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Despite challenges, Ecuador’s flower industry keeps blooming

This South American nation is a fine example of how developing countries can tap their potential in niche areas

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Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the west, Ecuador is bordered in the north by Colombia and in the south by east Peru. The country also shares a maritime  border with Costa Rica.

One of South America’s smaller countries, Ecuador, which intersects part of the Andes mountains, also occupies a portion of the Amazon River basin.

With a land mass of around 284,000 sq km, Ecuador has a population of around 18 million. The country was named after the equator which passes through the country. (Ecuador is the shortened version of its official name in Spanish, República del Ecuador, which means Republic of the Equator.)

Ecuador is one of 13 countries that pass through the equator. It is the only nation in the world identified with a geographical attribute.

In recent years, Ecuador has drawn retirees, especially from North America, owing to its relatively low cost of living and its temperate climate. Many retirees like the Andean city of Cuenca, which lives up to International Living’s designation as one of the best retirement spots in the world. Apart from excellent weather, Cuenca boasts local fresh fruits and vegetables all year through.

Its conducive climate and fertile soil allow a variety of flowers to thrive. The success of Ecuador’s flower industry enables the country to earn over $400m (RM1.7bn) a year in foreign exchange.

Cut flowers now rank fourth among the country’s non-petroleum exports, and the nation is now the world’s third-largest exporter of cut flowers, of which 73% are roses.

What makes Ecuador ideal for rose cultivation? Daytime temperatures average around 21C, which falls to an average of 10C at night.

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Two factors lie behind the growth of larger, longer-lasting flowers. First, natural factors: in this equatorial country, flowers receive more hours of daylight than many other countries. Second, high altitudes are more conducive to rose cultivation.

Fertile soil and ideal sunshine enable the roses to flourish throughout the year. However, the prime advantage is the country’s altitude over 3,000 feet above sea level and ample sunshine.

Flower-growing regions in the Andes mountains (2,000 to 3,000 metres above sea level) offer rose farmers’ distinctive advantages. Conspicuously noticeable about roses grown here are their size, durability and superiority.

Ecuador’s floriculture industry began in 1991 following the US-initiated Andean Trade Preference Act to promote legal industries such as flower cultivation. This industry was encouraged as an alternative to the drug trafficking trade in four Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

When the programme expired in 2013, the flower industry rested on a sound footing in both Colombia and Ecuador. Preferential trade agreements with the EU bolstered the industry.

Gradually, Ecuador gained a global reputation as a major producer of roses and summer flowers. Currently, nearly 400 varieties of roses grow in the Ecuadorian highlands. Locals believe in a folklore that roses grow well and perfectly straight because the equator passes through the country.

Roses grown in Ecuador are bigger than usual. The rose stems here can grow to over five feet high. Perhaps it is for this reason, Ecuadorians normally buy a box of roses, instead of a bouquet. Besides its distinct beauty, the roses have an extended life cycle of around two weeks, about a week longer than usual.   

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The combined advantages of soil, location and altitude enable roses to flourish all year round compared with roses grown elsewhere. Most importers, especially from the US and Europe, have no qualms in paying a little more.

Ecuador’s rose exports contribute to the country’s economic stability. The revenue has enabled the government to develop the much-needed infrastructure.

In 2019, however, the industry faced a challenge for nearly two weeks, following social disorder after the government removed fuel subsidies. The flower sector lost an estimated $45m (RM190m) during this period.

The following year, the coronavirus pandemic hit the country’s floral industry. The Ecuadorian Flower Growers and Exporters Association noted that demand for flowers in Ecuador has failed to recover since plummeting after the pandemic.

More than 10,000 jobs and over US$130m (RM550m) in sales have been lost. Ecuador’s total flower exports fell 8% in 2020, according to flower producer and export association Expoflores.

Both years posed the most serious challenges to the nation’s flower industry. Hopefully, these are only temporary setbacks, as the flower industry is blossoming worldwide.

The global ornamental plants and flower market is poised to grow by over 6% in 2021-2025. By 2024 the global floral market could reach an estimated $57bn (RM241bn), based on latest floriculture statistics.

Buyers and tourists often flock to Ecuador to check out these roses. Rich blooms from this tiny country have drawn the attention of many flower enthusiasts from all over the world and carved a reputation for Ecuador in the global floriculture sector.

Ecuador is a good example of how developing countries can exploit their potential in niche areas. They can not only move away from illicit activities but also break free from the shackles of poverty.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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