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The real cost of cut flowers

Kenya's economy is benefiting from exports to rich markets in the North. But the transportation of these products by air is seen as a key culprit of greenhouse gas emissions.

The bouquets of rose and carnation that brighten flower markets in New York, Amsterdam and Tokyo conceal grim tales of poor farm workers in Kenya who grow the buds for a rich export industry.

In farms clustered around scenic Lake Naivasha in Kenya's Rift Valley region, workers narrate how they work long hours and are exposed to harmful pesticides with no form of protection.

Francis Chege, who grew up around the water, remembers spending serene times fishing on the lake, but claims the pesticides from flower plantations are killing the fish and the lake's rich aquatic life.

Jobseekers have swelled the population, and this is also taking a toll on the rich wildlife of surrounding forests, he says.

International organisations also oppose the export industry, saying that drought-prone Africans have a greater need for the large volumes of water that it takes to grow the flowers exported to overseas shoppers.

Kimani Wa Wanjiru, a worker in one of the farms, says that most days he works 10-hour shifts without any extra pay, and is forced to handle flowers freshly sprayed with what he believes are harmful pesticides.

"The flowers should be sprayed in the evening and pruned the next morning, so that the pesticides are less concentrated," says Wanjiru, who started working in a farm last year.

"But here, the flowers are sprayed in the morning and pruned just an hour-and-a-half later," he complains, adding that breathing disorders among workers are common.

"The owners don't want to take any responsibility for the workers' health," says Wanjiru, a father of two who earns 5,200 Kenyan shillings (less than US$75) a month, and lives in a poorly-lit hut whose ceiling of corrugated iron is thick with soot from cooking.

Last month a female worker died of a breathing disorder, one worker alleged. "Anyone complaining of feeling sick gets sacked," says Wanjiru, 32. Another worker complained of lesions on her body, which she said were from handling chemicals.

Kimani Mwaniki spends his working day pushing cartloads of freshly cut flowers from the fields to the grading bay. The 1.5 km route takes him through the area where the flowers are sprayed with pesticides, but he has no face mask or protective clothing.

"I hate it, I wish I could quit," says Mwaniki, 23, who has worked in the farms for three years. "There is no hope or future here," Mwaniki laments, revealing that he would like to marry, but cannot afford to on his US$56 salary.

A buoyant industry

Jobs outside the flower industry are scarce in this region of 300,000 people, which has evolved into the centre of Kenya's flower trade. There are nearly 50 flower farms in the Rift Valley region, about 220 km northwest of Nairobi, the majority around the lake.

"In a country like Kenya where unemployment is high, it should be remembered that the flower industry employs up to 70,000 people directly, and benefits one million others involved in related trades," says Jane Ngige, head of the Kenya Flower Council.

Kenya exported 80,000 tonnes of flowers in 2005, raking in a handsome US$350 million. The major portion of the exports is to the Netherlands, and the rest go to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Africa, Japan and the United States, Ngige says.

Tussles over water

Chege remembers spending happy times by the beautiful lake before the "invasion" of the flower farms in the 1970s. He thinks that pollution is only part of the problem.

According to Chege, who is 51, the freshwater lake was then an integral part of the lives of the people around it, mostly the Kikuyu community and the pastoralist Maasai, 40 km away in Narok district.

But he says that farms, as well as hotels and camping sites affordable only to the rich, have surrounded the lake, denying local people even the right to water their animals.

"Getting water for us, or our animals, is a nightmare," Chege says, adding that there is constant tension with owners around the lake who claim exclusive rights to the water.

The father of 12 says he supplements his modest income from fishing and raising some cattle and goats by ferrying people across the 139 sq km lake.

Chege complains that the unregulated use of water by the farms for irrigation is reducing the water level, and that the fish are dying from chemicals and pesticides dumped into the lake by the flower farms.

"When I was young, I remember the delicious taste of fresh fish. Now, the same fish tastes funny," says Chege, adding that the tilapia fish popular in much of Kenya has all but disappeared from the lake, and people refuse to eat the carp that was introduced a few years ago because they fear getting cancer.

"The flower farms are killing the lake," he adds bitterly.

Environmental concerns

Professor Ratemo Michieka, a former director of Kenya's National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), says that the economic benefit from the farms is at the expense of the environment.

"The releasing of raw chemical wastes and fertilizer run-offs from the farms into the lake has had tremendous adverse consequences for its ecological system," Michieka says. There are fears that lake fish are contaminated with harmful pollutants, he adds.

The Kenyan Flower Council says that testing done on the lake did not find any contamination. But a two-year study by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute found that agro-chemical pollutants had affected fish stock. Fish were found to contain toxins, and stocks had been affected by inhibited breeding, the study said.

A variety of wildlife, including 400 bird species and a sizeable population of hippos, live on the lake, and surrounding forests are home to giraffes, zebras and other animals whose numbers have drastically fallen over the years, studies have shown.

"They have no corporate or social responsibility," Chege says about the flower farm owners. He believes the owners have contributed nothing to the community, which needs schools and water wells.

But Ngige, head of the Kenya Flower Council, says the farms have contributed immensely to the region.

"We employ between 50-70,000 people, 80 per cent of whom are unskilled labourers," says Ngige. "60 per cent of the unskilled workers are women," she says, adding that "some of them would not have jobs if it weren't for the farms."

Ngige admits there were environmental issues in the past, but says things have improved and "it is no longer a major issue".

"The farms are involved in sound business practices governed by the code of conduct drawn up by the council and accepted internationally. They have a responsibility to themselves, the people and the environment. They cannot act irresponsibly," she says.

But Donald Pols, a campaigner with Amsterdam-based Milieu Defensie, says "a flower is basically a bundle of water and energy, and it is criminal that we import them just for our luxury from a drought-prone continent like Africa".

He says that an extraordinary amount of water and energy went into the trade, including air flights, which contribute to pollution and climate change.

"Just for our luxury we are driving people further toward poverty and water shortages, and contributing to climate change," he says.

[The names of workers have been changed at their request]

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