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Africa Month: War of the Roses

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[From "Africa Month" on 13.7 Billion Years, focusing on biodiversity, conservation, sustainable development and ethical consumption.]

Valentine's Day always causes a surge in the sale of roses. But while many may swoon at the sight of this classic offering of love and devotion, for scientists like ecology and conservation biologist Dr. David Harper of the University of Leicester, it is cause for great concern.

For over three decades, Harper has studied wetland conservation at Kenya's Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake northwest of Nairobi that is part of the Great Rift Valley. Its name comes from the local Maasai word Nai'posha , which means "rough water," referring to the sudden storms that crop up across its 53-square-mile (139-square-kilometer) expanse.

But rough or not, there may not be much water left if the international flower industry continues along its path of unsustainability -- and consumers continue to make unethical purchases. Harper said that floriculture, the main industry around Naivasha, is putting Kenya's ecology in danger by draining the lake's critical water supply through unregulated irrigation. Water is Kenya's scarcest natural resource. And it's not just humans who need a healthy Naivasha -- a wide variety of wildlife, including hippos and over 400 species of birds, call it home.

Harper has urged UK supermarkets to demonstrate more corporate social responsibility and consider the source of the flowers they sell. More than two-thirds of roses sold in European supermarkets come from Kenya. The origin of many of these roses is purposely made unclear by distributors who sell them at auction in Amsterdam to give the impression that they were cultivated in Holland, when in fact they come from unsustainable and unregulated flower farms elsewhere, some of which have records of labor rights abuses. However, there are some Kenyan farmers who have taken it upon themselves to make a positive difference.

"A notable few of the farmers sending roses to Europe are showing concern and an eagerness to pioneer a sustainable way forward: The best flower farms have achieved Fair Trade status, which brings money back into the workforce for social welfare improvements. Two farms have even seconded senior managers to help Kenya's water management agency at Naivasha," said Harper, according to Climate Action, a non-profit partner of the United Nations Environment Programme.

And some retailers are also changing their ways for the better, thanks to public action in the form of petitions. According to statement released last week by "Within 72 hours of's promotion of a campaign asking 1-800-Flowers to offer Fair Trade certified arrangements, the company agreed to offer a Fair Trade collection by Mother's Day, publish information on flower sourcing, and create a code of conduct for suppliers that prohibits forced and child labor. These steps make the world's largest florist also one of the most proactive and responsive companies in the industry -- a major victory for advocates and workers."

For the environment and workers in Kenya and elsewhere, a better future is only possible when all actors -- producers, distributors, retailers, lawmakers and consumers -- make ethical decisions. As Antoine de Saint-Exupe'ry wrote in his famous 1943 novella The Little Prince , "You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.


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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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