A traveller flying into the Colombian city of Bogotá sees green fields give way to swaths of white. It takes a few moments to realize that the incongruous scene below is not snow-dusted farmland.

Soon, the eye discerns row upon row of greenhouses encased in chalky plastic. Underneath the plastic are flowers — daisies, roses, carnations, chrysanthemums — cultivated for export to Canada, the United States and Europe.

Colombia now exports more fresh flowers than any country except Holland. Flowers have been raised on the Bogotá savannah since the mid-1960s, but in the past 10 years the industry has experienced a phenomenal growth.

More than $45.5 million worth of Colombian flowers arrived in Canada in 1999, double the value of a decade ago. Virtually all the carnations sold in Canada are grown in Colombia. About half the roses sold here are also imported, with the majority coming from Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador.

The beauty of these fragrant blossoms belies their origins, for the story of the Colombian flower industry is a tale of environmental degradation and human exploitation.