Saturday, June 28, 2008

Meeting the Neighbors

It can be difficult to meet your neighbors when moving into a new place. My new block seems to be the opposite. It is very hard not to meet people as there are usually a dozen or so young children riding bikes or playing on the sidewalk. The parents often are watching from their doorsteps. Everyone knows everyone. But not everyone speaks English. Most of my block is Mexican with some black families as well. One block south is almost all black, and one block north is almost all Mexican. My block, or 51st Street and South Marshfield, is the dividing point. Yet today we were united for a barbeque in my landlady’s backyard.

Since Tuesday, I have been living in a two-story building. My landlady and a Northwestern University graduate live with me. He is leaving in a month to begin medical school at Northwestern so my landlady had a going-away party, which also served as a neighborhood barbeque. It was a mixture of locals and my new roommates’ friends. I spent an hour or two grilling burgers and hotdogs before someone else took over so I could meet the neighbors. I spent most of my time chatting with the kids. They had some interesting perspectives on life. In many ways it is a different world on the southside, but I’ll save that for another blog. I then impressed some the young teenage boys by dunking on a low, crooked basketball rim in the backyard alleyway. That was all before they brought out the pinata filled with candy as the children gathered round. It was a great day to be living on the southside as the rain clouds held off and the White Sox beat the Cubs. More importantly, it was good to meet the neighbors.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Returning to Chicago

Lake Michigan seems a lot larger when you’re flying over it. In contrast, downtown Chicago looks a lot smaller. I landed at O’Hare Airport this morning and then boarded the El. That’s the great thing about arriving to Chicago, you don’t need a limo or taxi to get into the city. The train fare was still the same two dollars. Besides the cheap transportation (in relation to driving a car with the rising gas prices), I enjoyed looking out the windows at Chicago’s architecture on this clear sunny day. Since most of the train tracks are elevated above the roads, passengers get a free tour of the city every time they ride it. On the train, to my left, sat an Asian man in a suit. A few seats from him sat a chubby, white woman with a Midwestern accent. They had started a conversation and were laughing and smiling as the train sped toward the Loop.

Friday, June 6, 2008

My Top 10 Highlights in Colombia

Fat people. That was the first thing I noticed when I returned to the United States yesterday. Riding late at night to my mom’s house in a limo, I then noticed how clean the roads are. This is the thing about anywhere I travel; I can always find the bad and the good, kind of like people.

Before I unpack my bags and get settled, I want to take a moment to look back on my time in Colombia, which will no doubt give me fond memories. I have to admit there are some things I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss being called Gringo, or my doorman calling me “mister” because it’s one of the few English words he knows. I’m going to take with me the different perspective of living in a country with few foreigners and hardly any Americans. I’m going to remember the people of Ciudad Bolívar and how they taught me to play Rana and Tejo. I’m going remember the feeling of a bird when I went paragliding near Cartago. The beautiful clouds and scenery at Monserrate, Valle de Cocora, La Candelaria, and the Colpatria Tower will be hard to forget, along with the friendly mamacitas I met along the way. I could use a few of them when the cold winter begins. Then there are the less expected encounters, such as my time with the boxers, flower workers, and bullfighting crowd. Yes, I’ll miss the fresh pastries at the panaderías on my way to work.

Then there are always things that you would have liked to have done, but I think I experienced a good share. Maybe when I return I can see the Gold Museum (closed for remodeling until September 2008) or visit the town of Villa de Leiba. As odd or obvious as they may seem, below are my top 10 highlights in Colombia (in alphabetical order).

1) Christmas Time in Medellín Medellín is the home of beautiful and powerful people, from supermodel Ana Sofía Henao to President Álvaro Uribe to the deceased drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It is the place with year-round spring weather and the most elaborate Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen. Río Medellín runs through the center of the city and about two miles of it was decorated with strings of lights that changed colors in random sequences. There were hundreds of Christmas trees, decorations, and performers along the sides of the river. Each year they have a different theme for the decorations and lights. It takes two months to setup and two months to take down all the decorations. On a hill near Río Medellín is a small colonial village called Pueblito Paisa, with a ton of decorations as well. For a very image-conscious city, Christmas is the time to visit Medellín.

2) Coffee Farms Visiting the Colombian coffee farms in Eje Cafetero was something I had wanted to do since I arrived in Bogotá. My trip in March exceeded my expectations. Besides enjoying the warmth of the sun and the Paisa people, I learned a lot. I had no idea that coffee was best grown on steep, partially shaded hillsides at a certain high altitude. I also learned that only the female coffee plants are used for harvest. And when I finished my tour I got to drink a fresh cup that had so much flavor, sugar wasn’t needed. I believe it’s only a matter of time before this area is a hot spot for international tourism. I’m glad I got to see it the same way it’s been farmed for centuries.

3) Colombia beats Argentina I’m not a soccer fan, but I was high-fiving the fans around me when Colombia beat Argentina. Before the game, Argentina was unbeaten in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and ranked as the best in the world by FIFA. I think playing at the high elevation at El Campín in Bogotá tired the Argentians more quickly. Arriving four hours early for a second-row seat only to sit through a good two hours of pouring rain wasn’t exactly fun. But witnessing the 2-1 victory, the soccer fanatics that filled the stadium, and the constant profanities made it a super South American spectacle.

4) Natural Juice I could have written aguardiente here, but that wasn’t something I drank every day. Referred to as jugo natural, natural juice is not something you see on a can only to gulp down lots of artificial preservatives as is common in the United States. In Colombia, natural juice is the real thing, and served almost everywhere. It is mixed with water or milk, depending on one’s preference. Many street vendors have machines for squeezing the various types of fruits and vegetables. Some of my favorites were guanábana (soursop), guayaba (guava), lulo (naranjilla), mango, maracuyá (passion fruit), mora (blackberry), piña (pineapple), and tomate de árbol (tree tomato).

5) Nevado del Ruiz This was the highest place I’ve been on Earth. I left Manizales to take an all-day trip to this active, snow-capped volcano of more than 17,000 feet. After driving most of the way, I hiked a few hundred feet shy of its peak (you needed special climbing equipment to reach the summit). Although the best time to go is in December or January, our group had great weather as we trekked through the snow, sucking in as much oxygen as we could. When we had reached our highest point and everyone began climbing down, I took a nice whiz in the snow.

6) Salento This was my favorite town in Colombia; it is one of the smallest and oldest in Eje Cafetero. It felt like going into a time warp, for not much has changed over the centuries. With the slow pace of life, relaxing atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery, no wonder everyone was so friendly. Calle Real, or Carrera 6, was the most beautiful street I’ve seen in Colombia, and perhaps anywhere. Its buildings (mostly selling handicrafts) have bright, vibrant colors, and at one end is the main plaza. At the other is a 250-step climb up a steep hill to a spectacular view overlooking Salento and the Valle de Cocora with its seemingly endless supply of trout. Fresh trout is served in virtually every restaurant and is usually baked or fried. A short walk from town, at a lower altitude, coffee farmers live on the various haciendas.

7) Speaking Spanish If you want to learn or practice Spanish with locals, Bogotá is probably the best place in the world. The locals, or Rolos, speak slowly and without an accent. They also use very few slang words. The language is as close to proper Castilian (castellano) Spanish, or “pure” Spanish, as you will find in Latin America. I am definitely glad I speak like the people from Bogotá than, say, those from Cartagena.

8) The Salt Cathedral This is truly one of the wonders of the modern world, and an obvious must for anyone staying in Bogotá. Built in a salt mine nearly 200 meters underground, this cathedral is so large you might get lost. Near the front, there are 14 chambers, each illuminating a large cross with white or black lights. There are pews and an altar where mass takes place every Sunday at 1 p.m. Like most great tourist places, words cannot quite do the Salt Cathedral justice.

9) Teaching English Whatever you teach you will do better yourself. There is something about teaching that makes you reevaluate and clarify what you are trying to help someone learn. Maybe I still talk and write the same, but I definitely have a better understanding of the English language. Studying Spanish, no doubt, helped. A quick example of the language difference is the way you move your mouth. In English, you need to use the back of your throat while moving your jaw and lips. In Spanish, you speak with the front of your mouth and don’t need to use your face and jaw as much. Nevertheless, language reminds me of sports; the more proficient you are at it, the more you enjoy doing it.

10) Trip to Tobia About 90 minutes northwest of Bogotá is the small town of Tobia. Surrounding this town are many adventure activities. I visited it in September with my fellow English teachers and friends, and went rafting, hiking, and sliding down a smooth rock cliff into a pool of water. It was a great way to have fun while enjoying Colombia’s warm weather and wilderness. It was one of my first lessons that Colombia’s countryside is safe and its people friendly.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Rose With Many Thorns

Next time you think about buying flowers for a loved one or for your significant other, think about Colombia. You may want to do some research before you buy those roses for Valentine’s Day or those carnations for Mother’s Day.

Colombia is the largest flower exporter to the United States; 62% of all flowers sold in the U.S. come from Colombia, and include 50 different varieties. Nearly 80% of all flowers grown in Colombia are exported to the U.S. Most of the rest are imported from Ecuador, especially on Valentine’s Day. American companies make billions of dollars in profit each year from the flower industry as consumers spend nearly $20 billion. Yet full-time Colombian flower workers receive the minimum wage (461,500 pesos per month or 274.62 U.S. dollars per month). There are more than 100,000 workers in the Colombian flower industry, and 65% of them are women. Most of these women are single mothers. Three-quarters of the flowers exported from Colombia are grown in the flat land around Bogotá called the Savannah of Bogotá.

During the past two weeks I have spent a lot of time in a town called Facatativá, also known as “Faca.” It is in Faca that the largest flower plantation in Colombia recently shut down. Faca is a town of about 100,000, most of whom rely on the flower farms for jobs. One of these people, Beatriz Fuentes, is the union leader of that large plantation that shut down called Splendor. Most of the 1,700 workers at the plantation lost their jobs in the fall of 2007. The rest, like Fuentes, lost their jobs a few months later. I spent several days with Fuentes, her three children, and her husband, Jorge, who has worked on a flower plantation his entire life. I learned how much of a mystery the flower industry is and that by keeping it a secret, U.S. companies can hide the poor working conditions that many of these workers endure every day without any say toward a change. I also attended the first forum for social issues in the Savannah, which was held in Faca this weekend. Yesterday, flower workers and union leaders met inside an elementary school classroom to discuss how they can make their voices heard in a place where worker silence is the norm.

A Brief History of the Colombia Flower Industry

When the Colombia flower industry began in the late 1960s it was virtually nonexistent. Back then the United States got most of its flowers from California.

With the year-round spring weather and plenty of sun and rain in the areas around Bogotá and Medellín, flowers can be grown all the time. While about 75% of Colombian flowers are grown around Bogotá, the majority of the rest are grown near Medellín. Because of a history of guerilla violence, the big Colombian cities have become safe havens for rural peasants with little education. Many of these people can only find jobs on the flower farms, just as the coffee farms provide the majority of work in Eje Cafetero.

About 95% of Colombian flowers exported to America arrive duty-free thanks to the Andean Trade Preferences Act. This law was passed in 1991 in hopes of switching production of coca leaves and opium poppies to legal crops, critics argue. However, recent statistics show that illegal crop production is the same as it was before. Then again, flower production has risen dramatically in the past 10 and 20 years, yet the weak U.S. dollar hasn’t helped the flower industry in 2008.

Democrats, such as Barack Obama, have been outspoken on their disapproval of the free trade act with Colombia, citing a lack of union rights in Colombia. Farmers in California, who have lost the most jobs due to the growth of U.S. companies in the Savannah of Bogotá, have said that tariffs should be reimposed on Colombian flowers to save American flower growers’ businesses. With the duty-free trade act, U.S. flower companies will continue to move their farms from California to Colombia. They can make bigger profits because of the low pay and less overhead costs due to fewer restrictions on safety, chemicals, and overtime hours. The Savannah’s 2,000 hectares of flower farms in the 1980s has grown to its current 7,000 hectares.

The biggest change came in 1998 with the arrival of Dole Fresh Flowers, a subsidiary of the U.S. Dole Food Company, who bought several of the largest flower plantations. Since then wages have decreased and workers can no longer seek a job directly with a company’s boss; the workers have to talk to a middle man who then assigns them to work at a particular plant, often not a worker's top choice. Why work in one farm versus another? There are very few standards set across the board. Some companies pay their workers for overtime hours (more than 12 hours), others don’t. Some companies give their workers masks and protective clothing, others don’t. Some companies have bosses who verbally abuse their workers, while other bosses are fairer. Nevertheless, severance pay and pensions are a rarity. Often companies will fire a veteran worker just before they are eligible for enough years for a pension. The workers are often expected to do more than is possible, creating an environment of stress, while using many chemicals that are banned or forbidden to be used under U.S. law. This has resulted in miscarriages, carpal tunnel syndrome, discrimination, increasing use of subcontracting and short-term contracts, and occupational health illnesses.

To prevent an international outcry, the Colombian flower growers’ trade association, or Asocolflores, created a certificate called Florverde, or Green Flower. This certificate is supposed to guarantee environmental and social standards, which includes sealing off areas recently sprayed with pesticides and imposing a maximum working week of 48 hours with no more than 12 hours overtime. Since Asocolflores is in cahoots with large American companies such as Dole, this certificate is nothing more than propaganda to make distributors convince consumers that they are not part of the poor conditions for flower workers. Since 2003, 25% of Colombian flower farms have received a Florverde certificate, with an additional 17% on track to do the same, according to the BBC News.

While Colombia sells most of its flowers to the United States, a significant percentage is exported to Europe, Russia, and Japan. Sales from the Colombia flower trade earn more than $1 billion. In the United States most flowers are sold in large grocery store chains, putting many local florists out of business. The flowers are kept in refrigerators after being cut, and then flown from Bogotá to Miami, where they are shipped all across the U.S.

A Typical Day

Like Beatriz Fuentes, many Colombian flower workers wake up at 3 a.m. each morning so they can get their children dressed, fed, and ready for school before they wait for a bus at 5 a.m. Some workers commute to work by bicycle. They arrive to work at 6 a.m. where they check in for directions from their boss. In the morning they cut roses to be shipped that day. If they don’t cut at least 300 roses per hour, they are threatened to be fired or written up in a report to management about how they aren’t doing a good job. Often the workers are given more work to do than is physically possible. Then the workers go into another room where they classify the roses by color, making sure they don’t have any fungus or blemishes. They make sure the size of the flowers and stems are all the same before they package them in bundles of 25 or less, depending on a customer’s request. Then they seal them in boxes and label them. Often Fuentes worked in rooms that were either very cold and very hot, moving back and forth from one room to the other. Workers are given 45 minutes for lunch and no breaks with just a minute or two when they have to use the bathroom. The day ends at 3 p.m. on Monday through Friday and around noon on Saturday.

During the high season, before Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, bosses enforce 16 to 20 hour work days with fewer, if any, breaks, and just 15 to 20 minutes for dinner. Workers have to either bring their own food or buy it from the company’s cafeteria. Some companies make workers pay for protective equipment, too. No one is allowed to get sick during the high season. After getting home at midnight, workers must go to sleep so they can wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning for another 16-plus hour day of work. Many of these workers have short-term contracts and don’t receive overtime pay. Others receive overtime after they have worked 12 hours.

A Code of Silence

Despite these difficult working conditions and the common health problems, there is a code of silence among Colombian flower workers. Well, most workers. Aidé Silva, a flower worker in Faca, formed an independent workers’ union organization in 2001, known as Untraflores. Today she is president of the six flower plantation unions that have formed under the Untraflores organization. One of those union leaders is Beatriz Fuentes, 28, of the Splendor plantation that closed last fall. Splendor was the largest plantation in Colombia and was owned by Dole. While Asocolflores and plantation owners tell reporters that workers are happy and are free to form unions, their actions have proved the contrary. Fuentes, who started the union called Sintrasplendor in 2004, used to hand out flyers about why they had created a union and has been a major contributor to the flower union newspaper called Florecer. (Not many people own computers in towns like Faca and even fewer people have internet access.) The bosses prohibited workers from handing out flyers or any other material. Yet the newspaper spread the word about women workers who were fired for becoming pregnant, the use of known carcinogens or toxins that are banned in the U.S. and Europe, and workers with ruptured varicose veins and kidney problems from standing long hours with limited bathroom use, and respiratory problems. Fuentes helped the union to grow to 700 workers in the Spring of 2005. Dole reacted by challenging the union’s legal recognition. In July, a packed company-contracted bus speeding to avoid being late to work crashed, killing three workers. Dole never took the blame or compensated the families in any way. Eventually, Dole closed its plantation, saying it was for economic reasons, yet refused to release any documentation. The statement was simple: any large worker union movement will result in the shutdown of that plantation and workers will become jobless. Thus, without much education and other work options, the flower workers are scared to join a union and prefer to remain silent, even at the risk of severe illnesses and no long-term job security or pension.

The sad part of this entire ordeal is that both the U.S. and Colombian governments have ignored these wrongdoings. The Colombian Ministry of Social Protection and the Ministry of Health have denied any wrongdoing. So has the Republican party in the United States. Fuentes has visited America three times thanks to the funding from international labor rights organizations. She said when she visited Capitol Hill only the Democrat congressmen would talk to her about the flower industry. Many people, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue that it is better to support free trade with Colombia, even at the expanse of human rights violations. Often they say that it is better to produce carnations than cocaine. However, as I stated earlier, the rise in the flower industry hasn’t meant a decrease in cocaine. If America is really one of the greatest countries in the world, it needs a government that will support the same standard of human rights that it provides at home. Sure, creating jobs are a good thing, and in that aspect the trade agreement helps America’s top ally in South America. (Some of the U.S. flower companies have done a great service by providing jobs to poor Colombians who would otherwise be jobless while providing proper safety clothing and paying them for overtime hours. However, not all of them look out for worker safety and overtime pay). I can even tolerate low wages because finding the cheapest workers is a primary component of capitalism. However, occupational health illnesses due to blatant negligence, a complete lack of workers’ opinions, and a Stalin-like secrecy at the farms and with the flower industry’s public relations department (I was never able to speak to any representatives from Asocolflores despite their promise to call me back and arrange an appointment. I had to be very resourceful in entering the one plantation in my two weeks of research.) are parts of business that need to be changed.

The change needs to start in wealthy countries like the U.S. For if the people with the knowledge and resources don’t speak up, nothing will ever change. So the next time you buy flowers, tell your florist you’d like pesticide-free flowers picked by workers who get overtime pay. Remember, the Colombian workers may not be able to form effective unions, but the buyers can provide a voice for them. For people like Beatriz Fuentes, please do your part.