Nevado Roses, Ecuador…Say it with Fair Trade Flowers

“If I had known 10 years ago that we’d be in the same position today as back then, I wouldn’t have bothered with Fair Trade certification”. So says John Nevado, the charismatic owner of Nevado Roses. He’s as colourful as the flowers he grows here. After my trip to Nevado Roses in Latacunga, a two-hour drive south of Quito, I reflected on the some of the complexities of Fair Trade certification. It’s not all a bed of roses…

Latacunga is a medium-sized town, a typical mix of a few pleasant, central, historic cobbled streets surrounded by forgettable, dusty, congested concrete roads. I took a short bus ride a few kilometres out of town to get to Nevado Roses.

Up until this point, most of my Fair Trade visits had been to co-ops, farms and small-scale operations that typically worked with land-owning farmers. In a few cases I’d seen small operations that employed local people, such as the APPTA fruit/cacao co-op in Costa Rica and Fruandes in Bogota, Colombia. Nevado Roses, high up on the hillside of the altiplano, has a very different style of operation.

Nevado Roses is a Fair Trade certified flower producer. Fair Trade flowers differ from other products like coffee and cacao because of the nature of the business. Flower production typically uses a ‘plantation’ style model, in which people are employed directly for a set wage and have no ownership in the land. It all looked very professional, very modern. John Nevado is a committed Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process.

After a quick introduction with the energetic John, I was shown around the site by Miguel, a somewhat more subdued sort of bloke. And my post-lunch visit meant I missed the height of the action, which takes place in the mornings.

There are 90 greenhouses here, each about half a hectare in size, making 45 hectares in total. Flowers are cut and shipped on the same day. It was quiet wandering amongst the six-feet tall (they were huge!) flowers, with some workers quietly attending to the flowers, trimming, feeding, conducting quality control. Each plant takes around 13 months to flower from initial planting. For about 90 days it will produce flowers, though a plant can last up to 20 years.

It was much more active in the processing and packaging areas. Dozens of workers were preparing the flowers that had been cut that morning. A modern, efficient production line of equipment and workers took the freshly cut flowers, sorting, cutting and arranging into their packaging. In a separate room many more workers, layered in warm coats and gloves, were busy in the 5C degree refrigeration area putting the final touches to the roses to get them ready to be flown out that evening.

The roses themselves were quite amazing. Growing conditions here (warm days, cool nights) are some of the best in the world. The colours, textures, size; everything about them stood out. These were quality! As John repeated many times, quality always sells.

Fair Trade in flowers

John was one of the most opinionated and excitable people I met on my travels. Originally from Spain, he spent many years in Sweden which influenced his “fair” principles and conscience. Around ten years ago John helped develop the standards for Fair Trade flowers. As the sales of Fair Trade products increased, Fairtrade International, FTI (previously known as Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, or FLO), was keen to expand the range of products that could be certified as Fair Trade. John was willing to contribute his expertise.

However, the ‘promises’ of Fair Trade for flowers have been hard to realise. John changed his working practices at the farm to meet the new Fair Trade standard. The farm became “100%” certified Fair Trade. This included ensuring a minimum (fair) wage, creating a ‘social premium’ for the workers and local community and enabling the workers the right to association (unionisation).

Nevado Roses was one of only a few growers that adopted Fair Trade standards; just 10 out of more than 550 growers in the country. In the ten years since, this is still the case. Nevado Roses sell only 7-8% of their flowers as Fair Trade, a figure that has barely changed in these ten years. How can this be? Like I said, the market for flowers is very different to coffee and cacao. Flowers can’t be stored in a warehouse. Quality and the ability to distribute fresh flowers is paramount. People who buy flowers tend to place a high premium on quality and freshness ahead of Fair Trade certification (imagine giving someone wilted flowers and trying to convince them that because they’re Fair Trade they are ‘better’ than conventional flowers!). Sadly, this is the reality.

Even organic flowers here are a tiny part of production. Only two hectares out of 90 are grown organically. Organic production requires more work, higher costs and is less productive. Without the associated demand, it doesn’t make business sense.

The low percentage of Fair Trade sales means the amount of the ‘social premium’ that goes back to the community is limited. Although it can reach up to $100,000 annually, this amounts to very little considering there are 500 workers here. But despite frequent bureaucratic interference, this is one area where the employees have a lot of say in what to spend the money on.

Some final thoughts:

Despite John’s equitable principles, he’s a capitalist too. His approach to Fair Trade is very much market-driven. He disagrees with a lot of how the current Fair Trade model works, particularly its lack of flexibility and costs. There has long been issues with how Fair Trade was perceived as a ‘northern’ initiative that made the decisions on how to help the ‘southern’ farmers, including how the farmers and cooperatives had to pay for certification. However, this is changing. But John advocates for even more flexibility, such as companies making their own decisions about Fair Trade purchasing (think Whole Foods and their “Whole Trade” brand). In this respect, I got the impression he was in favour of controversial recent moves by Fair Trade USA to change standards and start working more directly with companies.

I liked John. He swore a lot, he was funny. But he was knowledgable and I could understand his frustrations with the Fair Trade system. He wanted it to have achieved more in the last 10 years. It is still a work in progress.

Fair Trade has a place for many products, but each is unique. For us, as end consumers, we see the “Fair Trade” symbol on the products we buy and we trust this. I saw some of the problems with certification of flowers, but it is imperative that to maintain trust in the symbol it must be tailored effectively to each different product. I left Nevado Roses knowing that John treats his employees as well as he can and that he has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands in the local community. However, the Fair Trade model for flowers still needs improving. It’s possible it will only ever achieve limited success, but I hope that John continues to work towards the benefit of this and whatever the picture is in 10 years’ time I hope these communities see continued benefits.

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Why does Fair Trade differ for flowers compared to coffee?

So how is flower production different from coffee? Here’s a quick overview of how this model of fair trade flower (roses) production differs here at Nevado Roses from what I’d seen elsewhere:

  • It’s a ‘plantation’ type of structure. The owner, John Nevado, employs more than 500 workers, who work for an hourly wage
  • Flowers must be shipped the day they are cut to ensure freshness for the markets they are sent to in Europe, Asia and North America. This makes it difficult for small owners to succeed within the Fair Trade model
  • Flowers require an intense amount of work and Fair Trade introduces additional costs that cannot be saved in other parts of the supply chain (unlike coffee) so Fair Trade flowers are more expensive for the end consumer
  • Because of the higher consumer cost, small florists in developed countries rarely adopt Fair Trade flowers. The nature of flowers as a product typically means appearance, quality and freshness override any concerns over the means of production
  • The Fair Trade model insists on workers’ right to unionisation, but this is difficult in Ecuador due to inherent political influence

A few stats on Nevado Roses:

  • Employees: >500
  • Workers are paid hourly rates as typically determined by Government
  • Fair Trade “Social Premium” is invested back into the business
  • Fair Trade certified for 11 years
  • Very small percentage is sold as organic (~4%) or Fair Trade (7-8%)
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A sprint through Fair Trade – catching up on some visits

I thought I was blogging at a good pace, like my cycling (ok, almost). But it seems to have veered off a little and I’m trying to catch up. I can measure the difference between where my blog is at and where I am at, in countries…so having just taken care of Nicaragua, I realise I’m four countries behind now. Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

Not wishing to take until 2013 to get my blog all up to date, I’m going to give a quick rundown of some of my last visits, just to give an idea of where I’ve been recently. Later I’ll return to these places to provide a few more details.

  • Costa Rica: CoopeAgri & APPTA

I had two visits in Costa Rica. One was to a coffee co-operative (CoopeAgri) and the other a cacao co-op (APPTA). Both are certified Fair Trade. CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-op forms a major part of the town and surrounding communities and has existed for 50 years. They produce coffee and sugar, and operate many other ventures within the town, including local banking, a petrol station, hardware stores and a new cafe. Uniquely, the town, San Isidro de El General (also known as Perez Zeleton) is an official “Fair Trade Town”. I found it a successful co-op and is a great example of how a co-op can be a positive influence within a community.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

APPTA is located in the remote northeast of Costa Rica, right by the Caribbean coast. It’s a cacao exporter, and the producers also grow bananas and other fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. I visited their hot and humid cacao processing facility & office, just outside the town of Bribri. They export Fair Trade cacao and also have a nursery for cultivating fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. Bananas are also a major part of their operation. The highlight, without doubt, was tasting some fresh cacao pulp right off the tree. It’s completely different to what we think about cacao – citrus flavour, sweet and so refreshing.

The APPTA nursery. Plants here are cultivated within the coop and also sold to members.
Fermenting cacao. To get from the sweet, lovely citrus to the sweet, lovely cacao smells, you have to put up with a few days of pretty unpleasant-smelling fermentation
At APPTA I got to chew on fresh cacao. Citrusy, sweet and delicious
  • Panama: COCABO (Cacao)

COCABO is a Fair Trade cacao co-operative that has existed for 60 years. It’s the oldest co-op in Panama. Located in Almirante, in the remote northwest corner of Panama, it’s a Fair Trade co-op that exports organic cacao and also cultivates bananas for sale within Panama. I met various people, including the indomitable Elma, who’s worked there for more than 25 years. She’s seen it all, and felt ambivalent about the benefits of Fair Trade. I was surprised at her philosophical attitude, and her humour outweighed her negativity over some aspects of Fair Trade, such as the minimum price and how much help the Fair Trade social premium provides.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It's tiring work dealing with this heat..
  • Colombia: Fruandes (dried fruit), Jaime Marin (coffee), Factoria Quinoa (quinoa), Fondo Paez (coffee)

Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes) has a processing office in Bogota. Actually I couldn’t tell what it was originally, but I was told that it was probably a house. Hidden within, tardis-like, seemed like a secret hive of fruit, delicious aromas of mango and some very very busy people in white coats. The mango harvest was late this year so it was a mad scramble to get the mangos dried, packed and shipped out. I arrived on the day they were shipping a lorry-load to Vancouver. Chaotic was understating it, but it was all being done in good spirits.

Up to our ears in mangos, the aroma was heavenly. But it's not easy work, chopping and slicing
After the chopping comes the drying, sorting and packing. Et voila!
The improvised loading system. Ugly, but it worked
You don't have to like mangos to work here, but it definitely helps if you do

Also in Bogota, in a tiny office out of the centre is where Factoria Quinoa is located. Luis Avella is the man behind it. He was more than busy; I barely got to speak to him over a hurried lunch. He’s an entrepreneur who came out of academia to start up his company. He has written and lectured about Fair Trade for many years, but felt the best way to help people was to start up his own company. Factoria Quinoa sources quinoa from small growers in southern Colombia. The company focus is on quinoa as a health food, so they make quinoa ‘powder’ as well as quinoa grain.

One of the highlights of my trip was spending a couple of days in Jardin. It’s a very small town south of the city of Medellin. Tucked in amongst the surrounding Andes mountains, it is a refreshing, tranquil spot to relax in. The beautiful town square had me wanting to just sit there and drink coffee all day, much as some of the locals undoubtedly do.

Jaime at his finca, high above Jardin. We also had his labourer and an inspector from National Coffee Federation
Jaime at the casa of the finca, with a nice mural of his farm on one side of the building
Jaime with his daughter Veronica on the balcony of their home in Jardin

On my way south, a little distance from the city of Cali (home of salsa, apparently), is the coffee co-op Fondo Paez. I visited their newly-acquired office (a house, really) in the town of Santander de Quilichao. They are an indigenous co-operative of “Nasa” people with around 460 growers who live up in the surrounding highlands. It was basic stuff, almost no furniture, plastic chairs, a dot-matrix printer whirring in the background…Celio, one of the co-op directors chatted to me throughout. It was obvious to me that they have a tough life, but he said Fair Trade has helped give the co-op some better opportunities, such as the office where I met them.

At Fondo Paez I met Celio (left) and Salvador (President). It is an indigenous co-operative in the highlands of southern Colombia
Celio showed me some old photos from previous visitors to the co-op
The Fondo Paez staff at the office. They have their own coffee for within Colombia that uses an indigenous name
  • Ecuador: Nevado Roses (roses), CADO (alcohol!), COPROBICH (quinoa), Pachacuti (panama hats), FAPECAFES (coffee)

Ecuador is a rich treasure of many many things. I got lucky to have such a diverse experience with my Fair Trade visits. I got to learn about three completely new Fair Trade products, roses, alcohol and hats, and also got a closer look at Fair Trade quinoa. My visit to Ecuador was rounded off with a coffee visit.

The roses I saw were amazing, fantastic quality long-stem roses. John Nevado is a comitted Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process. Who wouldn’t like Fair Trade alcohol?? CADO is an alcohol producer, though at the moment the alcohol they produce is for cosmetics. They have plans to make alcoholic drinks, so let’s hope the BC Liquor Board gets its act together one day to allow us to bring more Fair Trade booze to sell in Vancouver. COPROBICH is a quinoa co-op in the heart of the country and I got a better idea of how it’s produced and even got to see my first quinoa plant! Further south, near Cuenca, is the co-op AMTA. They supply directly to the UK company Pachacuti, a Fair Trade hat company. It’s a group of less than a dozen women that make panama hats (and many other styles too). The region is a large producer of hats, and this was a unique chance to see Fair Trade here. I rounded off my Ecuador trip with a visit to a coffee co-op and I felt right at home again amongst the coffee bushes. Ecuador is not a major coffee producer but FAPECAFES is a large producer association (1700 growers) in the Loja region, close to the Peruvian border.

Nevado roses....amazing flowers here. Huge stems, beautiful colours
Hard at work cutting and packing the flowers
It's cold work too, the workers are all geared up to cope with the 5C temperatures in the packing area
Fair Trade roses: they look pretty good in a vase
In Riobamba I spent time at the quinoa co-op, COPROBICH. Avelino, the President, is in the middle
With COPROBICH I got to see my first ever quinoa plants. They're hardy buggers, growing at altitudes where almost nothing else will
Being a quinoa farmer is not easy, but great care is taken in the process. We met these producers by the roadside, sieving quinoa grains
Fair Trade hat-making. Maria sewing labels
Once the hats are made in a basic shape, the edges need to be trimmed. The ladies here tend to switch around in the different work activities
The women (and their children) eat lunch together every day, and I was lucky to be invited for lunch too
At the FEPECAFES office in Loja, southern Ecuador
I met Martin at FAPECAFES, who was a great help arranging my visit to see some producers
One of the producers at home; the whole operation is here, hand-done - depulping, washing and drying. The drying beds are in the background
Here's the coffee washing. The bloke on the left, our taxi driver, luckily didn't get involved
Then we visited another producer. This bare patch has newly-planted yucca. The coffee was growing all around us