Flower power
The Game of the Rose: the Third World in the Global Flower Trade
By Niala Maharaj & Gaston Dorren
International Books
Review in the Independent Monthly, February 1996, p. 64.

A bouquet of flowers is no longer a gift of nature but an industrial commodity. First, methyl bromide renders the soil dead; chemical are then added to make the plants grow, pesticides are applied to keep them healthy and finally more chemical preserve their freshness. To transport 10 carnations from Kenya to Europe uses half a litre of oil. Bio-tech firms get half the price of plants designed to resist bugs and to look good after a week’s travel and marketing. The industry is capital intensive. Growers plant money.

Holland dominates the trade. One in five flowers marketed in Europe is grown in the Netherlands. Two out of five pass through Dutch auction houses, with a sizeable percentage coming from Kenyan farms owned by Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate.

The Game of the Rose provides a preliminary report on how the globalisation of horticulture exploits human labour and nature resources. Colombia is a case study of the worm in the bud. Flower-growing was promoted as an alterative to cocaine. Instead, the set-up costs are too great for small farmers and the flower industry has become another cover for drug money.

Japan and the US use plant health as a non-tariff barrier. A single spot on one flower can condemn a complete assignment. Hence, each hectare of land is treated with at least 35kg of active chemicals. Once the flowers are cut, stems are sold as fodder, so pesticides enter the food chain. Flowers also require irrigation. The water table sinks and what remains is infected with pesticides.

Every Colombian who handles chemicals is supposed to be trained for 120 hours, which is not likely when official wage levels are only $120 a month and workers can be had for much less. The IMF weakened labour laws so that safety regulations are not enforced. Firms sponsor company unions and maintain blacklists of strikers and their relatives. Workers and farmers set up road blocks, which are effective protests because the flowers cannot get to the market while fresh.

Third-world governments encourage this trade – it offers some of the hard currency needed because the failure of previous export crops (tea, coffee, cocoa, jute) has left economies short of food for their own people.