Colombians blast flower trade

Toronto Star, Canada

Colombians blast flower trade

Activists urge Canadians to shun blooms grown by ’slave labour’ - and reject free trade deal

10 February 2009

By Linda Diebel, National Affairs Writer

Flowers from Colombia are grown in blood, according to a small delegation from that country asking Canadians to think twice about the origin of flowers they buy for Valentine’s Day.

It’s the blood of women and children as young as 10, who work in slave labour conditions in sprawling greenhouses around the capital. They arrive from all over the country to package beauty, working long hours for little pay, no guaranteed labour rights and health problems that include infertility, lung disorders, joint issues and cancer.

"It is essentially slave labour," Yolanda Becerra Vega, director of the Popular Women’s Organization, said yesterday. The Amnesty International-sponsored delegation is here to plead with Canadian parliamentarians to reject the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, signed last November and expected to be introduced in the House soon.

Becerra Vega is recognized internationally for human rights work in a country where grassroots activists are regularly targeted by death squads with proven links to the military. The last death threat to her organization came two weeks ago.

"We know the threats come true," she said quietly. One colleague was threatened Dec. 19 and killed Jan. 5.

"Flowers come from my country with blood," said Omar Fernandez Obregon, a Franciscan brother, teacher and rights activist. "I say to Canadians, it’s the same as buying from South Africa during the time of apartheid."

He knows it’s tough for consumers. Florists may not know the origin of the cut flowers they sell and, during such a romantic week as this, who wants to spoil the mood by thinking about the little hands of a child struggling to bundle flowers or women unable to have babies?

Try, urges the Colombian delegation. Ask questions. The delegates also argue the free-trade deal will increase exploitation of workers in many sectors and lead to further expropriation of land for the mass, foreign-owned agribusinesses that destroy traditional life.

Cut flowers, roses and carnations among the most popular, are one of Colombia’s biggest exports to Canada (along with coffee, bananas and sugar) and make up 18 per cent of exports that totalled $320 million in 2006. That’s not a huge number, but the flower trade is expected to increase with the removal of tariffs ranging from 6 to 10 per cent.

A Canadian agriculture department website advises that Canadian flower products will face increased competition from Colombia with free trade.

At the least, these activists urge, MPs should insist on the comprehensive human rights review recommended last year as a precondition of the free trade deal by an all-party committee. Conservative MP Gerald Keddy later dissented from the report; there’s been no review.

"The Conservative government has seriously damaged our trade relations with China supposedly on the basis of human rights," said Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, the Liberals’ international trade critic. "Yet they’re moving towards free trade with Colombia and they don’t give a hoot about human rights. It’s clearly about ideology."

Brison backs the promised review.

Last year, the U.S. Congress derailed free trade with Colombia over human rights concerns, despite a campaign by then president George W. Bush to portray Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as progressive.

Over the last 20 years, more than 70,000 people have died, most of them civilians, in the conflict with rebels in Colombia. Death squads play a large role in the killings and human rights reviews link members of Uribe’s governing coalition to these paramilitary groups. About 60 legislators were being probed at the end of 2008 and infiltration of Colombia’s governing institutions is thought to be deep.

German Casama Gindrama, a leader with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, said people are killed with impunity. Indigenous leader Kimy Pernia Domico, a campaigner against a massive dam, vanished in 2001. Despite a letter signed by, among others, 61 Canadian MPs demanding an investigation, nothing was done.

"Now they are on Phase 2 of the dam," he said. "The expropriation of land and violence against farmers, indigenous peoples, blacks, workers ... doesn’t stop."

Maria del Carmen Sanchez Burgos, national president of the Colombian Health Workers’ Union, believes the Uribe government convinced Ottawa things are improving in Colombia.

"It’s not true," Burgos said. In Ottawa beginning today, they hope to convince MPs, as well as Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs, that assassinations, torture and kidnappings continue.

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