Agro-export specialization and food security in a subnational context: the case of Colombian cut flowers

Anouk Patel-Campillo
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University


Export-oriented development is largely premised on the spread and intensification of nontraditional agricultural exports (NTAEs) destined for northern markets. While developing countries have become leading suppliers of NTAEs, there has been limited attention to the impacts of agro-export specialization on food security at the sub-national scale. This article examines the impact of agro-export specialization on food security in flower-producing municipalities in the savanna of Bogotá region in Colombia. |1| I argue that current trends in domestic food production at the regional and municipal scales and purchasing power of individual households associated with trade liberalization and NTAEs pose a threat to food security at the sub-national scale.

Keywords: food security, non-traditional agricultural exports, trade liberalization, flowers, gender, labour


For over three decades, ideologies of trade liberalization and export-oriented development, promoted by international financial institutions and national governments, have sought to incorporate developing countries into world markets by establishing new export niches. In agriculture, market liberalization and export-oriented development policies have encouraged the spatial spread, specialization and intensification of high-value, non-traditional agricultural exports (NTAEs) destined for northern markets as a means to foster economic growth, alleviate poverty and reduce hunger. Drawing attention to the macro-level benefits of export-led national growth--which include the acquisition of foreign currency, employment generation and valueadded-- foreign and domestic governments continue to foster export-led agricultural activities purportedly to decrease poverty and increase food security. As a result, countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia have become leading exporters of high-value NTAEs.

This emphasis on export specialization is evidenced in the land area and production trends linked to export crops. For instance, in Peru, the land area dedicated to export-oriented asparagus production jumped from 1512 hectares |2| in 1980 to 8997 hectares in 1990 and to 23,547 hectares by 2007. Similarly, the area dedicated to soybean production in Argentina went from 2,030,000 hectares in 1980 to 4,961,600 in 1990, and 15,981,264 in 2007. Brazil parallels this trend with an increase in hectares of soybean production from 8,774,023 in 1980 to 11,487,300 in 1990, and 20,565,300 hectares in 2007. Paraguay, a relative newcomer to soybean production, has increased the land area dedicated to this export crop from 475,300 hectares in 1980 to 2,429,000 hectares in 2007 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009). Yet, while the share of world exports and volume of NTAEs from developing countries has increased within the past 20 years (Barham et al., 1992; Carter et al., 1996; Gwynne, 1993; Kay, 2002), this growth has been inversely related to patterns of food production for domestic consumption and household vulnerability (Barkin, 1987; De Janvry, 1981; Mcmichael, 1994).

While export crop specialization is often justified by policymakers and international financial institutions on the grounds that it is a means to attain economic growth, alleviate poverty and increase food security at the national scale, the benefits of export-led growth at the sub-national scale have not been forthcoming. Currently, developing nations face rising food insecurity associated with declines in domestic food production, over-reliance on price-fluctuating food imports and increased household vulnerability. Thus, despite a dramatic increase in land area and state resources devoted to the support of high-value NTAEs such as flowers, fruits and vegetables, what remains unexplored is the impact of export crop specialization on domestic food production and household vulnerability, key factors associated with food security. From this perspective, an export-led development strategy requiring crop specialization and promoting large monoculture clusters raises the questions: Why and how is export-oriented crop specialization associated with food (in)security?

Taking the Colombian cut flower agro-industry as a case study, I examine the relationship between export crop specialization and food (in)security. I analyze the impact of export-oriented cut flower production on sub-national patterns of food production and household vulnerability of flower workers associated with the competitive strategies of firms in the cut flower agroindustry. The aim of this article is to draw attention to the implications of trade liberalization and export-oriented crop specialization for food security at the regional, municipal and household levels. The next sections of this article trace two broad theoretical approaches to food security: a macro-scale approach focused on export-oriented development and trade liberalization and a micro-scale approach addressing issues of food access and availability at the individual and household levels. The third section examines the impact of trade liberalization on domestic food production and the rise of export-oriented cut flower farming in the state of Cundinamarca where 90% of cut flower production takes place. This section illustrates how the emphasis on largescale flower production has narrowed the agricultural export base of Cundinamarca, which has resulted in declining food production. In the fourth section, I examine the impact of the competitive strategies of flower firms on employment patterns and household vulnerability. I argue that detrimental employment practices and weakening labour laws adversely impact the ability of flower workers--most of them women--to be lifted out of poverty and attain unremitting food security.

Export-oriented development and food security: two divergent approaches

The issue of food security and how to best tackle famine and undernourishment in developing countries has been addressed from two distinct yet associated approaches. One approach favors a market-based solution embodied in a broader macroeconomic export-oriented development model that advocates a tighter insertion into world markets through export crop specialization and trade liberalization. From this perspective, export-led development and trade liberalization contribute to food security, because export crop specialization fosters economic growth through foreign exchange earnings and increased employment. |3| The benefits of export-led growth are then believed to filter down to the most marginalized households, lifting them out of poverty and ensuring adequate access to food. As such, export-oriented development provides the impetus for developing countries to diversify their agricultural exports to include non-traditional and highvalue crops and become some of the world's top suppliers of high-value agricultural commodities.

Other scholars have tackled the issue of food security by focusing on questions of food access, availability and entitlement from a 'bottom-up' perspective. At the micro level, scholars have focused on the household and its role in food security by emphasizing intra-household income distribution and the gendered division of labour as main factors in food access and nutrition. For instance, Smith and colleagues find that while food availability is determined by total world production, intra-household decisions over food distribution are the main cause of food insecurity at the household level (Smith et al., 2000, 201). They find this to be true especially for Latin America and the Caribbean region, which has the lowest malnutrition rates among developing countries.

In contrast to these two approaches, a multi-scalar stance to food security, ranging from the global and national to the household level, is characterized by changes in analytical focus and policy-based interventions from a 'food first' to a livelihood perspective. This view deemphasizes food supply as a major determinant of food security and instead stresses the "longterm resiliency of livelihoods" at the household level (Maxwell, 1996, 158). An encouraging outcome associated with this shift, according to Maxwell, is the emphasis on livelihood security "as a necessary and often sufficient condition for food security" (ibid) and the "long-term viability of the household as a productive and reproductive unit" (Frankengerger and Goldstein, 1990 quoted in Maxwell, 1996, 158). From this viewpoint, it is not food self-sufficiency but intra-household food distribution within poor households that determines food insecurity. This approach thereby places accountability for food security squarely on households and individuals without linking livelihood security and long-term household viability to broader changes at the national and international scales.

Yet, state policies shape the rural sector and have a significant impact on food availability, access and security at the household level. This is especially reflected in the biased allocation of state resources in support of export-oriented agriculture to the detriment of small- and medium-sized food farmers. This is also evident in the disproportionate allocation of national resources in export promotion programs administered through government agencies that provide support for the proliferation of agro-exports. |4| Thus, often larger shares of national budgets are dedicated to the support of export-oriented agricultural activities, while funding for small- and medium-scale farmers continues to decrease. Similarly, macroeconomic tools including fiscal incentives (tax reduction or eliminations and subsidies) and monetary policies (exchange rate adjustments) are used by national governments in developing countries to foster exports.

The recognition that food security at the household level is associated with economic growth strategies and state policies has led some analysts to conclude that "the failure to place food security in a framework of rural-oriented economic growth, in combination with policies to stabilize domestic food economies, meant that two decades have been wasted in many countries" (Timmer, 2000, 284-5). This is because rural-oriented economic growth has been focused on the role of exports, eclipsing domestic food production, regional and municipal export crop diversification and food security as national policy objectives. Maxwell argues that the "balance between food and cash crops" is "the best route to food security, following the principle of longterm comparative advantage rather than of self-sufficiency for its own sake" (Maxwell, 1996, 164). Yet, in the case of cut flowers in Cundinamarca, this strategy has proven inadequate for meeting food security needs, given the bias in favor of the export sector. Furthermore, it is not enough to trust that the best route to food security is following comparative advantage. As Maluf argues, the supposed 'affordability' of external food supplies "should not cloud its significant implications in terms of food production and patterns of food consumption" (Maluf, 1998, 165).

This has become painfully evident as the world's supply of food has increased concomitantly with food insecurity. In 2007, high food prices fueled riots in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where thousands of people clashed with police and United Nations forces. Since then, similar food-related riots and demonstrations have gripped developing countries including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, India and Senegal among others. In response to the crisis, developed country governments and international organizations like United States Agency for International Development and the World Food Program continue to respond by increasing food aid to sensitive world regions and revamping their efforts to foster export-oriented agriculture. For instance, when making a case for Ethiopia, a country particularly vulnerable to famine, a World Bank report insists on the benefits of agro-exports for national growth:

A number of developing countries have become successful exporters of high-value and highquality food commodities and achieved double-digit growth for a decade or more. In 1990, 24 low and middle-income countries, mainly in Latin America and Asia, exported more than US $500 million in high-value agriculture... (The World Bank, 2004, 5).

Similarly, developing country governments have responded to the crisis by subsidizing food imports, establishing food price controls and creating food distribution centers. However, the short-term responses of international institutions and developing country national governments fail to address the issue of agro-export bias that is at the root of rising food insecurity. Instead, based on the assumption that export-led growth ensures satisfactory access to food supply, international institutions and national governments in developing countries continue to favour export crop specialization while de-emphasizing domestic food production. Thus, the issue of food security in developing countries has been largely addressed from a macro-policy-based approach that prioritizes export-led growth and food imports as the primary avenue to food security.

From a household perspective, reliance on trade liberalization and export-oriented agricultural production is often associated with livelihood security. Nonetheless, the spread of NTAEs such as cut flowers has been predominantly associated with increased household vulnerability, declining terms of employment and persistent poverty (Barham et al., 1992; Gwynne, 2002; Little, 1994; Little and Watts, 1994; Meier, 1999; Schurman, 2001; Watts, 1994). Moreover, the increased vulnerability and precariousness associated with NTAEs disproportionately affects women, who constitute the largest share of workers in non-traditional agro-export activities (Barrientos et al., 2003; Dolan and Sorby, 2003; Raynolds, 1998, 2002). Female employment in export-oriented agriculture in general and in cut flower production specifically is characterized by highly flexibilized and gendered employment relations (Castañeda, 2006; Meier, 1999; Páez, 2007; Romero Castro, 2008).

The employment flexibilization of export-oriented crops responds, in part, to broader processes of economic integration characteristic of trade liberalization. While ideologies of export-led development and trade liberalization encourage the incorporation of developing country NTAEs into world markets, what these development strategies often overlook is the competitive context in which national export sectors are embedded (Patel-Campillo, 2010, in press). The competitive context associated with performing in world markets increases the pressure to raise competitiveness by flexibilizing employment practices at the farm level. The competitive strategies of national export sectors often involve downward pressure on particular segments of the commodity chain. At the production level, the competitive strategies of agricultural firms include keeping production costs low through stagnant wages, weakening terms of employment and increasing worker productivity. In this manner, agricultural firms shift the pressures of competing in world markets to individual workers by lowering the costs of production through securing a flexible, cheap and mostly female labour force.

Scholars across the disciplines have documented the predominance of the gendered and flexible incorporation of women into various export-oriented activities including manufacturing and agriculture (Collins, 1995; Tiano, 1994). However, what is most important for my argument is that in the context of increased world market pressures, export-oriented production, such as cut flowers, is not necessarily conducive to food security at the household level. That is because the livelihood security and the long-term viability of households are inextricably linked to the competitive strategies of export firms, which depend on volatile world markets. As such, a microscale view of food security must take into account the terms of employment and wages associated with export crops to better discern the levels of livelihood security and long-term viability of households. At the regional scale, the analysis of trade liberalization, export-oriented crop specialization and agricultural production trends must be accounted for when examining the causes of food insecurity.

Situating Cundinamarca within a trade liberalization regime: export-oriented cut flowers and food production

Situating the Bogotá-Cundinamarca region within global and local processes of economic change is a means to better understand issues of food security associated with export-oriented cut flower production and trade liberalization. With approximately a 15% share of the world market, the Colombian cut flower agro-industry is the second largest world exporter and the number one supplier of cut flowers to the US market. In fact, two-thirds of cut flowers purchased in the USA are of Colombian origin. In Colombia, roughly 90% of cut flower production is located in the state of Cundinamarca in the savanna of the Bogotá region in close proximity to El Dorado international airport. Because of the economic significance of Bogotá as the capital city and its role in sectors like services and banking, Cundinamarca is the most economically vibrant state in Colombia. It generates 27.8% of gross national product (GNP), and its economy is twice the size of the state economies of Antioquia and Valle del Cauca (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005b, 9).

In Cundinamarca, the agricultural sector comprises the largest share of GNP in the state at 30% (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005b, 9). Compared to the rest of the country, the Bogotá- Cundinamarca region is strongly integrated into world markets as a result of the process of economic liberalization, or 'apertura', and trade with the USA. In fact, since the early 1990s, US exports of industrial and agricultural goods to the region have tripled, resulting in Cundinamarca's permanent negative trade balance with the USA (see Table A1, Appendix). The bulk of imports include industrial equipment and machinery, chemicals, apparel and textiles, food, tobacco and paper products (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005b, 14-5). In 2004, US agricultural imports to the Bogotá-Cundinamarca region increased by 15%, tripling the average of the previous 5 years, and 98.8% were comprised of food imports and floricultural input products (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005a, 19).

In contrast, the region's exports consist of a few product categories--mostly primary and industrial goods with low levels of processing such as flowers, tobacco, leather and ceramics-- which are channeled to the USA through preferential trade agreements including the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) and the 2005 ATPA/Drug Eradication Act (ATPA). Over time, most agricultural export categories in Cundinamarca have grown very slowly and haphazardly, with the exception of cut flowers. In fact, a report by the Banco de la República shows that compared to other exports, cut flowers have been a successful example in its export performance over time (GRECO, 2004). The success of the Colombian cut flower agro-industry, however, is far from being an outcome of market dynamics; rather this agro-industry's sustained performance is strongly linked with politically negotiated preferential market access to the USA and the geopolitical interests of the US government (Patel-Campillo, 2010). The importance of preferential market access to Colombian cut flower grower-exporters is evidenced in the unrelenting national and international lobbying campaigns by Asocolflores, the Colombian cut flower exporter association, to ensure the passing of preferential trade agreements (Patel- Campillo, 2010). As such, the Colombian cut flower agro-industry has been the leading beneficiary of preferential trade agreements with the USA (Patel-Campillo, 2010, 92). This is evidenced by their consistently high preferential program utilization rates (USITC, 1994, 13-4).

At the same time, preferential trade agreements with the USA have facilitated the inflow of US food imports into Cundinamarca. Cundinamarca's role as a trading partner with the USA has been that of a net importer, particularly of agricultural inputs and food ensuring food availability. From a market-led view of food security, increased imports through trade liberalization enable households to access cheaper imported food. Nonetheless, fluctuations in world food prices like the 113% increase in the period from 2000 to 2008 has significant implications for poor households (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009). The increased vulnerability of poor households to rising food prices was acknowledged by World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick: "Poor people are suffering daily from the impact of high food prices, specially in urban areas and in low income countries" (The World Bank Group, 2008). More significant is the expectation that "... for many countries and regions where progress in reducing poverty has been difficult, the impact of rising food prices risks undermining the poverty gains of the last 5 to 10 years ..." (ibid). World food price fluctuations and the overreliance on imported food therefore increase the risk of food insecurity at the household level. Vulnerability to food price fluctuations domestically is illustrated in the Colombian Consumer Price Index for food and beverages, which rose by over 990% from 1988 to 2003 (see Figure 3) (DANE, 2009). And, while food imports have increased in tandem with food dependency, the emphasis on trade liberalization and export-led growth has narrowed the range of agricultural products that constitute the economic base of Cundinamarca and its municipalities to only one commodity: cut flowers (see Figure 1). As seen in Figure 1, cut flowers now account for 93% of Cundinamarca's agricultural exports.

Figure 1. Bogotá-Cundinamarca: Agricultural exports, 2004.

Source: Based on Cámara de Comercio (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005a, 17).

The implications of trade liberalization and export-led development paradigms for food security in Cundinamarca are two-fold. First, a market-based solution to food insecurity in this case has encouraged the increase in US food imports over time (Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá, 2005a). While food imports may increase the accessibility of food, they do not necessarily ensure stable and affordable food prices. And, second, export crop specialization has increased the reliance on cut flowers as the region's main source of agricultural exports. Trends in the shift in the agricultural structure of Cundinamarca point to a bias in favor of agro-export specialization and the weakening of domestic food production. That is, while agricultural products account for 30% of Cundinamarca's exports to the USA, cut flowers constitute nearly 93% of exports under this rubric (see Figure 1). Similarly, in Cundinamarca, the production of cut flowers increased from 47.5% of regional agricultural production in 1990 to 63.7% in 2002 (Departamento de Planeación Nacional, 2004, 13). This shift in the agricultural structure of Cundinamarca, reflected in the influx of food imports, the weakening of domestic food production and the narrowing of agricultural exports of the region to one non-food export crop, poses important questions regarding the long-term implications of sustained access to cheap food imports and the increased economic dependency of Cundinamarca on one export crop.

At the municipal level, trends toward export crop specialization and the decline or stagnation of food production are also emerging. As seen in Figure 2, in some municipalities across the savanna, the increase in land area dedicated to flower production has risen significantly compared to that of some food crops. And while some crops show declining production patterns, other food crops such as potatoes and traditional corn have had slow increases in production and more dramatic decreases in land area under cultivation. More importantly, in some municipalities across the savanna, cut flower production has also become the predominant agricultural activity. For instance, in the municipality of Madrid, the agricultural area in hectares dedicated to food crops cultivated in smaller farms, such as peas (558), lettuce (246), corn (318), potatoes (780), cabbage (206), carrots (446) and strawberries (80), sharply contrasts with that of flowers (2100) (Gobierno Municipal de Madrid, n.d., 44). In the municipality of Facatativá, the abovementioned food crops occupy a total of 582 hectares compared to 326 hectares dedicated to cut flower production (Gobierno Municipal de Facatativá, n.d.-a, 35). The expansion of cut flower production in municipalities across the savanna reflects a general trend toward the growth of land area dedicated to cut flower production. For instance in 1970, there were approximately 12 cut flower farms covering an area of 212 hectares; by 1990, flower farms occupied 3173 hectares (Universidad Nacional de Colombia: Centro de Estudios Sociales (CES), 1992, 131). As of 2004, flower farms occupied 6544 hectares throughout the savanna (IGTN, 2008, 6).

Figure 2. Cundinamarca: Percent change, 1995-2006, area and production.

Source: Author calculations based on Agronet (Ministerio de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural, 2008).

The trend toward the intensification of agricultural specialization at the sub-national scale is corroborated in a multi-region general equilibrium model of the spatial impact of trade liberalization on 18 production zones in Colombia conducted by Arguello (2009). In his study, Arguello concludes that trade liberalization has changed the spatial structure of nine agricultural production regions in Colombia, including the Andean central region where cut flower production takes place (Arguello 2009, 164). At the municipal scale, the trend toward crop specialization is a source of concern for municipal planners. In the municipality of Cajicá, where approximately 50 flower farms occupy 270 hectares of arable land, municipal leaders point out that cut flower production has become the leading agricultural activity, surpassing the production of food crops such as vegetables, tubers, grains and legumes (Municipio de Cajicá, 2004-2007, 29). Because several municipal planners worry about the increased dependency on this one export crop and the decline of other farming activities, |5| they are attempting to curb this trend by placing restrictions on cut flower production in their land use plans (Gobierno Municipal de Cajicá, 2000; Gobierno Municipal de Chia, 2000; Gobierno Municipal de Facatativá, n.d.-b; Gobierno Municipal de Madrid, n.d.; Gobierno Municipal de Tenjo, n.d.).

The emphasis on export crop specialization in municipalities across the savanna increases municipal government dependency on the economic performance of a single agro-export that relies on volatile world markets and therefore poses significant risks associated with world market fluctuations and the competitive strategies of growers. Here, food security is linked not only to agricultural production patterns but also to broader social and economic dynamics at the municipal scale. And as Maluf (1998, 156) points out, the food security question is not only about accessing cheap food but also is associated with the economic development process, which in this case is largely dependent on the performance of cut flower exports in highly competitive world markets.

The expansion of export-oriented cut flower production in the savanna region indicates that the national government's efforts to eradicate the so-called export bias have been largely successful. However, the discrepancy between national export-led development goals and the regional and municipal implications of export crop specialization have brought about increasing regional dependency on cut flowers as Cundinamarca's main export, the concentration of the agricultural base of flower-producing municipalities across the savanna and the steady weakening of food production at the municipal and regional levels. From this perspective, food insecurity stems not only from trends toward the stagnation or decline of food production but also from the increased dependency on a single non-food export crop subject to fluctuations in world market prices.

Livelihood security and household viability in the Colombian cut flower agro-industry: employment trends and food security

Employment generation as a means to alleviate poverty and food insecurity has been used to justify the support of export-oriented sectors by developing country governments, their industrialized counterparts and international financial institutions (Clark, 1995, 1997; Maharaj and Dorren, 1995; Mcmichael, 1998; Schurman, 2001). From this perspective, successful NTAEs are commended for their competitiveness in world markets and equated with employment generation, poverty alleviation and food security. It is for these reasons that the Colombian cut flower agro-industry is often praised as a 'success' story of export-led development. Yet, as analysts point out, particular modes of agricultural production, cropping systems and commodities have differentiated impacts on employment generation and practices (Little and Watts, 1994) and thus development. These differences affect the goals of poverty alleviation and food security. In the case of Colombian cut flower production, a labour-intensive and large-scale |6| cropping system, the competitive strategies and employment practices of growers in this agro-industry have significant implications on worker income and levels of vulnerability associated with food security at the household level.

Vulnerability and the continued marginalization of workers associated with export-oriented agricultural production is not a new occurrence, however. Rather, historians and social scientists have demonstrated that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Colombian agricultural export model was predicated on class cleavages in rural areas (Bergquist, 1986; Bushnell, 1993; LeGrand, 1986; Roldán, 2002), which were largely based on the dispossession of workers of their means of production (LeGrand, 1984). Currently, because the cut flower agro-industry depends on world markets, characterized by price volatility, rising competitive pressures and stricter buyer requirements (Maharaj and Dorren, 1995; Patel-Campillo, in press; Riisgaard, 2009), growers are responding to competitive pressures by resisting wage increases, placing rigorous demands on individual workers and flexibilizing labour practices to increase productivity and lower labour costs. Thus, while the subjugation of the peasantry by landed elites and the Colombian state in the 19th and early 20th centuries succeeded in dispossessing workers of land, the current export-oriented model deepens their marginalization and vulnerability through the alienation of their very labour by imposing stagnant or declining wages and flexible employment practices with disproportionate impacts on women. In Colombia, cut flower production represents an important source of jobs for women. The Colombian cut flower agroindustry generates employment for approximately 110,000 individuals (Asocolflores, 2007) of which 65% are women, many of whom are single heads of household (Asocolflores, 2007; Meier, 1999). Therefore, stagnant wages, deteriorating terms of employment and poor working conditions in the sector render female flower workers more vulnerable to food insecurity.

At the household level, the stagnation of real wages in agriculture has negative effects on food security, due to the steady decline in the purchasing power of households. As seen in Figure 3, from 1988 to 2003, there was an increase of 34.2% in real wages. However, the consumer price index for food and beverages rose by over 990% during the same time period. The drop in the purchasing power of households affects the Colombian population in general and cut flower workers in particular. In 2008, the Colombian government engaged in discussions to raise the minimum wage. This initiative, however, was met with strong opposition by the flower industry's lobby. In a public statement, Asocolflores' representatives emphatically urged the government to reconsider a minimum wage increase, arguing that a wage increase would hurt the agro-industry's competitiveness in world markets by increasing the sector's operating costs (Asocolflores, 2008). This resistance to the increase in the minimum wage coupled with the decline in individuals' purchasing power and rising food prices de facto increases food insecurity for flower workers at the household level. More importantly, however, the dependence of export-oriented sectors on a competitive strategy based on low-wage labour casts doubt on the potential of the Colombian cut flower agro-industry to be a suitable vehicle for development, poverty alleviation and food security in the region.

Figure 3. Colombia: real wages and consumer price index (food and beverages) 1988-2003.

Source: Calculations based on Eclac-Cepalstat (2009) for real wages and (DANE, 2099) for the consumer price index.

Flexible employment practices affecting the terms and conditions of employment at flower farms also undermine the ability to raise individual households out of poverty and ensure food security. Deteriorating terms of employment include the use of employment intermediaries such as temporary work agencies, 'cooperativas de trabajo' and the use of flexible forms of work such as 'apprenticeships'. These employment practices increase job instability and place added pressure on individual flower workers to secure a living wage, amplifying the vulnerability of households in the flower sector. According to a 2005 poll conducted by Cactus, a long-standing and wellrecognized industry watchdog servicing flower workers for over 20 years, 35% of the 1397 workers surveyed were hired through intermediaries, consisting of temporary agencies (20.85%), cooperativas de trabajo (8.7%) and freelance contractors (4.2%) (Castañeda, 2006). Cooperativas de trabajo (or worker cooperatives) use 'worker associations' to subcontract their own labour, saving employers the legal obligations associated with direct employment contracts. According to the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia: "[Cooperativas de trabajo are] ... therefore, not a matter of autonomous initiatives constituted as an expression of self-management, but of a legal instrument that employers, including the State, are using to exploit low-cost labour without assuming their responsibility at the time of hiring." (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores et al., 2007, 97).

Unpaid 'internships' are an additional form of flexible employment, which prevents workers from securing stable work and steady incomes. According to flower workers and union representatives, this form of employment requires workers to 'apprentice' without pay for a certain number of months. After the 'probation' time, employers decide whether or not to hire the worker. If the worker is hired, s/he forfeits wages s/he could have earned during his/her probation period (personal interviews, various dates October-December 2005). More often, however, the worker is let go and another apprentice is hired. Mediated employment arrangements and apprenticeships enable flower growers to circumvent direct contracts with workers |7| and forgo legally established employment obligations and responsibilities, including on-time payment of wages, health and other benefits and additional bonuses mandated by law. For flower workers, late payment of wages, a common occurrence in the sector, or non-payment of due wages increases their vulnerability and jeopardizes their capacity to provide for the basic necessities of their families, including food. Therefore, rather than creating a stable source of employment and income necessary to attain livelihood security and household viability associated with food security, what the competitive strategies of flower firms have encouraged is increased vulnerability among flower workers.

The vulnerability of flower workers due to declining terms of employment in this agro-industry is more strongly felt by women wage labourers. For instance, in the informal housing settlements of Manablanca and Cartagenita in Facatativá, where a large proportion of female flower workers live, there are reports of high incidence of family violence. According to the Comisaria de la Familia, 70% of family violence involves women. However, the female residents of Manablanca and Cartagenita are disproportionately affected by family violence. In 2003, of the 6000 cases reported, 3600 or 60% were female flower workers, 20% worked at home and 20% were informal workers (Gobierno Municipal de Facatativá, n.d.-b, 65). Issues related to economic instability were cited as one of the main factors unleashing family violence against women flower wage labourers. |8|

In Colombia, the steady weakening of labour can be traced to labour scarcity for agricultural export production characteristic of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In agricultural export regions, including Cundinamarca, the labour acquisition strategies of large landowners included the illegitimate privatization of land settled by peasants (LeGrand, 1984, 27). By laying claims to already occupied lands, landed elites were able to spatially enclose and transform formerly independent peasants and settlers into tenant farmers and wage labourers (LeGrand, 1984). The state allowed the process of peasant alienation through the massive privatization of public lands and by facilitating the illegal appropriation of peasant lands by landed elites and politicians (LeGrand, 1984, 34). The spatial enclosure and dispossession of peasant land by exporting landed elites reinforced class cleavages, established the roots for a contentious relationship between peasants and the state and laid the foundation for the enduring vulnerability and marginalization of peasants and wage labourers.

Currently, the flexibilization of labour practices in Colombia has been facilitated through the intervention of the national government, which in accordance with neoliberal and export-oriented development ideologies has weakened labour laws and social safety nets. In 2004, the government enacted labour law reforms that "... resulted in longer daily working hours, reduced overtime payments, reductions in severance pay, increased worker flexibility, restrictions on collective bargaining and the loss of previously acquired rights" (ICFTU, 2006). While these legislative changes support the competitive strategies of flower growers, they exacerbate the inability of workers to secure a living wage and weaken household security and viability. |9| Whereas in the past, flower workers could supplement their wages by working extra hours, a national decree extending the work day from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. effectively denies workers the option to complement their wages with overtime pay. For flower wage workers, this represents a loss of 4 hours of additional pay (Corporación Cactus, 2003, 3). National government regulation in effect relieved employers from the obligation of providing overtime pay.

In contrast to the role of the Colombian state in land dispossession of the 19th and early 20th centuries, currently the state facilitates the export activities of flower growers by increasing the commodification of labour. This is partly achieved not only by reducing the labour process to a production cost measured in hours but also by de facto devaluing the worth of workers' labour (measured in hours) within this relation of exchange. Because the minimum wage cannot be lowered without significant political implications, the state increases the commodification of labour by devaluing the worth of workers' hourly wage rates as a unit of exchange and instituting a longer work day. Thus, while workers have a limited number of hours they can work, the devaluation of the worth of their labour as measured in hours effectively dispossesses workers of their only means of livelihood subsistence. Growers, on the other hand, also deepen the commodification of labour through their direct control over workers' time, by raising worker productivity, intensifying work functions and enforcing flexible work schedules.

At the farm level, increases in productivity impact the lives of flower workers by subjecting them to grueling work schedules, which are underpaid or at times unremunerated. Labour flexibility, as Christopherson points out, entails both numerical and functional adjustments to work schedules and tasks (Christopherson, 2002, 2). At the farm level, for instance, growers reorganize work routines and establish individual hourly production quotas to increase worker productivity and reduce labour costs. The reorganization of work has significantly reduced the labour force at the farm level. |10| Increases in productivity entail the intensification of work functions for each worker. For instance, in the 1970s, each flower worker was responsible for attending to eight flower beds daily; in the 1980s, this number increased to 24; in the 1990s, to over 42 and currently individual workers are responsible for over 60 flower beds (Páez, 2007). The increase in scope and intensity of work functions has been accompanied by grower efforts to lower costs related to payment of salaries, employee health, social security and insurance benefits (personal interviews, various dates October-December 2005).

A recent report found that under the current legislative framework, flower workers are paid for less hours than those worked. For instance, in preparation for Valentine's Day, a peak period in the export of cut flowers, it is usual for flower workers to work additional hours. However, rather than paying workers overtime and nightly rates, now flower growers pay their workers daytime rates only. Similarly, Sunday and holiday pay has decreased by 25% (Romero Castro, 2008, 19). Nonetheless, flower growers expect workers to work long hours: "... we started at 6am [on Saturday] and left work on Sunday at 10am, we worked 27, 28, 29 hours ..." (Romero Castro, 2008, 21). The reduction of income per hour worked has severe impacts on the ability of flower wage workers to maintain an income level that allows them to fulfill the basic necessities of their families, including food. This is particularly worrisome as the greater proportion of flower wage workers are women with children to support.

Reduced wages adversely impact the purchasing power of female single-headed households while decreasing the time women can spend with their families. The need to increase the number of hours worked to make up for lower wages in the cut flower agro-industry is a significant source of worry for women flower workers who work a 'double shift' (Collins, 1995) as waged workers and domestic caregivers. The increase in the number of hours worked by women flower workers has direct implications on the level of care they can provide for their children, including meeting their nutritional requirements: "At 4:30am, I leave home with my child in one arm and the diaper bag on the other ... carrying my child with her bottle because the woman that takes care of her does not make her a bottle ... I pick up my children at whatever time I leave work ..." (Romero Castro, 2008, 22). As many studies have shown, women's income is positively associated with increased levels of child nutrition and education (Kennedy and Peters, 1992; Thomas, 1990). The need to increase the number of hours worked due to the competitive strategies of cut flower firms forces flower wage workers to diminish the time they spend with their families and children. This in turn intensifies the potential for the children of flower workers to be malnourished and poorly nurtured.

Yet, the notion that export diversification into high-value NTAEs contributes to poverty alleviation by raising productivity, increasing employment and rising wage levels prevails among policy makers and international financial institutions. And, while the rationale behind export-led growth is to enhance the competitiveness of export sectors through the flexibilization of employment practices in accordance with neoliberal development ideologies, this aim is largely at odds with poverty alleviation and food security at the sub-national scale. In the case of the Colombian cut flower agro-industry, a so-called 'successful' instance of export-oriented development, state regulation and the competitive strategies of growers have significantly narrowed the agricultural output of the region to one non-food agricultural export crop and exacerbated household insecurity by jeopardizing individual worker's ability to secure a stable and adequate source of income. The dependence of flower workers on an hourly wage that is continuously devalued through state regulation and the competitive strategies of cut flower growers, coupled with fluctuations in food import prices, exacerbates food insecurity among individual households.


The case of the Colombian cut flower agro-industry illustrates that export crop specialization and the neoliberal framework in which it is embedded tends to marginalize domestic food production and foster vulnerability at the household level, weakening poverty alleviation aims and food security. In this article, I suggest that the persistence of food insecurity is linked to the impacts of trade liberalization and agro-export specialization at the sub-national scale. Taking the Colombian export-oriented cut flower agro-industry as a case study, I examine the impacts of export crop specialization and trade liberalization on food production and employment at the subnational scale. In weighing the impact of export crop specialization at the sub-national scale, this research illustrates the increasing economic dependency on cut flower production, a non-food agricultural export crop, at the regional and municipal scales. At the regional scale, the proliferation of cut flower production has led to the concentration of agricultural exports, with cut flowers constituting 93% of Cundinamarca's agricultural exports. This trend is mirrored at the municipal scale where production and land use patterns between flower and food crops are increasingly inversely related and point to increased agricultural specialization at the municipal scale.

At the household level, the competitive strategies of the Colombian cut flower agro-industry and the neoliberal policies of the national government have adverse implications for domestic poverty alleviation and the vulnerability of households, including their capacity to maintain unremitting food security. While state regulation and the flexibilization of employment practices in the cut flower agro-industry have succeeded in making it internationally competitive and a model of success in export-led growth, these gains have not 'trickled down' to the individuals upon whom this so-called success is built. Instead, the competitive strategies of flower growers facilitated by state regulation have increased job insecurity and diminished worker opportunities to derive an adequate and stable livelihood to lift them out of poverty and reduce food insecurity at the household level. The inability of workers to access permanent and stable employment and earn wages that reflect the hours worked stands in sharp contrast with the national export gains reported by the cut flower agro-industry.

How is it possible that flower workers find it harder to meet their basic needs while cut flower growers increase their exports and earnings? This discrepancy may be explained by a process Harvey calls 'accumulation by dispossession' (Harvey, 2003). From this perspective, the competitive strategies of flower growers are based on the accumulation of land and the extraction of labour to increase export earnings and successfully compete in world markets. Following the historical legacy of the dispossession of peasants by the state and export elites in the 19th and early 20th centuries, today's export elites and the state continue to marginalize labour, albeit in different ways. That is, rather than expropriating land from independent peasants to transform them into wage labourers, the cut flower agro-industry dispossesses workers of their wages by devaluing the worth of their labour as measured in hours and by flexibilizing employment practices. Thus, in the case of the cut flower agro-industry, landed elites and the state liaise once more to strip wage labourers of the essential and material component of their labour.

The Colombian government supports this process by providing a regulatory context that facilitates the dispossession of labour rights, hourly wages and favorable employment conditions to secure a low cost and flexible pool of mostly female flower workers. While this high-value non-traditional agricultural crop is considered a success of export-led growth, in practice, the competitive strategies of growers and the weakening of national labour laws contribute to precarious employment practices and wage instability among flower workers. Declining wages and employment instability add to the vulnerability of workers and their inability to meet their basic needs, including food. In short, an examination of export-oriented crop specialization and trade liberalization reveals that national export-oriented development strategies and trade liberalization are at odds with the aims of poverty alleviation and food security at the subnational scale. An avenue for future research entails class-based analyses of the impact of trade liberalization and export crop specialization at the sub-national scale. Within such analyses, attention to the deepening commodification of labour by the state and landed elites through the intensification of work and work functions and the devaluation of hourly wages as a means to dispossess workers of their labour is of primary importance.


Table A1. Bogotá-Cundinamarca Trade Balance, 2000-2004 (in millions of US dollars)

Exports Imports Imports Trade balance
2000 1764 5685 5349 - 3585
2001 2159 6686 6318 - 4159
2002 2194 6942 6566 - 4372
2003 2040 8298 7853 - 5813
2004 2690 8913 8386 - 5696

Source: Cámara de Comercio (Cámara De Comercio De Bogotá, 2005a, 15).


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  • Notes

    1. Findings for this article are based on interviews administered to Colombian government representatives and planners at the national and municipal levels. Flower workers, union representatives, cut flower growers, non-governmental organizations and local researchers. Critical analyses of government documents and land use plans were also carried out to establish the impact of cut flower production in municipalities across the savanna. [Volver]

    2. One hectare is equivalent to 2.47 acres. [Volver]

    3. In fact, this approach is not entirely based on free market principles, since government intervention has been instrumental in encouraging the proliferation of export-oriented crops through regulatory means such as generous tax-related benefits, reduced import tariffs on agricultural inputs, financing, and the negotiation of better terms of trade for particular national exports. [Volver]

    4. The number of export promotion agencies (EPAs) has tripled in the past two decades (Lederman et al., 2006). EPAs are considered a central element in an export-oriented development strategy particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean (International Trade Centre, 1999, 1). [Volver]

    5. In addition to being concerned over changes in the agricultural structure of their municipalities, municipal planners are troubled about the adverse socio-economic impacts related to the economic activities of flower growers. That is, while this agro-industry has in many cases become the leading agricultural activity of their municipalities, because it is an export-oriented economic activity, flower growers are exempt from paying local taxes. Thus, while flower growers do not contribute to municipal budgets, the only local contribution of this agro-industry lies in its ability to generate employment. Nonetheless, for municipal planners, this also represents a challenge because the flexibilization of labour practices at flower farms has created a large and "floating" labour force, which migrates from one flower growing municipality to another in search for work. This creates pressure on municipal infrastructure and puts pressure on social service provision at the municipal scale. [Volver]

    6. Although the cut flower agro-industry in Colombia is composed of small, medium and large cut flower farms, it is the large farms that account for the bulk of cut flower exports (Patel-Campillo, 2010, 86). [Volver]

    7. More importantly, these employment arrangements prevent workers from collectively organizing to improve their employment conditions. [Volver]

    8. Incidence of family violence against female flower workers has also been reported in other municipalities across the savanna (Gobierno Municipal de Chia, 2000). [Volver]

    9. See the Ley de Reforma Laboral 789, de Diciembre 27 2002. [Volver]

    10. Author interviews with agronomists at Colombian flower farms in the municipalities of Madrid, Facatativá, Sopo, Tenjo, Chia and Cota carried out in September and November of 2005. [Volver]

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