Long Stem Epidemiology
by Jen Moore
The same long stem rose that can express love, loss, joy or compassion to a North American consumer has been transforming the countryside in the Ecuadorian highlands over the last thirty years.
Driving north of Quito, the country’s capital, a patchwork of white plastic greenhouses stands out in communities where traditional haciendas and small scale agricultural production once predominated. Listen to story here:
Sunshine and cheap labour along with a permissive legal environment have made cut roses the top export product from the Inter Andean Valley. Flower sales from this country of about 13 million people were worth $455 million in 2007.
While roughly 500 company owners enjoy most of the profits, about 40,000 workers pick up a modest pay cheque and they and their communities absorb the majority of the costs.
The community of Cananvalle, a few minutes off the Pan American Highway two hours from the national capital, has been a site of ongoing studies being carried out by the Centre for Studies and Consultancy in Health (CEAS). Rows of white greenhouses press up against small parcels of land cultivated by campesino farmers.
A large majority of families depend on income from one or more family members who work on the farms often seven days a week with few breaks. In some cases, consecutive generations have dedicated themselves to the monotonous work of spraying, tending, cutting, and packing roses that often leads to repetitive strain injuries.
But off farm, flowers run deep into the fabric of these communities.
Families often recycle farm waste as building materials, food for their livestock, and compost for their fields. Besides resulting pesticide contamination, they also adopt new sets of values as their lives have become dependent on agro-industry supplanting small scale agriculture and community relationships based upon solidarity.
Founded as a critical epidemiology organization almost thirty years ago, CEAS takes a holistic approach to their work. They have developed an important battery of tests as part of their EcoHealth project helping to document the impacts of low dose chronic pesticide exposure and identifying pesticide contamination in water, soil and milk.
They report repeated incidences of high blood pressure, toxic anemia, low white blood cell count, liver inflammation, and genetic instability as well as high frequency of medium to severe clinical signs of toxicity in flower workers. Additionally, they indicate that neurological development of children in floriculture areas is affected.
This group of researchers also runs inspections of flower farms for the German-based Flower Label Program, one of numerous certification programs that flower farms can voluntarily join and that have become important particularly in order to access European markets. Only 20% of flower farms in Ecuador are members of this particular program.
CEAS hopes that their contributions to flower farm monitoring, worker training programs, and intermittent spot checks to detect prohibited chemicals in flowers, will be useful toward more serious legislation for agro-industry within Ecuador.
However, given implicit challenges in this and holding the view that agro-industry has not been a true source of wealth redistribution and betterment for rural communities, they hope that the international movement toward fair flower production based on ecological methods and non-monopolistic management will also grow.