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Conflict Flowers
Kenya Flower Farms

The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano has surprisingly led us to wonder about the prevalence of conflict flowers, those perishable symbols of beauty and romance cultivated under economic inequity and environmental exploitation.

“Farmers in Kenya are dumping tonnes of vegetables and flowers destined for the UK, four days after the volcanic ash cloud over Europe grounded cargo shipments from Africa,” reports The Guardian.

Kenya's flower council says the country is haemorrhaging $1.3m a day in lost shipments to Europe. Kenya normally exports up to 500 tonnes of flowers daily – 97% of which is delivered to Europe. Horticulture earned Kenya 71 billion shillings (£594m) in 2009 and is the country's top foreign exchange earner.

The flower trade may have brought much needed investment to the country, but it has also come at a cost. Like so many African countries, Kenya suffers from water scarcity, and flower farms have been blamed for exacerbating the problem through their intensive use of irrigation and pesticides. The use of chemicals has further added to the already poor working conditions. Women are discriminated, child labour is weakly discouraged, and all are paid with unfair wages.

Maybe conditions are less exploitative than how they appear to us from our distant and limited vantage point, but one has still to consider the ethical implications of cultivating vast tracts of prime arable land to produce not foods and goods for the local population but for the gas-guzzling export of what essentially amounts to lazy sentiments commodified by a multibillion dollar global guilt industry.

Perhaps for Mother's Day next month, we'll try to wean ourselves off our addiction to flower porn.

The Machinic Landscapes of Tulips
  • petersigrist
  • April 19, 2010 at 5:37:00 PM CDT
  • Great post! I'm amazed at the far-reaching effects of this eruption, the way it has uncovered so many global processes that had been kind of below the radar. Given its complexity, Eyjafjallajökull seems like the perfect name.

  • Anonymous
  • April 25, 2010 at 11:41:00 PM CDT
  • Amy Stewart has a book on the global flower trade called "Flower Confidential." well worth a read. and no plant nerd should neglect to read her earthworm book, which is awesome.

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