People Before Petals

I’ll be writing about troubles in Kenya more fully in the future. But this press release from Food and Water Watch caught my eye. It shows how profoundly callous agribusiness can be in the run up to Valentine’s day.

Washington DC – Public interest organizations in Canada, Europe, Kenya, and the United States today called 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. The groups released a new report highlighting the destructive practices of the flower farms that dominate the region.

“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.”

The report, Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors, was originally scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day but moved up due to the situation in Kenya and outrageous news coverage sympathetic to the flower industry. Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter pointed to headlines such as, “Kenya violence upsets flower production ahead of Valentine’s Day” in the International Herald Tribune and “Kenya’s blooming industry is facing hard times” in the UK Telegraph, as examples. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced due to violence that intensified last weekend.

“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,” Hauter said.

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 fertilizers.

“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.”

“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 first-hand when they visited a local flower farm with a documentary film-maker during the World Social Forum in 2007. Quoted in the report, 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.”

Chemicals used in the flower facilities are sickening workers. Wenonah Hauter observed some workers in protective gear spraying flowers, while others had no protective clothing. One worker experienced skin rashes
two to three times a month.

The report on Lake Naivasha was prepared by Food & Water Watch and the Council of Canadians to launch a campaign to protect the lake and the local communities that surround it. The campaign will urge the Kenyan government to promote small-scale agriculture and eco-tourism and encourage consumers in Canada, Europe, and the United States to purchase local, ecologically sustainable flowers. The report is posted here.