At the airport, John Kerry was on TV meeting the displaced victims of Colombia’s 50 year war, with the hashtag #colombiadecide on screen. Kerry was there because the government would be signing an additional agreement with FARC that evening. The president’s cynical opponents saw this (probably rightly) as a blatant attempt to swing the vote to a “yes”, by having the signing take place just a week before the referendum.
On the plane out of La Macarena I was happy to finally have dry feet, dry sandals and cream on my badly burned skin. We’d been wearing wet clothes and shoes for the last three days, so my body was thankful for the rest. Caño Cristales’ stunning underwater plants were a dream to swim with, but I was ready for a hot shower – and then a clean, dry towel – once we got to our swanky hotel in Medellin.
Soon, we were flying once again over the sprawling city of Bogotá, surrounded by thousands of acres of long white greenhouses, full of another impressive red flower; the rose. As famous as the rose is, few people understand its important role in the war on drugs – and on post-peace Colombia.. Like the resplendent macarenia clavigera in Caño Cristales, it offers an alternative industry for “desplazados”.
By 1990, South American imports already accounted for more than 40 percent of roses sold in the United States. Then, in 1991, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act. The ATPA added 700 imports from Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru to the USA’s duty free list, making it much cheaper to buy certain Andean products. The idea was simple: maybe if the USA could help cocaine-producing nations sell us other things, like roses, they’d be less interested in producing cocaine.
Which leads us to the important question – why didn’t congress call it the Guns and Roses Bill?
The greenhouses surrounding Bogotá were created by the ATPA, then staffed by “desplazados” – what Colombians call the 4 million people displaced here by either warfare or the cocaine cartels – who’ve moved to Bogotá to escape the fighting. Colombian roses, grown from seeds developed in Dutch labs, support wages, education, healthcare and life for the displaced, and smell, perhaps, like freedom for their farmers.
However, the work is tough. The workers who grow and harvest Colombian roses are exposed to up to 127 different chemicals from the pesticides they use. They take home around 900,000 pesos (about $300 USD) a month, a little more than national minimum wage. There are also reports of forced 70-80 hour weeks in the run up to the valentines rush, sexual harassment, fake green washing, repetitive strain injuries (which the greenhouse owners avoid paying healthcare on), and even of women having to show documents of sterility to employers keen not to have to pay childcare costs.
The entire process is efficient, industrial and designed to eek as much profit as possible out of these red, romantic flowers. Dethorning machines, refrigerated store rooms and conveyor belts turn rose pickers into automatons. With gas and cooling the roses’ photosynthesising ability is crippled. They’re sorted into uniform length by lines of workers, dipped into anti-fungal preservative solution, then hurried off to plant morgues kept at about 1 degree above freezing. They remain chilled on planes and trucks all the way to their destination in, say, New York City’s bodegas. The chilling process is so important that an airport has just opened in Bogotá specifically to fly roses to the US.
That new airport may have been a little hasty, though. 15 years after APTA made the rose industry blossom around Bogotá, the savannah on which it was built is being slowly eaten up by the ever-expanding city. Even worse, the springs, streams and wetlands of the savannah are disappearing too, thanks to these water-intensive crops. Despite it raining most days of the year here, it’s drought, more than anything else, that may see the end of these greenhouses. Conservationists might demand them closed. And if they are, who knows what the desplazados will do next.
On the plane I was coincidentally reading an article about Los Angeles’ Bell Air residents with 70,000 square foot houses surrounded by acres of lush, green, well drenched grass, infinity pools, faux waterfalls and arrays of sprinklers wetting their clay tennis courts, while California goes through one of its worst droughts in modern times. In a world of water penalties, restrictions and public service announcements about cutting back on water use, grass itself has become a water-logged status symbol, as millionaires display their wealth by paying five figure fines just to keep wet a patch of soft green turf that only the gardeners will walk on twice a week.
Once we’d set down in Bogotá, I googled the water use of roses, and the first article that came up was from the LA Times; How to Keep Roses Healthy During a Drought. The answer, apparently, is cutting water use down to only 4-5 gallons a week per rose, if you don’t live in a particularly hot or dry place. Of course, the tragedy for people who live in Bel Air is that they “may have to accept fewer blooms in order to get your roses through the drought”. That’s not a good enough response for Bogotá’s rose farmers.
Both of the red flowers I’d seen today – the river weeds of Caño Cristales and the farmed roses of Bogotá – could offer an alternative career for Colombia’s soon-to-be-demobilised FARC guerrillas; both could be a boost for an economy that will badly need it should peace be signed by the government; and both require a conservation effort for them to survive.
On our connecting flight from Bogotá to Medellin, the passengers crossed themselves with their hands as we took off, and I dozed off to sleep. I awoke after dark over Medellin. The city dazzled below us in the way all mountain-valley cities dazzle, with bright, glinting tendrils trickling down the mountain slopes to the giant web of lights in the valley below.
The airport is a half hour drive from Medellin. Our descent into the city was along the kind of fast, windy road I’m a little sick of writing about by now. Lily checked a live Facebook video on her phone. It was the signing ceremony between FARC and the government, over the terms of the treaty that the public would be voting on in just four days.
This signing ceremony was oddly-timed. It was like as if the UK government had started Article 20 to take Britain out of the EU a week before the Brexit referendum. But, this was also an attempt to inspire Colombians before they went to the polls; the whole country would see the signing of this historic peace treaty, either live on TV, radio or Facebook.
We got car sick, so we put the phone away. Mum told us that Hanz and Frieda’s son’s reason for never dating a Colombian again is that she’d wanted him to pay for everything. I decided I’d try to do my bit to help change Colombian culture by squeezing Lily for everything she’s worth. Dinner in Medellin was going to be great.
We ate at Carmen, a nice restaurant with good cocktails in Medellin’s lively Zona Rosa (Rose Zone). Dinner talk was, at first, of our previous trips around Colombia (which I only mention so I can link you to our latest journey to La Barra and Quindío, or our first trip around Colombia to Tayrona, Minca and Isla Palma).
But a few drinks in, conversation turned a little darker. Back in Caño Cristales, a girl in our group had changed to swim, thus accidentally revealing to Mum that she had a shaven vagina. This had been bugging Mum all day, so she brought up the topic of what women are expected to do to please their men, including hajibs, FGM, body modification (mainly shaving) and porn.
As the son and boyfriend of the two women at the table, the entire conversation was a minefield, leading to Lily and I having an argument. Once back in the hotel, I wrote notes on my phone while sitting on the toilet, so as not to wake her. Here they are in unedited form:
No porn, lose weight, back to school, exercise
As of writing this, I’m following all the above apart from the school. I’ve lost 8kg so far, and that’s way better than buying her Colombian roses.