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Blood flowers

Traces the roots of cut flowers unearthed in Ton van Zantvoort’s documentary film, A Blooming Business.

By Chyi Chung

Artwork by Chyi Chung

Lake Naivasha sits atop the Great Kenyan Rift Valley. It is unique in having freshwater (the only other in the valley is Lake Baringo to the north), and for its elevation of 1,884 metres (the highest point in the valley). The sun shines heavily down, reflecting off clusters of greenhouses surrounding the lake. Within them are trimmed gardens where flowers bloom in perfection, and like clockwork. Lilies. Roses. Carnations. Bound for Europe by sunset, on the very same day they are cut. Arrays of attractive bouquets are spilling off wire racks in supermarkets, beckoning to be bought and admired. Lilies. Roses. Carnations. Spoilt for choice year-round, in a world seemingly far away from Lake Naivasha…

Agriculture contributes to a quarter of Kenya’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the country has the third largest cut flower industry in the world, at a global trading value of £502 million in 2016. Kenya produces more than 1 in 3 cut flowers sold in the EU [1], most of which are flown in 6,000 km from Lake Naivasha, where the country’s flower farms are concentrated. Higher altitudes give Lake Naivasha a cooler climate (particularly suited to rose planting) yet still warm enough not to require excessive heating; and its proximity to the capital, Nairobi, is vital for connectivity to Europe and beyond. In 2009, Ton van Zantvoort released ‘A Blooming Business’, a harrowing documentary on the industry based on the anecdotes of its (former) labourers.

The Kenya Flower Council (2013) estimates that half a million livelihoods are entwined with the cut flowers of Lake Naivasha; 20% of them are low-wage flower farm labourers. Usual sexist dynamics pervades: around two-thirds of labourers are women, despite few at senior managerial levels. They are subject to long working hours (up to 15 hours during peak Valentine’s season), sexual harassment and frequent direct exposure to toxic pesticides; the latter could potentially lead to seizures, blindness, and infertility. As with the golden Californian fruit orchards in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, most labourers are migrants who are lured in search of a better living. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of low wages and temporary contracts allowing for quick dismissal. “You can’t even go back home…because the salary is too low, you just end up staying here”, said Agnes who swore never to return to a flower farm in face of unemployment, after sustaining chemical injuries and losing her job as consequence.

Interestingly, a flower is 90% water. To quench the thirst of flowers growing in greenhouses, 20 million litres of water [2] is syphoned daily from the lake at a greater rate than can be replenished. However, due to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, compounded with direct leaching due to poor or non-existent irrigation in the greenhouses, worst off is the contaminated water being returned. Today’s population of 300,000 in the surrounding area is ten-fold of that listed in the 1969 census. Lack of investment in infrastructure equates to poor housing with no access to clean running water (as that available from the lake is polluted), and native Acacia and Euphorbia trees being felled quickly for firewood and to make land for agriculture and poultry farming. The Maasai people, indigenous to the Great Rift Valley, increasingly find their pastoral lifestyle stifled by dwindling resources and land around the lake, which has fallen by 75% since the 1970’s. Local fishermen lament the loss of their catch due to poisonous waters and overfishing to feed the growing population.

‘A Blooming Business’ portrays Lake Naivasha as an unsustainable development, fuelled by corruption and exploitation. Nine years from its release, numerous awareness campaigns have followed suit, raising the pressing need to invest in people and infrastructure. In 2013, the Friends of Naivasha NGO, opened a women’s health centre, using 60% of funds donated from Fair Trade flower farms. It provides for 600 mothers and their new-borns every month; as a result, birth mortality rates from asphyxia have halved. A requisite in the science of a good documentary lies in its ability to challenge the audience to think beyond face value–with A Blooming Business, beyond the aesthetic beauty of cut flowers, and down to their bloody roots in Lake Naivasha.

[1] Geographical proximity is key: a similar industry exists between Columbia and the US, with the first providing the latter with 65% of its cut flowers in 2013.

[2] Dubbed "virtual water," there is a certain irony in its export under the guise of cut flowers, from a drought-prone country like Kenya.

All images are original artwork by Chyi Chung.

From Issue 15

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