US flower grower quits Ethiopia after arson attack

September 22, 2016

AFP – A US-based company has pulled out of Ethiopia after anti-government protesters attacked its flower farm causing 10 million euros in damage, and triggering job losses in the country and The Netherlands, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Flower growers and exporters Esmeralda Farms began operations in the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia some three years ago, said Juan Carlos Vallejo, a board member for the company.

Headquartered in Miami, with a base also in Ecuador, the company had employed some 550 Ethiopians growing flowers for export mainly to Europe and Russia via its subsidiary in The Netherlands, said Vallejo.

But the farm’s premises were attacked and burnt to the ground earlier this month by protesters who also set fire to neighbouring farms belonging to Italian, Indian and Belgian companies, Vallejo told AFP.

“It was crazy. They burnt all of our facilities, the dining rooms, everything was set on fire,” he said, adding that 35 acres of the 160-acre farm had been under production, mostly growing spring roses and gypsophila.

A bore hole the company had also sunk to provide water — which was also supplying the local population — was also damaged.

Although there were no casualties, the damage was so great “we definitely cannot go on the farm any more, our facilities are completely destroyed.”

Esmeralda had sent everyone home and was still “trying to understand what happened,” Vallejo said, adding until then the company had only had good experiences in Ethiopia.

He said he believed the events may be linked to months of protests by the Omoro people who had feared their farmland would be seized for a government plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa.

Esmeralda had “to stop our operation there, and we also had to stop our operations in The Netherlands” in the central town of Aalsmeer with the loss of 25 jobs.

European export operations are now being handled from Ecuador, he added.

Dutch growers’ cooperative Royal Floral Holland said earlier this month that “at least four nurseries in the vicinity of Bahir Dar in Ethiopia have been damaged by arson and vandalism.”

Demonstrations in Ethiopia began popping up in November 2015 in the Oromia region, which surrounds the capital, over government plans to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa.

Although authorities dropped the urban enlargement project, brutally suppressing the protests, unrest has swept to other parts of Oromia, and more recently to the northern Amhara region.