02 May 2015

African Flowers for Europeans: Water Loss in the Details

Cut flowers add a something to a room: a splash of color, a piece of nature inside, a pleasing aesthetic of texture and smell, and a simulated spring in the dead of winter. However, the cheap flowers you can buy at the shop in Europe and North America come at a higher cost to people and water resources somewhere else.

In the Nile River basin there are water resources. Tanzania, as I also saw in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, features the white tent like structures that signify flower farms. These farms are typically not owned by local investors - they are foreign owned and run, but locally staffed, powered, and farmed.

At the surface, people say one of two things -

  1. Western exploitation of Rest of World local cheap labor for a profit, or,  
  2. Great economic resource for the local community through providing employment, economic empowerment for women, an opportunity for using manual labor rather than using machines.
But before one starts to go on either about human rights or the benefits of a market economy through foreign investment in flower farms, there are some details to consider:

Flowers are political, socially, environmentally, and economically sensitive.

Flowers impact water systems - which in turn impact environmental and human systems. 

Flowers require chemical treatment.

Flowers are shipped in water.

I was told by a teacher in Kenya that the flower farms near Nairobi are secured with fences and armed guards, and no one is allowed to take photos. Why would this be? Besides reported violence based on gender inequality, the majority of flower farm workers are women, there may be other reasons.

The devil is in the details:

First, these farms must be located somewhere where there is access to local water resources. The water is then embedded in the product, also water is used in the shipment of flowers, and removed from the water system - the watershed.

Why does this matter? 
This matters because the water is not being cycled back into the system in a way that allows for sustainable and continued use of the same recycled resource. Local people and local needs lose that water resource. Over enough time, this could make up a significant portion of local water storage. Agriculture accounts for, on a coarse global scale, approximately 75% of water consumption (consumption different from use).

The water goes away with the flowers. The embedded water will be included in some other, geographically distant, system - the atmosphere of your living room, the landfill in your town. This is sometimes referred to as "virtual water" on which a great man named Tony Allen has built his career. Virtual water is one water problem - the water is removed and the economic cost of the water is not included in the economic cost of the flowers. It is assumed.

Water is also under pressure from chemical contamination. If you combine introduction of a potentially harmful chemical to a healthy water system that has full capacity to flush and cycle, maybe only the people who come into direct contact are at risk. If you combine introducing the same contaminant to a system that is taxed and water is being removed, the flush and cycle are much less effective and perhaps fail completely leaving an unusable, undrinkable resource. Not that local people will stop drinking local water in a place with little to no alternative.

The flowers take about 5 days from the day they are cut to the day they arrive as a centerpiece on your mantel or table. The flowers will undergo changes in temperature and humidity during this time as they are gathered and shipped to a central location, then flown to Europe, then collected again in a distribution warehouse center and then either flown, trucked, or trained to their destination countries/cities/shops.

This means that they must somehow be preserved.

Why does this matter? 
Chemicals have three general impacts: 1. contaminate local water resources (yes those same ones that are also being depleted over time); 2. contaminate people handling the flowers; 3 preserve the flowers.

I was told by this same teacher that she has seen women's hands and forearms covered in blisters after only a few months working on the flower farms. Also the women experience issues with their respiratory systems and inside their noses.

What chemicals are used?

Several news agencies and researchers have written articles that state generally that toxic chemicals are used in flower production. No one is quite specific about what is being used, however it is known that several pesticides and chemicals are often mixed and applied to the flowers. I suspect one such chemical is Pyrethrin. Considered low toxicity, it is quite nasty stuff if inhaled.

Are flowers political?

Flowers are money. Money is political. 

Flowers constitute a multibillion dollar (over $100 billion) industry in trade. There are three main groups of people in on this gig - the growers, the wholesalers, and the traders. There are flower auctions, and like the fish market in Japan, this allow for price setting, bidding, and big money exchanges on flowers. The people doing the farming are usually the lowest paid, at the highest risk personally, and local communities are at the highest risk environmentally. The Netherlands dominates the world flower market with about 60% of all flower trade.

Some reported 25% of all flowers in Europe came from African farms in 2008. The EU this year employed tariffs and then removed them on imports from East Africa, particularly aimed at Kenya. Again the issue of the countries of the EU and USA that subsidize their farming industry are raised. How can an African dairy farmer compete in price with subsidized milk products from France? This sort of imbalanced trade arrangement is what brought the WTO talks to a halt years ago.

There is a colonial history in flower farming. And like in many other areas, colonialism never really went away. Colonial hangover - the once dominating governments just changed the name of the domination to "economic development". Many developing countries in the once colonized world are often still dominated by the presence of the invading/colonizing country - today, through trade agreements. I am told DFID, the UK's development agency, is housed in the same building that the colonial mission headquarters were contained in London. Whether or not this is true, the sentiment says something. These same post-colonial occupation countries still benefit and profit off of the sweat (and water and environmental health) of the economically (and medically, educationally, etc., etc., etc.) deprived.

What can you do?
I encourage you to take action by writing to your political representative about this issue. Let them know your feelings. Purchase flowers from local sources. Boycott the purchase of flowers not grown under fair trade conditions. Fair trade usually, but not always, points to the money exchange and conditions for workers. Tell your family and friends. Grow your own.

Or, buy silk or paper flowers and call it a day. Most flowers purchased are not for consumption anyway.