Saturday, February 14, 2015

BLOOD & ROSES: Valentine Roses Spark Controversy over Environmental, Labor Concerns


NAIVASHA, Kenya – A dozen roses on St. Valentine’s Day may sound like a romantic way of saying “I love you,” but few Europeans who acquire or receive a floral bouquet know the not-so-romantic truth about where those lovely blooms are coming from.

In recent weeks, thousands of Kenyan farm hands have collected three euros for 16 hours of hard work per day just so that Europeans could enjoy St. Valentine’s Day.

“They’re exploiting the people of Kenya and destroying our land,” Kenyan environmentalist and activist Isaac Ouma told Efe.

Ouma was born in Naivasha and has seen how his region has been transformed into a single-crop economy, growing flowers to be exported to Europe.

At present, 90 percent of the flowers grown in Kenya are for export, making it the European continent’s main supplier of cut flowers, ahead of Ethiopia, Ecuador and Mexico.

The shores of Lake Naivasha, the only freshwater body in the Rift Valley, northwest of Nairobi, where herds of hippos co-exist with a diverse birdlife, are ideal for floriculture for its climate and altitude.

Just a few meters from the papyri and acacia trees that rim the lake, dozens of greenhouses break the aesthetic harmony of the landscape by their presence throughout the region, which used to be devoted to fishing, agriculture and livestock.

The flower industry has consolidated itself year after year as one of the pillars of the Kenyan economy, producing export revenues of more than 440 million euros ($501.5 million) in 2013.

It currently employs more than 500,000 workers, most of them women, but has been roundly criticized for overexploiting the lands that people need for their livelihood.

“Kenya receives donations of food from the World Food Program, despite having the Naivasha freshwater lake that would allow us to grow (crops) and feed ourselves. But we prefer to use the water to grow flowers and send them to Europe. It is immoral,” complains Ouma.

It is hard to find someone who does not work in greenhouses.

“We have no choice. There is no other work,” says Esther (not her real name), a woman of 29 who, despite working for seven years harvesting flowers, fears that speaking to journalists will cost her her job.

Although companies grant their employees a minimum wage of about 7,000 shillings a month (67 euros, $76), workers denounce the living conditions they have to accept.

“We usually work 10 hours a day, but in the last two weeks we have worked up to 16 hours. And the wage has been the same. It’s not fair, but we have no choice,” laments Esther.

She is one of thousands of women who cut, select and package the roses that will be sold within a maximum time frame of three days fetching premium prices on the streets of Europe.

John, who for two years has been working as a truck driver in the greenhouses, belongs to a workers’ union and strives to improve this situation.

“It is very unfair. I’m already looking for another job, but I cannot find anything. Now I try to get extra money with other jobs to provide for my family,” he told Efe.

The presence of so many greenhouses in Naivasha is also causing considerable environmental damage: deforestation, lowering the water level in the lake, increasing informal settlements (where workers live) and pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.

The local community suffers the most of these consequences, as fishing has fallen off and the conditions for raising livestock and growing food crops are getting worse.

Faced with criticism, flower exporting companies have launched a number of initiatives to mitigate the impact of their activities, including hydraulic recycling, which has helped to re-use up to 30 percent of the water required in the cultivation process.

“At least once a year our team attends greenhouses to supervise their work and ensure sustainable production” says Jane Ngige, director of the Kenya Flower Council (KFC), which includes 70 percent of the farms in the country.

In addition, the KFC “has a certification system to ensure a safe working environment that meets Kenyan laws.”

Despite producers’ promises and efforts to get farms to qualify as “environmentally friendly,” the unstoppable growth of an industry fueled by huge foreign demand still causes inevitable consequences for the local community.

“They can say they respect the rights of workers and the environment. But the reality is different,” adds John.


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