Shift in the Center of Production
The global trade volume in flowers is currently estimated to be more than 100 billion USD with the primary consumer market located in Europe. However, in recent times the centers of production have shifted from developed European nations like the Netherlands to African nations like Kenya and Ethiopia. The paradigm shift in the locus of production is primarily because of the better climate and lower labor costs in these African countries.
This makes the floral production industry one of the largest and most important industries for some African nations with disturbing repercussions.
Floral Production in Africa
Africa’s largest flower supplier to Europe is Kenya which is followed by Ethiopia. Recently, Tanzania and Uganda have started cultivating flowers for export to the European market too. Hilary Benn, ex-Secretary of State for International Development in the UK had once touted that consumers should buy flowers grown in Africa as opposed to those cultivated in Europe on account of their lower carbon footprint. The lower carbon footprint is only because green-houses are not required in Africa because of the naturally hot climate. However, despite the lower numerical carbon footprint, the floral production in Africa causes irreversible environmental damage in addition of gross violations of human rights of the workers involved in such production.
Overuse of Water: -The floriculture industry is highly water intensive which in itself makes it unsuitable for a number of African countries like Ethiopia and Kenya which are still as of yet unable to supply clean drinking water to their respective populations. However, this has not stopped the floriculture industry from grossly overusing the limited water resources often at the cost of the local people. Let’s look at Kenya’s example. Most of Kenya’s floriculture industry is located near the shores of Lake Naivasha which is a very sensitive ecosystem. As a consequence of the overuse of water, the size of the lake has reduced to less than half of its original. This has had devastating impacts on bio-diversity too. The native hippo population is threatened by the rising water pollution. Moreover, fish catches have been dwindling steadily much to the detriment of the locals.
Unregulated use of Chemical Pesticides: - There are virtually no regulations in place to control and limit the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the African floriculture industry. To cut down on costs a plethora of obsolete fertilizers and pesticides are used most of which have been banned in Europe decades ago. Therefore, the use of DDT, dieldrin, and methyl bromide is widespread. The widespread use of such dangerous compounds has led to widespread environmental degradation and water contamination in addition to endangering the health and safety of the men, women and children that are engaged in this industry.
Human Rights Concerns
Health and Safety: - Nearly all of the workers engaged in this industry are exposed to a range of toxic chemicals. This causes a number of immediate as well as long term health issues. Workers have been known to have severe breathing problems and skin rashes and the women are particularly prone to miscarriages. Moreover, exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy can lead to physical deformities in the fetus itself. Usually, employment is simply terminated with little or no compensation when workers fall sick as a consequence of toxic exposure. Weak implementation and limited regulation of labor policies by the governments of these countries have done little to change this.
Exploitation of Labor: - The floriculture industry is fundamentally dependent on exploitation of cheap labor. Child labor is a standard practice and workers often work shifts of up to 15 hours a day. A large number of the workers are women which makes sexual harassment a common feature too. In certain countries, NGOs like the Kenya Women Workers Organisation (KEWWO) have been set up to protect the rights of the workers, but they have had little effect in the face of these major flower exporting groups.
Even though the floriculture industry may provide employment to a large number of African people in addition to generating a large amount of foreign exchange, it does so at the cost of the environment and the lives of thousands. As you can see, the need of the European flower industry has had a devastating impact on several African flower exporting nations.