Of the many, many stories arising from the current volcanic-ash-cloud-flight-chaos-mayhem (including NUIM Geographers stranded in Washington DC), one of the more illuminating for human geographers involves fresh cut flowers lying around rotting in places such as Kenya. As reported in the Guardian in Britain and in the New York Times, tonnes of flowers and vegetables are staying on farms or being held in airport warehouses in Kenya because the flights due to transport these exports have been cancelled. It’s a story that neatly captures our globalized world. And it tells us about something more general, too: the rise in places such as Kenya of zones, complexes, and indeed entire landscapes producing Non-Traditional Agricultural Exports i.e. agricultural production in a place that departs considerably from the food typically grown by local people and which is oriented entirely to export earnings rather than addressing (often pressing) local food needs.
NTAEs are flourishing all across the world. Their rise reflects the dominance and power of a neoliberal mantra about capitalizing on comparative advantage at all costs, even if at the cost of developing a stronger domestic economy. So Kenya looks to the cut flowers business rather than achieving food security; or Mexico develops its strawberry trade at the same time as Maize producers lose their land and drift to the city.
But the rise of NTAEs also reflects the (unrealistic?) expectations of what globalization can and should achieve: the belief that the world is flat and small and everything’s at our fingertips and instantaneously available. So shoppers in Dunstable, Dundee, and Dundrum expect fresh cut flowers all year round, while entrepreneurs in Kenya expect to retain ‘always-on’ trading links to those shoppers. Shoppers and producers expect globalization to yield the necessary interconnections and interdependencies (although to talk of interdependencies is a bit rich because, when it goes wrong, it might be hard to say that shoppers in Europe are suffering without their cut flowers, but thousands of Kenyan workers have already been laid off and more will surely follow; as the NYT says, “If farmers in Africa’s Great Rift Valley ever doubted that they were intricately tied into the global economy, they know now that they are.”)
Whether it’s in the long-term interest of places such as Kenya to pursue NTAEs is a matter for debate. There’s no doubting their value: as the Guardian article noted, “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.” Big business. Some jobs. Good reason for grabbing land, as land rights group, FIAN, note. But as the current volcanic-ash-cloud-flight-chaos-mayhem shows, NTAE production relies on transport links with export markets in Europe that cannot be fully relied upon. And there are many questions about whether such agricultural practices are suited to their local ecologies and hydrologies; whether this is the best, most equitable, ethical, and sustainable use of available land and resources; and whether this is the sort of production that will deliver ‘development’.