide (Ib), methyl, bromide   fumigant (in Montreal Protocol because of ozone depleting effects), mevinphos   insecticide (Ia) 
(Ia=extremely hazardous; Ib=highly hazardous; II=moderately hazardous; III=slightly hazardous)
Source: Reference 2.

Occupational exposure
The conditions in the greenhouses exacerbate the poisoning effects of pesticides. Companies usually provide equipment to protect the fumigation workers. A mask, boots, gloves, waterproof trousers and jackets are rotated around the sprayers—usually men—who complain that the equipment is often old and damaged, allowing the pesticides to seep in.
    The unbearable humidity in the sweltering plastic greenhouses forces fumigators to cast off the uncomfortable equipment. There are numerous stories of workers who, in accidents, were sprayed in the face with the pesticide(13).
    The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that workers remain outside the greenhouses for between 24 and 48 hours after fumigation. But workers in Madrid said often they would return after 20 minutes, and resume their job with the pesticide-drenched flowers, while the acrid smell of chemicals hung in the air. Sometimes other workers would not leave the greenhouse at all when fumigators were spraying(14).
    Fumigators and chemical mixers are given little training. The Colombian authorities recommend fumigators and mixers are given 60 hours training a year, but in reality this is a 15-minute session when a worker first starts the job. Some workers said that the length of stay outside the greenhouse was measured by how strong the pesticide smelled(15). The workers rarely know the health hazards of the chemicals they are handling.
    The CIIF study found 65 children, mostly teenagers, working in the flower farms. A few were working with the pesticides, which is illegal in Colombia. Like a contagious disease, pesticide poisoning has spread to every part of the flower workers’ lives. Showers are rarely provided for workers, who end up washing their work clothes with other washing contaminating all their clothes.

Box 2. Worker’s Testimonies(17)
Women's experience
“Once when they were fumigating, I went to leave the greenhouse. The fumigator’s hose-pipe was broken, and I stepped on it and the liquid spurted in my face. Although I washed myself immediately, I began to vomit and had a fever,” said Elvira Rincon, a 51-year-old former flower worker. Rincon spent nine days in hospital, with serious poisoning. Since then she has suffered a miscarriage, cancer of the womb and spinal problems. Rincon blames her 20 years in the flower industry.
    “The work is really hard because the greenhouses are hot. It gives you a headache and you feel dizzy. They fumigate and you’re right there working,” said Florangela Campos, who used to work on the flower farms.

“Once I had a pair of waterproof trousers which were ripped all the way down the inner seam, so I had to get a stapler and staple them together,” said Cesar Campos, a former flower worker. “Wearing a mask in the greenhouse would get too hot, so sometimes I took off the waterproof clothing and by the end my T-shirt would be soaked. As you walk along next to the flowers, they are soaked in pesticides and they brush against your skin. The women would return sometimes just after I’d fumigated and they’d immediately start touching the flowers again... I always felt a bit sick when I was fumigating.”  The only time Campos was given a medical check-up was when he applied for the job. 

Environmental contamination
In one neighbourhood in Madrid, Sibate, the houses are surrounded by flower farms, which burn the residue, contaminating the air. During the investigation by CIIF, researchers took small samples of water in local rivers and water in the farms, and also samples of discarded flowers from the farms. Flower farmers deny channeling water into rivers and natural water resources after they have watered the flowers. But the investigators found that very few would treat water after it had passed over the pesticide-covered flowers.
    A visit to any neighbourhood in the area reveals, yellow, putrid water resources, where once a fresh river flowed. In addition, there are water shortages in the towns and villages in the area because flower production requires its use in large quantities. In Sosiego, a small, dusty neighbourhood of Madrid, the inhabitants receive two to three hours of water a day. This is an improvement on a few years ago when they had to rely on trucks to bring it in barrels.
    But the flowers never go short of water. “Flower farmers in Colombia don’t realise that the intensive use of the soil, the water and the intensive and excessive use of chemicals is going to convert the Savannah of Bogota into a sterile land,” said Dr Jairo Ernesto Luna, who worked on the CIIF study.
    Local cattle owners often feed their livestock on discarded flower stalks, commonly carnations, which have been doused in pesticides. The inhabitants around Madrid eat the meat and drink the milk from these cows. Although this is illegal in many municipalities, it continues(16).

The protective masks, boots, gloves, trousers and jackets are rotated around the sprayers, who complain that the equipment is often old and damaged, allowing pesticides to seep in (Photo: Tim Ross)

Industry response
ASOCOLFLORES, an association grouping together about half the flower companies which produce 80% of flowers exports, does not deny the industry has problems. Before companies join the association, they must meet certain health and labour standards.
    “Flower farmers are now creating their own regulatory systems because they recognise the Colombian government has some deficiencies in inspection and control,” said Maria Isabel Patino, president of ASCOL-FLORES. But the association can only make recommendations to flower farmers, it has no power to enforce these regulations.
    There are several showcase flower farms in Colombia, where workers are rotated every few weeks to make sure they are not over-exposed to pesticides, or strained by heavy work. Some have large signs outside greenhouses, where flowers have been recently 
sprayed, warning workers not to enter. To decompose the discarded stalks, some farms feed them to worms, which produce compost.
    ASOCOLFLORES sends monthly newsletters to members advising them on the latest health and labour regulations. The association is also producing brochures to inform workers of their health and safety rights. In addition it has set up at least four crèches to help mothers working in flower farms.

International campaigning
Local lobby groups are encouraging international pressure on the farms which do not keep to the rules. CACTUS, a local NGO working with flower workers, is currently talking with European aid agencies about the possibility of producing a “quality seal”, which would prove to consumers their flowers are produced by workers whose health and labour rights are protected. The Environment Ministry is also studying the possibility of producing a similar seal involving only environmental issues, and which includes all agricultural products.

1. Stewart, Sarah, Report on the Flower Industry, Christian Aid, 1994.
2. Ibid.
3. National University of Colombia, Centro de Estudios Sociales, “Trabajo de ninos y jovenes en la floricultura en el municipio de Madrid, Cundinamarca,” 1995.
4. Op. cit 1.
5. Op. cit 1.
6. Interview with author, February 1996, and letter Maria Isabel Patino, 6 April 1994.
7. Op. cit 1.
8. Carrillo, Dr. Stella, Report to the Health Ministry, San Pedro Claver Clinic, Bogota.
9. Cactus, Information Newsletter about the Flower Industry, No.1, Sept. 1995.
10. Zobeyda, Victoria, Universidad del Valle. Graduate Thesis in Chemistry 1994.
11. Collazos, F., Y. Giraldo and N. Ospina, Graduate Thesis in Biology Universidad del Cauca, 1994.
12. Cactus, Urgent Action Newsletter: Endosulfan.
13. Interviews with flower workers, Sosciego, Madrid, February 1996.
14. Ibid.
15. Op. cit 1.
16. Op. cit. 13.
17.  Interviews with author, El Sosiego. February 1996.

Mary Matheson is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 32, June 1996, pages 3-5]