Patricia de Vries: ‘Economic growth in Andean region increases interest from Dutch businesses’

Since last year, the Netherlands has had an Agricultural Counsellor in one of the most important horticultural areas: the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Her name is Patricia de Vries (56). “Colombia for example, has relatively basic greenhouses. But because of climate change, pesticide use and increasing labour costs, they want to catch up and modernise. That brings opportunities for the Netherlands.”

By Paul Smits

Patricia de Vries studied tropical agriculture and livestock farming at Wageningen University. Before she went to Bogotá, she was Agricultural Counsellor in Brazil.

The Agricultural Counsellor in the Andean countries is a new agricultural post. Colombia used to be managed from Mexico. Peru and Ecuador are completely new countries.

De Vries explains why these three Andean countries were given their own Agricultural Counsellor. “It has to do with the economic growth in this region, which has resulted in an increasing interest from Dutch businesses. And the EU has had a free trade agreement with these countries since 2016. What plays an important role specifically for Colombia, is the peace agreement with the FARC rebels and the current rural development after the long period of conflict.”


What about the fact that the unrest in Colombia still flares up every now and again, and that the production of cocaine isn’t under control yet? “You’ve got to understand that we’re talking about a conflict that lasted decades. It had 7 million people on the move. That isn’t something that’s completely gone or solved overnight. The peace agreement has to be implemented now. That’s a complex process. Colombia is a large country with many remote areas.”

De Vries started in September 2017 and she’s based at the Dutch embassy in Colombian capital city Bogotá. The main focus of the Agricultural Counsellor is on Colombia. The horticultural industry is the central thread.

This focus on Colombia has to do with its importance for cut flowers, it’s the second largest exporting country in the world after the Netherlands, and with the fact that there’s a long-standing connection with this country. The Netherlands played a role in the peace negotiations and now that there’s an agreement in place, they feel that rural development is a priority.

Free trade agreement

The Agricultural Counsellor can offer practical help when there are problems, and she can explore opportunities for the Netherlands.

De Vries: “Take for example the free trade agreement with the EU. Such an agreement doesn’t mean that all products have automatic or easy access. It can sometimes take many years of negotiating about which products exactly are included. With regards to new propagation materials for the floricultural industry for example, the Andean governments want to start with mapping all the potential plant health risks. For things like that, the countries get information from the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).”

The Agricultural Counsellor sees in everything that European countries are used to economic freedom. All the responsibility is put with the industries: they can do whatever they like, unless it’s specifically forbidden. “Over here, it’s the other way around: in principle, things are forbidden, unless it’s specifically allowed. That can make it hard to reach agreements.”

But she does feel there are opportunities for Dutch companies and knowledge centres in the Andean horticultural and more specifically, floricultural industry. “Colombia for example, has relatively basic greenhouses. But technology is moving forward. Because of climate change, pesticide use and increasing labour costs, they want to catch up and modernise. Automation and increasing sustainability provide opportunities for the Netherlands.”

Minister Schouten

When you’re thinking of sustainability, you can imagine there are opportunities for Dutch companies in the field of biological pest control. According to De Vries, Peru and Ecuador recognise the added value that could have for their horticultural industry. But entry into Colombia is extremely difficult.

“The Colombian Ministry of Environment requires an environmental permit. There aren’t any specific regulations for biological control, like parasitic wasps for example. They’ve got to adhere to the same guidelines as chemical products. That isn’t just impossible, it’s also unreasonable. That’s why our Minister brought this up, when the Colombian Minister of Agriculture visited the Netherlands. We’re doing everything we can to improve the sector, which is so important, not just for the Netherlands, but especially for Colombia too.”

De Vries hasn’t yet managed to get (Agricultural) Minister Schouten to visit the Andean countries, but she’ll keep trying. De Vries is developing a public-private collaboration for the horticultural sector, a horticulture platform. Initially in Colombia, and later on perhaps also in Peru. “A long-term collaboration between businesses, government and knowledge centres. Food crops are particularly interesting.”

Does the floricultural industry need an Agricultural Counsellor? De Vries indicates that more and more companies come to the embassy for help. “If they can manage without us, that’s also fine. The floricultural industry is a private sector after all, which is perfectly capable of managing their own business. But I might be able to bring added value if I can assist when there are problems, and with market access of course, for example for propagation materials and pesticides.”

The private sector can’t do everything alone, some help from the government is simply needed sometimes. The Agricultural Counsellor is currently in contact with companies like Hilverda, Van Zanten and Koppert.

Business approach

The development (aid) relationship with Colombia has come to an end. A mutual, mature economic relationship is rapidly developing now. The approach is more businesslike, and the interests of Dutch companies are represented. De Vries mentions a project with a horti simulator, at Tadeo University in Bogotá. It consists of a small greenhouse, which is going to serve as a showcase of the Dutch horticultural technology.

Every now and again, De Vries still encounters old behavioural patterns. “The current approach is trade on an equal basis. But sometimes, we still get responses that are rooted in a long history of development aid, people who simply want to be told how to get the money or the support. That’s no longer our intention.”

With regards to the environmental aspect of the horticultural industry, the Agricultural Counsellor feels there’s still an awful lot to be gained in her new location. “In floriculture, I suspect that the biggest problem is pesticides. And water is going to be a problem of course. Although there are initiatives like FlorVerde [sustainable flowers, Ed.]. It’s important to reduce the use of pesticides, because customers demand this more and more often.”

According to De Vries, the Andean countries are aware that other countries, including the Netherlands, put an increasing emphasis on sustainability requirements. The Netherlands is an important and lucrative export country, especially for Peru and Colombia. They can’t ignore that.”

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