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The destruction of Kenya’s Lake Naivasha – A case study in how “free trade” bleeds Africa
25 January 2016. A World to Win News Service. In examining the development of the flower export industry (a major driver of Kenya’s economy), the results of the World Trade Organization meeting held in Nairobi last November and the actual lives of people working in that industry, the following three texts shed light on the workings and consequences of the domination of the world’s economy and peoples by the monopoly capitalist ruling classes headquartered in a handful of imperialist countries. The first is from an article by Yash Tandon, a Ugandan professor, political activist and prominent public intellectual, that first appeared in Pambazuka News (see pambazuka.org 15 December 2015 for the full article and footnotes). It was written on the eve of the 10th Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation held in Nairobi. The second text by AWTWNS examines that results of that meeting. The third article, from the 18 February 2008 AWTWNS, was written during a period of extreme violence among Kenya’s numerous ethnic groups unleashed by the main rival presidential candidates in the December 2007 general elections.
Empire of the absurd
Lake Naivasha is less than an hour’s drive from Nairobi. At 1,884 metres, it is in a complex geological combination of volcanic rocks and sedimentary deposits. It is fed by the perennial Malewa and Gilgil rivers at the highest elevation of the Rift Valley. 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 thousands of various kinds of fish, and yes, hippos; looking up at the skies 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 to the lake. I was dismayed, in fact depressed. 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 hell-hole. Develop we must, of course, but at what cost?
The “free-trade” 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 specialise 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 nineteenth century. The country that first challenged this fiction was the United States soon after its independence from England in 1776. “We don’t want to grow cotton and tobacco forever, and import your manufactured products,” the Americans told the English. “We too wish to industrialise.” 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. You can buy frozen chicken legs and baked beans from Europe in the big stores of Nairobi. These massively subsidised products compete against Kenyan producers who are denied subsidies by the rules of the WTO. This is an asymmetrical war between European corporations and Kenyan small farmers. It is the same with the rest of Africa. It is immoral. Under the UN conventions on human rights, it is also illegal.
Some 15 years ago flowers were produced by hundreds of small producers, providing livelihood 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. Head-quartered in Nairobi, Magana Flowers Kenya Limited employs a highly trained workforce of 600 individuals who facilitate all phases of rose bush growth and development. Staff members foster seedlings, develop strategic planting improvement techniques and monitor plant growth and constantly check for the presence of viruses and insects. The company utilizes the latest pest control and soil management techniques to produce healthy colourful roses that are shipped to importers within 48 hours of being harvested. We additionally develop new variety of roses by conducting research. Orchestrating the production of healthy, vigorous and disease resistant roses, we also carefully develop feeding schedules to determine which plant foods produce the most beautiful and long lasting blooms. This is why we are the home of the best quality cut rose flowers in Africa.”
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.
Those who own the farms in Naivasha as well as middle agencies engaged in buying and selling, shipping, storing, insuring and transporting flowers make enormous profits, but the direct producers – the wage workers – get very little. 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’s Day lovers in Europe, but themselves… they live from hand to mouth.
The flower industry was the main reason why Kenya signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union in September 2014… under pressure from the Kenyan Flower Council (KFC). In an interview, the CEO of KFC, Jane Ngige, defined its mission thus: “To promote economic, social and political interests of the floriculture industry through active participation in the determination and implementation of policies.” 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 UK, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany.
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. On 30 October, 2013, the High Court of Kenya ruled in KSSFF’s favour. The court directed the Kenya 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 judgement.
The flower industry draws water out of Lake Naivasha on an average of approximately 20,000 cubic metres a day. The lake is dying. Officially 130 square kilometres, it shrank in 2006 to about 75 per cent of its 1982 size. The papyrus swamps that were the breeding grounds for fish had almost dried up. Thousands of peasant producers and fisher folk had been alienated from their means of survival. People were 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 tonnes of flowers valued at around 507 million US dollars. In 2014 it raked in around $600 million. The WTO congratulated Kenya for finally finding an appropriate niche in the “global value chain”. Development theory apologists say this is fine; all the Kenya government needs to do now is to tax the rich and distribute the wealth to the poor. Another theatre of the absurd. Who is kidding whom?
The inequality ratio – measured by the so-called Gini coefficient (calculated using consumption expenditure per capita) – is worsening in Kenya. 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 and the neo-colonies assemble in Nairobi on 15-18 December for the WTO’s 10th Ministerial Meeting, the precariat will be shunted off to shanty townships on the periphery of Nairobi.
Notes on the WTO meeting
According to the British dailies the Independent and Guardian, as well as authors critical of highly unequal international trade agreements, the December 2015 WTO ministerial meeting essentially rubber-stamped the already overwhelmingly dominant position of imperialist countries over world trade. The US WTO representative argued that “times have changed” and the 164 countries, many grumbling, followed the US and the EU plans to end the Doha Development Agenda. Commonly known as the Doha Rounds (initiated in Doha, Qatar), this was a platform opened in 2001 purportedly to negotiate better terms for agricultural trade for countries in the global South.
The recent Nairobi meeting also agreed to continue to exempt some exports from so-called “Least Developed Countries” from duty and quota restrictions, but this doesn’t include textiles, which constitute more than 90 percent of these exports. As for agriculture, the meeting supposedly eliminated export subsidies and other forms of “export promotion”, like subsidized export financing and exports in the name of “food aid”, which the US in particular is renown for practising. These subsidies have been under fire as a blatantly unfair advantage to rich countries. Export subsides further distort trade by undercutting markets in importing countries through offsetting some export costs, in turn lowering the price of products from the EU and the US in foreign markets. But on this key issue too, “poor countries walked out empty-handed”, as one Kenyan newspaper commented. While the EU had already agreed to stop subsidising its exports, the US resisted these trade restrictions and the new agreement reportedly really only “put a cap on current practices” within agricultural trade, rather than eliminate the imperialist countries’ export subsidies altogether.
Inequalities go way beyond imperialist control over market access for agricultural products, however. These countries continually refine their relationship of domination of poorer countries through skewing competition in their favour in numerous ways, another topic on the table in Nairobi. Consider too the lack of adequate roads, storage facilities and export infrastructure, together with increasing land grabs by foreign investors as well as the international web of finance and debt choking most African countries. Then add in the interlinking dependencies in other sectors that the continent is locked into, although this varies from country to country. So-called “fair trade” is an integral part of the means by which the advanced monopoly capitalist countries and the imperialist world market dominate Africa and other countries throughout the world.
Blood money for Kenyan valentine roses
The world’s media, including the Nairobi Standard in one of its February 14 columns, breathed a sigh of relief supposedly on behalf of the nation that Kenyan roses would make it to European markets and flower shops in time for that crucial holiday invented to turn love into lots of money.
Now imagine you’re an ordinary flower farm worker at one of these lucrative horticultural industries that line the pockets of rich white settler and Kenyan entrepreneurs who have set up shop around Lake Naivasha, situated only two hours from Nairobi in the Rift Valley. You have noticed that somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people like you, most of them landless from other rural areas, but a few from the slums and settlements around towns, picked up and moved to the area with the promise of jobs. They are from many different ethnic origins and geographical areas but until last month, this didn’t matter much – you all were poor and exploited by the same owners.
Those who actually got hired in one of the several flower farms circling the lake may be housed in shack settlements, or in the rows and rows of concrete slab company housing right outside the workplace. Others wait in a day labour line across from the farms hoping to make some temporary cash. Some set up market stalls or sell small pyramids of tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other local produce along the road by the vast greenhouses. You didn’t know you’d be working with toxic pesticides and fertilizers all day long without protection. But thousands of others are unemployed and have no income at all, waiting to take your place if you leave.
About 60 percent of Kenya’s flowers come from Lake Naivasha, traditionally a resort area for wealthy white settlers and home to several hotels and restaurants, tucked away from the poor and medium-sized dusty town of Naivasha. Signs bear the names of Dutch, British and Kenyan-owned companies like Sher, Wildlife, Homegrown, and Kingfisher. Lake Naivasha is one of the larger freshwater lakes but is rapidly being turned into a cesspool for the flower industry. The flower farms are draining the lake, pumping freshwater into the greenhouses while returning the chemical-filled waste water through a ditch. Plant life has all but ceased to exist. Fish and bird species are threatened. The public has no access to the lake and to the water because it is all privately owned. They must line up for the few communal taps in the area, which never are sufficient for the local population’s needs.
But over the past month, since the big demonstrations in Nairobi, the violence spread to Naivasha. You have seen some of your co-workers attacked and chased away by people of ethnic groups different from theirs. You have seen the owners of the farms and white landowners in the area whisked away from the danger and violence in private airplanes and lorries. You couldn’t believe your eyes when you saw people of various origins forced to run into the Naivasha prison to try to escape marauding crowds of local (Kikuyu) gangs, some appearing to be escorted by the police, who shoot at those who venture out of the prison. You have seen people hacked to death with machetes. The bloodshed has torn the workforce apart and some people who haven’t been driven to other areas of Kenya are still staying away out of fear. You yourself are of mixed parents and afraid to speak anything but the main language of that region in public. You don’t know what happened to your Luo neighbours and to the Kalenjin woman married to a Kikuyu who worked next to you clipping roses.
But what do you see in the week leading up to 14 February? Your white bosses and Kenyan managers are mobilizing everyone to come back to work on the grounds that “It’s safe.” They need to prepare the shipments of roses for the one holiday that generates nearly half of their profit in a given year, and they want you to work even longer days than you already do. All around you there is fear, trauma and tragedy from the events of the past month. There is no “protection” and the situation is anything but safe for ordinary Kenyans like you. There is no transport available for refugees, to carry home the dead for burial, or to bring in food. Your husband can’t get to the funeral of his uncle, killed in the communal fighting. But there are lots of trucks parked outside today. You discover your bosses have hired the police to protect the lorry convoys full of roses headed to Nairobi airport. You make a point of stabbing your flesh with one of the thorns as the rose is packed for Europe and watch the blood drip down the stem and into the valentine box.
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