TOBACCO growers are facing the greatest threat to their efforts to continue producing the golden leaf.
The production of the country's single largest export earner, which provides sustenance to millions of people in Zimbabwe is under siege from the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The threat from the WHO FCTC is a reality for farmers not only in Zimbabwe but the world over. It is a threat to the economies that rely heavily on tobacco exports, providing important revenue, from the national exchequer to the small, and largely poor farmers who produce the crop in Mashonaland West, East, Central and Manicaland provinces.
Tobacco, along with mining and tourism, are the key economic drivers in Zimbabwe and any external shocks to the tobacco industry would hamper recovery of the country's economy. With direct earnings of US$361 million in 2011, tobacco provides a livelihood to over 600 000 people, while an estimated 500 000 more benefit from downstream industries.
Any decline in tobacco exports would mean that countries such as Zimbabwe would have to look for alternative crops to replace tobacco. Failure to do so would worsen the cycle of poverty, which tobacco growing had substantially reduced.
Because of the FCTC's threat, tobacco growers in the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) are lobbying governments to resist the FCTC ban, arguing that it will affect them economically. They want the FCTC to involve the tobacco farming communities at every stage of policy development and implementation.
The WHO FCTC came as a global response to the globalisation of the tobacco epidemic, adopted in May 2003 by the World Health Assembly and enforced in February 2005. The FCTC requires state parties to adopt and implement tobacco control measures arguing that tobacco use kills 5,4 million people worldwide each year and if current trends continue, this figure is set to reach 8,3 million by the year 2030.
Draft proposals developed by the working group of the FCTC recommend that governments should begin phasing out all tobacco farmers immediately, without any viable alternative for the tobacco farming community.
Under Articles 17 and 18 of the FCTC, parties are required to promote economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.
The FCTC's recommendations suggest limiting the area of land under tobacco and that governments should not provide any incentives for increasing the acreage of land for cultivating tobacco and should go so far as to freeze the total land under tobacco by delimiting specific tobacco growing areas and thereafter, taking suitable measures to reduce these areas.
At the ITGA African regional meeting, growers' representatives and leaders not only expressed their concerns over the draft policy options, but also their utter surprise and dismay about the FCTC making decisions for tobacco farmers on what they should and should not grow, without understanding even the most basic principles of agriculture in general and tobacco farming in particular.
Further to this, the ways in which they want to forcefully move farmers out of production do not resonate well with farmers, hence the resistence.
"The ITGA will certainly attempt, once again, to bring its concerns and disappointment to the FCTC. However, never in the past has the FCTC even attempted to engage with growers to listen to their views. The ITGA has in the past applied for observer status of the FCTC, which has been rejected. This is in direct conflict with the FCTC's own documents that growers should be involved in every step of policy developments," said the ITGA, a lobby group of manufacturers and farmers.
Tobacco growing is a crop of choice for many smallholder farmers seeking to transform their livelihoods and from the production of the golden leaf; farmers are earning seven times more than maize, 22 times more than cotton and 60 times more than sorghum.
"Tobacco provides one of the most stable and effective cash crops for farmers," notes the ITGA. "Without it, millions of farmers on marginal land would be reduced to subsistence production".
Any decline in tobacco production would have a notable impact on the country's economy, and could result in the livelihoods of over 66 000 registered tobacco growers disappearing from the industry. According to ITGA, which represents 30 million tobacco farmers, these measures will have disastrous social and economic consequences without making any difference to peoples' health.
ITGA Africa Region chairperson and tobacco farmer, Francois van der Merwe, said the FCTC's original mandate was to explore, research and promote alternative crops if and when the demand for tobacco globally declines substantially.
"The suggestion that an outside organisation should think it morally right to dictate what a farmer's land can and cannot be used for in the pursuit of his or her livelihood is disturbing to say the least. Market forces will not allow this prescriptive-style to prevail. As long as there is a demand for leaf, it will be grown," van der Merwe said.
In various countries - including Zambia and Malawi - there has been a push to replace tobacco with paprika. Not only has tobacco proven to be a crop of choice, but demand for paprika has remained considerably lower. The Malaysian government also made an attempt to convert tobacco farmers to growing kenaf, an engineered wood, insulation, clothing-grade cloth.
However, the government's investment of more than US$11,5 million has helped only 270 farmers establish 700 hectares of kenaf plantations.
"We suspect there is no alternative to replace tobacco. Some countries have tried but to no avail. Plus not enough research has gone into the possible alternatives and the marketing and supply chains required for them. The initial mandate/intention from the FCTC on crop diversification was to try and find alternatives for farmers, once the FCTC measures globally to reduce consumption showed successful results.
"This however, did not happen as planned, mainly because of extremism when it comes to regulatory measures, which globally did not have the desired outcomes.
"Although consumption has decreased in many countries, it has increased in others and globally consumption is very stable and could even increase because of the massive availability of illegal, cheap products, which in fact stimulates consumption," the ITGA said.
Although in Zimbabwe, government has approved the ratification of the FCTC, the country is still to complete and submit all the requirements. Zimbabwe is concerned with the continual lack of consultations among the FCTC parties on matters relating to the economic importance and dependence on tobacco in many developing countries.
"Farmers in developing countries will not survive the tobacco ban, unless the farmer is involved in the decision making process and the research and development of alternative crops and supply chains for this product is done. In the end, we in the developing nations will be dependent on more foreign aid.
"Forceful, impractical and unreasonable measures to move farmers away from tobacco production will fail, but in the process will cause disruptions, uncertainty and even loss of livelihoods for many people. As long as there is a demand for tobacco products, which seems to be the case for many years to come, the leaf will be grown by somebody," the ITGA emphasised.
According to the FCTC's own working group, the future consumption of cigarettes and tobacco products is predicted to increase from 1,1 billion smokers in 2010 to about 1,6 billion smokers by the year 2025.