Flower Power: Italian Rose Producer Is Market Leader, Energy Innovator

Ciccolella is an Italian family business that leads Europe's flower market. In 2004, the company forged a unique partnership with Edison, to use hot-water runoff from a new power plant to heat its green houses. Now more expansion -- and innovatio

Ciccolella greenhouses cover nearly 100 hectares (Ciccolella)
Ciccolella greenhouses cover nearly 100 hectares (Ciccolella)
Marco Castelnuovo

FOGGIA – Whether you buy your rose from a boutique in Barcelona, a store in Manchester or a florist in Copenhagen, it is probably an Italian rose -- and there is a good chance it comes from the southern region of Puglia.

Around the city of Foggia, where the unemployment rate stands at 15%, the Ciccolella flower growers have a thriving business. It is one of just four companies from the South to be amongst the 300 quoted on the Italian Stock Exchange -- and the only floricultural company quoted on any of the European bourses.

Ciccolella is a family business, established in the 1960s by two farmers, Paolo and Maria Antonia, and expanded by their four sons: Vincenzo, Corrado, Francesco and Antonio.

In 2004, the next generation decided to expand again, establishing a unique partnership with Edison, an energy company that was in the process of building a power plant in the nearby city of Candela. The exchange is simple: Edison gives to Ciccolella the excess hot water the power plant produces, saving on costs of the cooling process. Meanwhile, the water passes through a series of pipes that provides virtually all of the heating necessary to warm specially designed greenhouses built around the power plant.

The tradeoff has been a huge success: at the opening of the power plant in 2006, greenhouses were covering just a few hectares and now, six years later, nearly 100 hectares. And expansion continues. After European integration, the Ciccolella group acquired three top Dutch flower companies specialized in trading and logistics. The company today has nearly 400 million in annual revenue, selling some 7 million anthuriums, and is market leader in rose sales in Europe. Meanwhile, Candela is the biggest flower cultivation site in Europe.

Foreign flower market

More than 40% of the company's total production is for the foreign market: at least twice a week a refrigerated truck full of roses leaves the south of Italy and arrives, three days later, in Amsterdam. The transport fee of a single flower stalk is five cents. "It is expensive," explains Vincenzo Ciccolella, the eldest brother and president of the holding, "if you consider that the roses that come from Kenya by cargo cost only two cents more."

Part of the cost burden is linked to insufficient infrastructure in southern Italy: "There are five airports in Puglia, but none is used for the cargos," says Ciccolella. "We would have to go to Rome or Milan, but it is not worth it."

Corrado Ciccolella, president of the company, cites Italian politics and excessive "bureaucratization" as the two biggest long-term obstacles to business growth. But the current economic crisis has also cut into the flower industry. "It's not about quantity," explains Corrado Ciccolella. "But the prices went down 15%. Half of the roses that are sold nowadays have a short stem because they are less expensive. Five years ago, it was only 30%."

What can be done to stay competitive abroad? "We have to give our customers what they want," says Vincenzo Ciccolella. "We sell 40 varieties of Anthurium and 25 types of roses (six of which are patented, editor's note). Our Research & Development department is breeding different varieties to meet the demands of our customers --fewer thorns on the stem and a stronger scent: an almost forgotten trait of a cut flower."

But the company's R&D department is also studying how to better integrate energy production with the agricultural process. Do you remember photosynthesis from school? The flower gets nourishment through light, temperature and carbon dioxide. Ciccolella researchers are reaching the final stage of study on how to recover the carbon dioxide from the power plant and use it as a fertilizer for the plants. In this way carbon emissions decrease and flower production cycle is shortened. It would be another encouraging whiff of innovation from this southern tip of Europe.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo – Ciccolella

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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