Not so long ago, roses were expensive. Now you can get six blooms for £4 at my local Tescos. The real cost of cheap flowers was revealed to me in all its horror earlier this month when we visited Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, a large freshwater lake in the Rift Valley, formerly home to a thriving eco-system, teeming with fish and birds, and supporting a rich diversity of wildlife in the surrounding hills and bush; from dwarf mongooses to lions and elephants.
Since I was last at Lake Naivasha, it has been systematically raped by the rise of flower farms. When I was here ten years ago I remember seeing a few flower farms, but nothing – nothing – on this monumental scale.
Thousands of acres of prime lakeside bush and smallholdings have been cleared to make way for hundreds and hundreds of huge polytunnels in which the roses are propagated on an industrial scale.
The blooms can be harvested and packed using cheap local labour and flown out of Nairobi, which is just a couple of hours drive away, to reach lucrative European markets within a day.
But the true cost of this profitable enterprise beggars belief.
Flowers are thirsty which is why farmers are using Lake Naivasha’s shores; an easy source of the huge quantities of water they need. The lake level has dropped dramatically, from what we saw by 3 or 4 metres in the past 5 to 10 years judging by the vegetation.
Now I’m no expert on water quality, but instead of being a nice deep bluey green, the water was yellowy brown. As the water is extracted and level drops, chemicals used in propagation runs off back into the lake. Local fisherman report significantly smaller catches. And for a lake of that size the hippo and bird populations were laughably small.
The polytunnels are not just unsightly, they form an impenetrable barrier for wildlife which must get to the lake to drink. Our guide told us that there are a couple of wildlife corridors which have been left open but that it’s not good enough.
And as we drove to and from our lodge we witnessed the thousands of people who work on the flower farms; queuing up to a get a day’s work; spraying, tending, harvesting and packing the blooms for a few meagre shillings a day – and we saw their cramped and dirty living conditions.
I realised I was looking at precisely the same kind of worker exploitation as Britain experienced in the 19th century, and for the same reasons; population growth, the desperate need for work, greedy company owners (mostly Dutch, Israeli and German as far as we could see) creaming off the profits. Goodness knows what protection, if any, the slaving workers are given for using hazardous chemicals.
The problem of over-extraction of water has been known about for years. But there is so much money to be made from this blooming business that some unscrupulous greedheads will protect their profits at any cost, even resorting to killing anyone trying to protect the lake. Local resident, film-maker and conservationist Joan Root paid with her life in 2006 when she was murdered at her lakeside home of 25 years.
So next time you’re buying flowers, spare a thought for the thousands of exploited workers, the dying fish, the poisoned waters, the dwindling hippo population and all the creatures of the surrounding bush whose lake they can no longer reach, and for Joan Root …and you won’t ever buy cheap Kenyan blooms again.