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Chinese Flower Power Hits Thai Growers

Inter Press Service

Chinese Flower Power Hits Thai Growers

Marwaan Macan-Markar

29 July 2006

Fang, Jul 29 (IPS) - On the misty hill slopes of northern Thailand the chill in the air encourages roses to grow to a size larger than apples. Hundreds of these large blooms, in colours ranging from red and crimson to orange and white, are harvested daily to feed the flower markets of Bangkok.

Roses, carnations and chrysanthemums are part of a bouquet of 30 types of flowers that are commercially cultivated in this part of Thailand, which borders Burma.

’’This is the peak production season for roses. They bloom best between February and July,’’ says Suthat Pleumpanya, manager of a floral project initiated by Thailand’s royal family to raise the standard of living of the rural poor. ’’The elevation and the environment are very conducive to these flowers, especially the roses.’’

But there are signs that the business in roses and carnations grown in Fang, which lies 1,100 metres above sea level, may soon fade thanks to competition from growers in China’s southern Yunnan province.

’’In Chiang Mai (where Fang is located), we grow a lot of flowers, but now the growers are having a surplus because of the flowers coming from Kunming (capital of Yunnan),’’ Chuntana Suwanthada, a horticulturist at the agriculture faculty in Chiang Mai University, said in an interview. ’’We are worried about the Chinese flowers overtaking ours.’’

She conceded that the flowers from China are cheaper and the ’’quality much better.’’ It is a view echoed in the major flower markets in Bangkok, such as the sprawling Pak Klong Talat, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. When asked to identify their roses, the women who run the flower shops, the market vendors and the street sellers admitted that they have only Chinese roses on offer, in addition to imported carnations, lilies and gerberas.

’’We have been getting a lot of Chinese flowers since two years ago,’’ says Patthama Praephon, 53, as she opened a newly arrived box of red roses from China. ’’These will be going to the south, to Phuket and Songkhla.’’

Wholesale flower traders like Patthama, who has been in the business for nearly 30 years, says that the flowers from China are delivered within two days of placing the order. ’’Some of them may be more expensive, but they last longer and are more beautiful.’’

In fact, the Bangkok-based Kasikorn Research Centre (KRC) has already warned that when the October 2003 free trade agreement (FTA) that Thailand signed with China is expanded to cover other products, the balance will tilt in favour of the flowers coming from Kunming, which has a climate described as ’’an eternal Spring.’’

Such a reality will only add to the damage that this FTA has caused to other agricultural products. The cheaper imports of garlic and onions from China in the wake of the agreement have put nearly 40 percent of Thai farmers out of business, says FTA Watch, a group made up of Thai activists opposed to such free trade deals. ’’About 50,000 farming household have been affected.’’

What Thai cut-flower growers are up against is a policy by Beijing to produce four billion cut-flower stems by 2010, up from two billion stems in 2000, according to available studies. ’’At present, China is the largest producer and consumer of cut-flowers in the world. The sheer volume of China’s cut-flowers accounts for one-third of the world’s production of cut-flowers,’’ states KRC.

The saviour for Thailand in the days ahead will be the country’s orchids, says Chuntana. ’’We have a good variety and good quality and there is a high demand in foreign countries.’’ These markets include the world flower capital, Amsterdam, and the United States. Thailand is the third largest exporter of flowers to the U.S., after Mexico and the Netherlands.

Besides China and Thailand, the other Asian countries competing in the global flower markets are Malaysia and India, while Japan’s floriculture products largely cater to a domestic market.

Thailand has already set its sights on a major flower exhibition later in the year to showcase its floral abundance that caters to foreign and local tastes. The event, to be held in Chiang Mai from Nov. 6 to Jan. 31, celebrates two events linked to the country’s revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej — his diamond jubilee on the throne and his 80th birthday.

The exhibition, due to have flowers and plants from foreign countries as well, is already being billed as a successor to a flower exhibition that has become a hit in Yunnan. ’’Thailand could maintain the park as a new tourist attraction, as China did following the Kunming Horticulture Exposition in 1999 (which has attracted over two million people),’’ Doek Faber, president of the International Association of Horticulture Producers, was quoted telling the ’Bangkok Post’ newspaper during a recent visit.

The prospect of another slice of China in Thailand’s world of flowers matters little to locals who buy roses, carnations, orchids and lotus to mark special occasions. Flowers are bought for visits to the temples, by students for their teachers to mark Teachers’ Day, to be floated away in rivers and canals during the annual Loi Krathong festival, for Valentine’s Day and weddings, among other events.

’’The demand for flowers depends on the economy but the people don’t know where they come from. They don’t ask,’’ says Samittupat Jarnlan, a flower vendor at Pak Klong Talat. ’’The Chinese flowers are here to stay.’’