23 October 2011 — Greenleft Weekly
While millions of Kenyans go hungry, giant plantations use valuable farmland and declining water supplies to grow flowers for European markets
As the global population approaches 7 Billion, we’re seeing an increasing number of articles declaring that overpopulation is responsible for all of the world’s ills. Africa in particular is regularly singled out as a continent where population growth causes poverty and famine. As this article shows, population growth is a minor issue, compared to the devastation caused by an economic system that always puts profit before people.
An estimated 2.4 million Kenyans are facing food insecurity this year.
One cause is poor rains, which have affected all of north-east Africa and are probably at least partially the result of climate change. Another is the rising cost of imported food.
Rising food costs are also partly caused by climate change, but also by speculation. For the finance industry, food is just another commodity to be bought, sold or hoarded to generate the most profits.
This is neoliberal globalisation, under which a bad harvest in the Ukraine or a financial transaction on Wall Street can cause a child to go hungry in Kenya.
Neoliberal globalisation means that although Kenya depends on imported food, since the 1980s Kenyan agriculture has been increasingly devoted to crops for export to Europe.
This includes fruit and vegetables, but the main crop is flowers.
Kenya is the largest supplier of cut flowers to Europe, providing more than a quarter of imports. These are mostly roses, and a third of annual production is for Valentine’s Day, Xinhua reported on February 13, 2009.
In 2004, Kenya was exporting more than 88 million tonnes of cut flowers worth US$264 million, Reuters reported on February 12, 2004. Foreign, mainly European, corporations own the flower farms.
Most of the industry in concentrated around Lake Naivasha. A January 2008 report by Food and Water Watch and the Council of Canadians, Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors, documented how overuse of the lake’s water causes levels to drop.
This has had a devastating effect on plant, marine and animal life. Hippo numbers have fallen by more than 25%.
The report said:
‘Historically there was public access to the lake, but the private landowners have closed most of that … which really means the flower farms now own much of the land around the lake.
‘Without adequate lake access, poor residents are left to get their water from communal taps and form long lines to do so.
‘Cattle herders, such as the Maasai, can only bring their cows to a small section of the lake where there is still public access ? sharing access with women washing their clothes, hippos, and flamingoes.’
University of Leicester environmentalist David Harper told the March 28, 2006, British Times:
‘Almost everybody in Europe who has eaten Kenyan beans or Kenyan strawberries, and gazed at Kenyan roses, has bought Naivasha water.
‘It will become a turgid, smelly pond with impoverished communities eking out a living along bare shores … As the lake becomes smaller and shallower it will become warmer, fueling the growth of microscopic algae.
‘It is only a matter of time before the lake becomes toxic.’
The Food and Water Watch report said:
‘During a trip to Lake Naivasha in the summer of 2007, Food and Water Watch staff saw photographs of cattle who died after drinking pesticide-laden water flowing from one of the flower farms.’
Workers are also routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides. Reuters said:
‘[Flower worker] Masete points to black spots on her feet and says the pesticides and fertilisers used at the flower farm she works on give her rashes two or three times a month.’
Workers on Kenyan flower farms are treated appallingly. Masete also told Reuters that sexual abuse was common.
Another worker told Reuters that due to low wages, ‘he could barely afford to buy water for his three children and wife’.
International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank use ‘development aid’, access to capital and debt restructuring as leverage to force Kenya to devote agricultural land to export agribusiness rather than food for local consumers.
But it is not just international financial institutions.
An April 2002 article on the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s website described inedible flowers as ‘an important source of food security because of the income they bring to thousands of people ? most of them women ? in developing countries.’
The rural technical assistance programs the FAO was advertising included ‘reducing pesticide use’, but the onus for doing this was put on the farm workers.
The main project was promoting ‘women growing flowers and speciality legumes as an alternative to subsistence farming’.
The FAO article explained: ‘The women in Nyeri grow high-value export crops … No significant domestic markets exist … so the field schools also teach marketing for export.’
The European owners of the flower farms have even managed to get some of their products certified as ‘Fairtrade’ through tokenistic environmental measures.
The improvements in labour standards required to win Fairtrade certification appear equally tokenistic. In February 2006, at a farm producing Fairtrade-certified roses, ‘workers rioted after being sacked en masse for striking in a dispute over wages and working conditions,’ a February 13, 2006 Guardian article said.