Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Pandemic uproots Ecuador flower industry

Published:Wednesday | September 2, 2020 | 12:22 AM

Flower growers in Ecuador are trimming back their fields, cutting plants at the root and, in some cases, tossing out piles of colourful blooms entirely as the pandemic delivers a devastating blow to one of the nation’s biggest export industries.

Demand for the small South American country’s prized flowers has struggled to rebound after plummeting earlier this year – and remains at just 70 per cent the normal rate, according to the Ecuadorian Flower Growers and Exporters Association.

Over 10,000 jobs have been cut and more than US$130 million in revenue lost.

“It’s a critical situation,” said Alejandro Martínez, executive president of the association. “The worst blow the Ecuadorean flower industry has ever experienced.”

The setback follows a turbulent 2019 marked by nearly two weeks of deadly social unrest over the elimination of a fuel subsidy that shut down much of the country and led to US$45 million in losses for the flower sector.

Ecuador is the world’s biggest producer of roses and prized for its favourable equatorial climate and optimal soil conditions that allow for a bevy of floral varieties. Cut flowers are the nation’s fourth-largest non-petroleum export and tallied US$400 million in sales last year, according to the central bank.

More than half of all revenue is generated during two big holidays: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Both dates coincided with the onset of lockdowns in various parts of the world that sent sales sliding. Ecuador’s flower growers sold just 40 per cent of what they do typically, according to the flower growers association.

And while neighbouring Colombia – the world’s second-largest flower exporter – has managed to recover, thanks to steady United States and European supermarket sales, Ecuador hasn’t experienced the same good fortune. Its flower sales are highly dependent on large-scale events like weddings and conventions that haven’t yet sprung back.

In response, plantations in Ecuador are taking drastic measures. One large grower, Klaus Grestzer of Ecuagarden, estimates most businesses have thrown out over 50 per cent of their flowers since March. Overall, growing fields have been trimmed back about 17 per cent, according to Martinez. Some companies are trimming flowers to the root so that they don’t blossom for 18 months.

“It seems we are going to get stuck at 70 per cent exportation to the 120 usual destinations,” he said.

Colombia, by contrast, is back up to about 90 per cent of normal export levels, according to the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters. Like Ecuador, the nation saw a severe decline in March and April, months when growers were forced to destroy tons of flowers and turn them into compost. But around Mother’s Day, demand crawled back up and companies went back to work with new biosecurity protocols.

Association President Augusto Solano said despite the hardship, the pandemic has, if anything, amplified appreciation of flowers.

“In Colombia and throughout the world, people have begun valuing the benefits of flowers,” he said. “They give energy, tranquillity, and help reduce stress.”

Nonetheless, small local vendors are still feeling the pain.

Sonia Raga, 41, owns a flower shop in Bogota and says her sales are down 70 per cent. She hasn’t paid her rent in two months and had to let go three of her four employees. Though she’s now selling through online platforms, she said the city’s strict lockdown has decimated her business.

The dire situation has forced her to contemplate selling flowers on the street like many of the informal vendors circulating the city.

“I’ve been a flower professional my whole life,” she said. “I have no other economic activity.”

Armando Morales, the owner of a small flower farm in northern Ecuador, is one of the nation’s few growers to see a boost in recent months. The roses he cultivates on his three hectares (7.4 acres) found an unexpected market in Russia.

“Most farms closed or lowered their production,” he said. “But being a small farm, we did not reduce staff or sacrifice production, which allowed us to jump in and meet the unexpected demand.”