Sunday, February 3, 2008

Blood Flowers: With love, from Kenya

Human sufferings, ethnic tensions add to political warfare

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, when you reach out to buy those flowers for your loved one, stop for a second and think of blood spilled on the streets of Kenya through which those were allegedly transported under police and army protection. Valentine’s Day is a big money spinning date for Kenyan growers, thanks to the country’s perfect match of high altitudes and equatorial sunshine.

By developing an end-product wrapped ready-to-sell on the shelves of the Western supermarkets, Kenya has become the European Union’s biggest source of flower imports but the recent political and ethnic turmoil has threatened the trade. “Trade turn over in 2006 from Kenya to EU was 345 million Euro,” said Rolf Persson, Secretary-General, Union Fleurs (European Flowers Association) based in Sweden.

While the global media attention is focused on the sanguinary clashes resulting in nearly a thousand deaths, voices were raised in Canada, Europe, Kenya, and the United States calling “on the international community to help the people suffering from violence in the Lake Naivasha region of Kenya, not the global industrial flower farms that exploit the lake and its people.”

A report, “Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors,” released January 31, blasted outrageous news coverage sympathetic to the flower industry. Pointing out, “With hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced due to violence that intensified recently,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said, “The situation in Naivasha is a human tragedy, not an investment loss. Our sympathy and aid should go to the people in the region, not the international corporate owners of these flower farms that exploit the workers, the lake, and the environment.”

“The problems in the floricultural industry due to information from Kenya are transports of all kinds,” said Persson, and, according to local reports, army and police are guarding flower transports in Kenya instead of people as the trade is controlled by the rich and influential. The bloody clashes taking place today are a cumulative effect of years of tensions between local tribes and patronage of ruling class to their own people.

Speaking to New Europe, Helena Clarke, Kenyan-British freelance journalist based in Brussels explained, “President Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe which stands for the majority, the rich and the elite. Most of the flower farms are owned by the rich, mostly Kikuyu in the Rift Valley.”

“Originally Rift Valley is land of the Kalentin and the Masai but Kenyatta, Father of the Nation and Kenya’s first president, himself a Kikuyu, helped his people to settle in the Rift Valley. During his term he made sure he helped his people and that when he was gone, he would leave his people wealthy.”

“Naivasha Lake is the second largest and highest lake of the central Rift Valley lakes. This fresh water lake has kept much of its colonial charm and is the centre of a prosperous flower export business.”

These sentiments are echoed in the aforementioned report which states, “Public access to the freshwater Lake Naivasha is limited because the flower farms own much of the land around the lake, leaving poor residents to find water from communal taps and waiting in long lines to do so. They’ve created an unsustainable increase in the labor population, depleted the lake’s waters, and pumped the local environment full of toxic pesticides and fertilisers.”

“The farms surround Lake Naivasha. They deplete its waters and poison them with pesticides,” said Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “They are sowing the seeds of economic and environmental devastation that, unless stopped, inevitably will yield a harvest of poverty, water deprivation, and violence.”

“These flower farms are harming people and animals alike,” explained Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare. “Numerous bird and fish species are disappearing from the area and that’s a problem for the environment and the people who depend on the lake.”
Plant life has vanished, and the local hippopotamus population has decreased from 1,500 in 2004 to 1,100 in 2006. Barlow and Hauter witnessed the destruction firsthand when they visited a local flower farm with a documentary film-maker Sam Bozzo during the World Social Forum in 2007.

Barlow recalled seeing “pipes pumping water from the lake to the flower greenhouses and a ditch where waste water drained back into the lake. If action isn’t taken immediately, the lake will not only be polluted, it will be drained.”

Although Persson said, “More than 100,000 people are directly depending on the floricultural trade and without the possibility to export these people will be out of jobs and income and the crisis will be worse,” the ground reality of working conditions and monetary benefits for workers are deplorable.

Chemicals used in the flower facilities are sickening workers. Wenonah Hauter, during a trip, observed some workers in protective gear spraying flowers, while others had no protective clothing.

Persson suggested, “Europe can offer political input to solve the crisis and since a fundamental reason to this sort of problems are unemployment and poverty Europe can offer more business and trade opportunity so more people can get a job and income. The floriculture industry is a good example what Europe can offer to create jobs and income in the developing countries,” but human rights observers and environmental gurus are warning Europeans and others to consider humane factors before indulging in those flowers.

“Factory flower farms have wreaked havoc on Kenya’s rivers and on Lake Naivasha, all to extract floricultural and horticultural commodities for export to wealthy destinations in Europe and elsewhere,” said Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory. “Europeans don’t want to say ‘I love you’ with flowers that cause that kind of harm.”

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