Latinamerica Press / June 5, 1997
By Larry Luxner
RIONEGRO, Colombia -- When it comes to convenience, Colombian flower grower Juan Cock–Londoño couldn't have asked for a better location. His 10-hectare operation -- filled with 50 varieties of chrysanthemums and pompoms -- sits just behind Rionegro's José María Cordova International Airport, from which cargo planes carry Londoño's colorful blooms to Miami for distribution throughout the United States.
"The main runway is only 500 meters from our greenhouses," says the 55-year-old economist-turned-businessman. "Twice a day, we send flowers directly from Rionegro to Miami. From there, refrigerated trucks take the flowers to 78 U.S. cities. During holidays, such as Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, we have up to five daily flights."
Yet all is not coming up roses for Colombia's flower exporters.
On Feb. 28, the Clinton administration -- for the second year in a row -- issued an edict decertifying Colombia's drug-fighting efforts. The move gives Washington the power to strip Colombia of preferential tariffs for flowers which were granted under the 1988 Andean Trade Preference Act. Thanks to that legislation, over 4,000 products from five South American nations receive favorable treatment. In Colombia's case, however, cut flowers make up 60% of ATPA exports by value.
Removal of such benefits would subject those flowers to an 8% export duty, while allowing Ecuador and Peru -- Colombia's biggest competitors -- to keep the exemption, thereby retaining distinct price advantages. Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Mexican flowers also enter the U.S. market through other preferential programs like GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) and NAFTA.
"The government of Colombia has failed to follow through on promised counter-narcotics action or to confront fully the drug interests that contributed millions of dollars to President Samper's campaign," declared Assistant Secretary of State Robert S. Gelbard in justifying the decertification. "There is as much cocaine coming into the United States or being produced in Colombia as ever before, more heroin being produced in Colombia than ever before. That's the bottom line."
No it's not, says the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, known by its Spanish acronym Asocolflores. The association argues that it's grossly unfair to punish 75,000 people -- mostly unskilled women whose jobs depend on flower exports -- for the sins of international drug-traffickers.
"The Colombian cut flower industry has been highly successful in developing an economic alternative to illicit narcotics production," says an Asocolflores handout prepared by the association's Washington-based lobbyist, Mannatt Phelps & Phillips. "Colombia exports over 77% of its cut flowers to the United States. Given the importance of the U.S. market to Colombian flower growers, U.S. duty preferences are vital to the continued viability of the Colombian cut flower industry."
California rose growers -- who have lost domestic market share because of competition from cheap Colombian flower exports -- have been outspoken in their support for decertifying Colombia. Yet so far, few people in Washington are talking seriously about revoking Colombia's ATPA rights. For now, the impact of decertification is more symbolic; the United States, for instance, is obligated to vote against loans for Colombia before the World Bank and other international lending institutions. But decertification means the Clinton administration could sock Bogota with more severe penalties at any time.
"If sanctions were imposed against Colombia, our flowers would be able to com-pete only if the Colombian government subsidized the growers, and maybe this type of subsidy would be against WTO [World Trade Organization] rules," said Lazaro Mejia Arango, manager of Pro-Export Colombia, a government-supported agency.
"We're trying to increase exports to Europe to have a kind of insurance against the situation. Two months ago, we began exporting directly to Japan, and the Japanese gov-ernment decided to do pre-inspection here. I think that within five to eight years, exports of Colombian flowers to Japan could total $100 million."
Currently, the Colombian flower export industry has more than 10,000 acres under cultivation. Roughly 92% of that land is in the Bogotá metro area; the remaining 8% is divided between Valle del Cauca and the Medellín-Rionegro area. Every day, around 20 cargo planes take off for the United States, filled with 15,000 to 20,000 boxes of cut flowers.
In 1996, exports of carnations, chrysanthemums, roses and marigolds brought Colombia $509.5 million, up 7% from the $475.8 million recorded the year before -- making flowers one of Colombia's fastest-growing non-traditional exports and second only to bananas in the agriculture sector.
According to Asocolflores statistics, during the first 11 months of 1996, the largest markets for Colombian flowers were the United States ($374 million, or 77.7% of the total), followed by Great Britain (6.3%); Canada (2.4%); Germany (1.8%) and Holland (1.4%). Other big markets include Sweden, Spain, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, France and Russia.
When asked about decertification's impact on his business, flower exporter Londoño looked at his workers and laughed.
"We haven't had any negative impact outside of the uncertainty and the expense of lobbying trips to the United States," he said. "I had to go to Washington eight times last year to explain what we do, that our activity is legitimate, and that we're competing legally with our competitors."