Flight Of The Flowers: From Naivasha To Amsterdam

By Yash Tandon

On September 19, the Star published an article I had written – ‘World Trade Organisation’s challenge to Kenya and Africa’. There I argued that at the forthcoming 10th Ministerial conference in Nairobi in December, a foolish and hasty step towards trade liberalization will put at risk the livelihood of millions, especially small-scale farmers. Trade liberalization in agriculture forced on Africa by the WTO and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Europe has already taken its deadly toll on Kenya. In this piece, I narrate a case study (one among hundreds on the African continent) of a disturbing – alarming - picture. It is masked by the ideology of free trade.

There is nothing like ‘free trade’, not even ‘fair trade’. They are fictions. For the last 500 years, since slave trade, the West has waged an unceasing, relentless, war on Africa. Trade is War. The WTO is a war machine. It is time we wake up to this harsh reality.

Paradise lost

Lake Naivasha is an hour’s drive from Nairobi. When you get there, it is like paradise – or used to be. The first time I went there as a young man was in 1957. I was spellbound by its beauty – lush banks adorned with yellow acacia; in the clean waters you could see millions of various kinds of fishes … and yes, hippos; look at the skies and you could see thousands of birds, including the pink-plumaged flamingo migrating from Lake Nakuru, and multi-coloured butterflies. The lake provided livelihood to thousands of fisher folk, and water for the farming community.

Some 50 years later, in 2009, I went back. The lake and its surroundings were unrecognisable. I saw roses and giant sized greenhouses everywhere – but no butterflies, no birds, and practically no fish. All this sacrifice in the name of ‘development’. The lake and its surroundings were transformed into a hellhole. Develop we must, of course, but at what cost?

The ‘free trade’ growth ‘model’

This growth model is based on the assumption that ‘the market’ promoted by ‘free trade’ is the most efficient way to allocate world’s resources. Each country must seek to specialize in the production of goods and services in which it is most competitive.

But ‘Free trade’ is a fiction. It has never existed even during the much acclaimed British mercantile period in the 19th century. The country that first challenged this fiction was the United States soon after its independence from England in 1776. Between 1820 and 1870 (within 50 years) the United States put up barriers against imports from England and went through its own industrial revolution.

Africa has been ‘independent’ now for nearly 60 years, and it still exports coffee, cotton and flowers and imports practically everything else – including agricultural products. Massively subsidised products like frozen chicken legs and baked beans compete against Kenyan producers. This is a complex technical subject that prohibits ‘trade distorting subsidies’ (amber and blue) and so Kenya cannot use these to protect its agriculture and industries, but allows certain subsidies (green) that can be used effectively only by the developed countries. This is an asymmetrical war between Euro-American corporations and Kenyan small farmers. It is immoral.

Some 15 years ago flowers were produced by hundreds of small producers, providing livelihoods for thousands in their extended families. Now they are produced by a handful of multinationals. Here is the boast of one of them, Magana Flowers Kenya Ltd: ‘Established in 1994 we have blossomed into Kenya's largest floricultural ventures. We export approximately twenty four million roses a year to importers in Switzerland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Australia and the Middle East.’

Into this already very fragile socio-ecological condition, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has made questionable investments. AGRA is funded by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations. It claims that it is helping Africa to grow high standard exportable food crops and flowers to help Kenya's development. It employs certified agro-chemical crops under multi-genome patents.

The multinationals also outsource growing of flowers to small African farmers, where they live off-site in squalid and fragile ecological conditions. They grow buttonhole carnations and red roses for the Valentine Day lovers in Europe, but themselves… they live from hand to mouth.

The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA)

The flower industry was the main reason why Kenya signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union in September 2014. Today European social activists are fighting against the US-imposed Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership (TTIP). They fear that the TTIP will open the door to a US-dominated global corporate takeover of their economies, and undermine their sovereignty. But they do not know that for over forty years (since the signing of the Lomé Convention in 1975) Africa has suffered TTIP-like aggression. Kenya signed the EPA in September 2014 under pressure from the Kenyan Flower Council. As of October 2015, KFC had a producer membership of 94 farms, and associate membership of 62 members – these provide farm inputs and allied services representing major cut flower auctions and distributors in Europe.

But whilst the Kenya government has surrendered to Europe, the ordinary citizens are fighting back. In 2007, the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum (KSSFF) filed a case against their government, arguing that EPAs would put at risk the livelihoods of millions of ordinary farmers. In 2013, the High Court of Kenya, relying on the principles of the new Constitution, directed the government to establish a mechanism for involving stakeholders (including small-scale farmers) in the on-going EPA negotiations, and to encourage public debate on this matter.

That was the last heard of the Court judgment.

The WTO is about the ‘Empire of the Absurd’

The flowers industry draws water from Lake Naivasha - approximately 20,000 cubic meters a day. The Lake is dying. Thousands of peasant producers have been alienated from their means of survival. People are facing severe problems of food and water insecurity. Effectively, Kenya exports water to Europe as the water-bearing flowers from Lake Naivasha fly to Amsterdam. If this is not the ‘Empire of the Absurd’, what is?

In 2013 Kenya exported 124,858 tons of flowers valued at around $507m. In 2014 it raked in around $600 million. Development theory apologists say this is fine; all the government needs to do is to tax the rich and distribute to the poor. Another theatre of the absurd. Who is kidding whom? The inequality ratio – the Gini coefficient is worsening: the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. The statistics do not tell the whole story. Go to Nairobi and witness for yourself the condition of the ‘precariat’ - the proletarianised working classes without life predictability or basic security.

As dignitaries from the Empire assemble in Nairobi on 15-18 December for the WTO’s 10th Ministerial, the precariat will be shunted off to shanty townships.

Welcome to Nairobi! Welcome to WTO MC10.

Yash Tandon

Chairman, SEATINI (Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute)

(This and the September 19 piece are two in a series of six articles Dr. Tandon is writing running up to the MC10. You may read them on the Kenya SEATINI website. http://www.seatinikenya.org/. Also see: Yash Tandon, Trade is War, OR-Books, 2015)

Last modified onMonday, 30 November 2015 14:12
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