Naivasha, Kenya is “a boom town built on a new gold rush: cut flowers”, according to UK Garden Museum Director Christopher Woodward. This week the London Telegraph reported on Woodward’s observations from his recent trip to Kenya: “As you read this, 25,000 workers are picking roses for Valentine’s Day bouquets thousands of miles away.” He argues that Lake Naivasha is no longer the “putrid puddle” described by Maude Barlow in 2008 where “hippopotamuses are dying. They’re baking in the sun.’” Indeed, all in now well, according to Woodward. “This afternoon Lake Naivasha is brimful, and hippos slobber and splash on their short legs. The water is at its highest since 1998, according to a surveyor’s chart of the rise and fall of the lake over the last 50 years.”
Woodward then reflects on thriving of the first flower farm on Naivasha: “The white Kenyan founders of Oserian are proud of what they do. The farm has planted 300,000 saplings… Growing is done hydroponically, with bushes rooted in pumice stone crushed on the estate. Chemical usage has all but halved since 2005, thanks to phytoseilus, a spider mite which eats the most invasive bugs. Fungicide spraying is also reduced by pumping hot water into the greenhouses at dawn to prevent mould. The water is heated by a borehole drilled 2,000 m into the hot, volcanic rock of the Rift Valley.”
An improvement of water levels and a happy farmer with thousands of workers picking flowers does not begin to paint a full picture of what is going on here.
The Guardian UK reported a very different view in 2011: “Maude Barlow argues that the environmental costs (of giving flowers) are unforgivably high. Polluted runoff and depletion of water levels at Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, where more than 30 flower farms are located, are problems that we must take responsibility for. The lake stretches across 53 square miles and is fed only by underground springs; it is any important source of drinking water for local villagers and a habitat for hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. …She says, ‘Europe does wonderful work preserving its own water, but the way it’s doing that is to use other people’s water.’”
Today, on Valentine’s Day 2013, prominent Kenyan activist Wahu Kaara, Coordinator of the Kenyan Debt Relief Network (KENDREN), puts the flower industry in global socio-political perspective:
“The love for flowers in the West has a direct correlation to the poverty, servitude and death of the people and ecosystem that creates their presupposed ethereal eminence! It is tragic in itself that the very expression of love so attached to them, is in itself a total manifestation of a failure to love the natural set up that produces them.
Indeed there is a point to be made for the economic viability and revenue receipts generated from the cut flowers industry. But at what cost does this happen? This question is the elephant in the floral room! Whereas a lot of PR drives the equation for the cut flower industry, as growth in the importance of the horticultural industry and as FDI (foreign direct investment) continues to be the ringing mantra for the market orthodoxy… the extraction of people and nature worth for profit maximization continues to be the more rabid end result of such a flawed pattern of development.
Depleting a riparian zone like Lake Naivasha to feed hedonistic greed and desires has no moral, social and economic justification, albeit that of life constricting and killing transnational corporations… (There are) false attempts to use self sponsored and voluntary compliance mechanisms…. it is simply founded on unbridled extraction of natural and human resources with a little social responsibility to keep the cogs of this planetary exploitation domain going.
So before we grab bouquets of flowers with reckless abandon this Valentines, spare a thought for the women who get fired because they conform to nature for getting pregnant, or the malnourished and poorly fed kids sitting pretty in corporate built creches to free their mothers to work hard long hours and overtime for less pay!”
Although one may conclude that all is not well in Naivasha in terms of water and labour standards, what are the solutions? Another less-water intensive industry would be more desirable for Naivasha. In the absence of such opportunity, we can advocate that water use and its impact on local people be monitored and regulated, and that overuse and pollution of water face serious sanctions. Of course the broader questions of the trade offs between much-needed jobs and exploitative conditions applies not only to the flower industry, but also to many industries in the Global South. How do we find a way to support people’s day to day survival while we support struggles to change the capitalist system?