Latin America doesn't get a positive rap in Sweden. If a Swedish newspaper story deals with Brazil, you can bet the subject revolves around “favelas,” the slums of Rio de Janiero or the ruthless exploitation of the Amazon jungles. Mexico means narco gang wars and illegal immigration to the United States, Venezuela means a mad ruler who loves to piss off the Yanks. Colombia, of course, is the kidnapping and cocaine capital of the entire planet.
I’ve never been to South America, but I have friends and relatives from that continent. Oddly enough, none of them are terrorists, drug lords, maniacal rulers or gangsters. On Thursday, I visited Stockholm’s Museum of Ethnography, where I learned that Colombia exports products other than FARC guerrillas and drugs.
In fact, Colombia is the world’s second-largest exporter of cut flowers, with sales last year of over $1 billion. Last week some dozen growers belonging to the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, Asocolflores, paid a visit to the Stockholm museum to show off their brilliant blooms. They will next continue on their European tour to Russia and Hungary.
I had no idea that the U.S. imported 99 percent of its carnations and alstroemeria, 98 percent of its mums and 70 percent of its cut roses from Colombia. Their floral foothold in Europe is not as impressive, and that is what they want to change.
“Their carnations are the best in the world,” says Chris Robertsson, a flower importer based in Skärholmen, a suburb in southern Stockholm. They’re also very big in roses, asters and a few other types of flowers, he added.
The first question that occurred to me when I viewed the glorious roses and other horticultural wonders on display in the Stockholm museum was: Why import roses from the other side of planet earth, when all sorts of flowers are also grown virtually next door in Holland? The answer, if you ask the Colombians, is that their blooms are bigger, cheaper and better; their plants thrive in the year-round warm climate; Colombian flowers rely on sun-power, and don’t have to be raised in heated greenhouses.
Business may not be the only reason the Colombians are undertaking the European road-show. One grower from the Bogota area told me that she doesn’t like her country’s bad reputation for the cocaine trade, “and it is very important that people know us Colombians for other reasons.”
There are ethical and environmental concerns about transporting cut flowers halfway around the globe from South America to Scandinavia. Theoretically, it would be better to grow everything close to home, in Norway or Finland, for example. On the other hand, common sense tells us that some fruits, vegetables and flowers perform poorly in this northern climate. I recently sampled a locally grown watermelon—it was about the size of tennis ball and rock hard.
One argument for supporting Colombian flower farmers is obvious: if people can make an honest living from carnations or roses, there is less reason to indulge in a criminal enterprise. The most celebrated modern Colombian fiction film, “Maria llena eres de gracia”
(Maria Full of Grace)—which was nominated for an Oscar– tells the story of a woman who becomes a drug mule after she loses her job in the floriculture industry.
I am as environmentally friendly and socially conscious as the next fellow, and am well aware of the issues which surround the transport of foods and other products from distant shores of developing countries. But globalization works both ways; as far as I know, there haven’t been any protests in Sweden regarding the exportation of Swedish-built Volvos, Saabs, or Electrolux appliances to countries all over the world.
So for the time being, I will continue to enjoy my Peruvian avocados, bananas from Honduras, and citrus from South Africa. If any one wants to send me some magnificent Colombian long-stemmed roses on my birthday, I won’t object, either.