Kwihara — Cutting of trees for firewood to cure tobacco over the last few decades has been a major driver of deforestation and worsening extreme weather in Tanzania's central western Tabora region, experts say.
But efforts to persuade tobacco farmers to adopt other crops is proving an uphill battle, not least because tobacco remains profitable and a major source of income in the region.
Emmanuel Mihambo, a peasant farmer from Usenge village in Tabora has been growing tobacco since the 1980s when his late father acquired a four hectare farm there. Over the years he has watched the forest that once surrounded his village gradually turn into barren ground.
"The situation has changed a lot. Imagine that valley separating Usenge and Ntalikwa village used to be covered by a dense forest. You could often spot wild animals such as antelopes. But all the forest is gone," he lamented
Today firewood is harder to come by, and a local group calling itself IGEMBE NSABO is urging small-scale farmers to abandon tobacco and turn instead to alternative crops such as sunflower, cotton, groundnut and maize.
The group's chairperson, Huruma Mwirombo, told AlertNet that the group has been educating farmers on the environmental fallout from tobacco farming, which has over the years decimated thousands of hectares of Miombo forests, the main source of rainfall in the region.
Farmers, however, are reluctant to shun tobacco, the mainstay of the local economy, he said.
RELUCTANCE TO SWITCH
Although researchers suggest that it would also be economically viable for a peasant farmer to grow other crops that suit the region's conditions - including cotton - Mihambo still feels that tobacco is his best bet and the surest way to feed his family.
"I have not tried sunflower or cotton yet. I am not ready to take that risk," he said.
Continuing deforestation, however, has contributed to the Tabora region experiencing increasingly acute water shortages in recent years as rainfall dwindles,
Mwirombo's group estimates that over of 124,389 cubic metres of trees are being cut in Tabora region every year for tobacco curing.
He said the group's research, conducted in several rural villages in Tabora, shows that most peasant farmers are oblivious to the long-term effects of growing tobacco, though they are willing to learn to manage their environment better.
One problem, the group says, is that the government continues to support tobacco growing as an important source of export income, tax revenue and income for farmers.
Victor Mwambalaswa, one local politician, was quoted in the local press as saying "nobody would welcome any efforts to sabotage tobacco farming." He cited its pivotal role to the economy.
According to the country's central bank, tobacco's contribution to the national economy is enormous, with the country earning over $150 million a year from tobacco exports.
But tobacco's future in the region is increasingly in question. A study titled Shifting Cultivation, Wood Use and Deforestation Attributes of Tobacco Farming, published by Sokoine University of Agriculture in March 2012, suggests that Tanzania loses over 61,000 hectares of forests every year due to tobacco growing.
The study says that the tobacco industry's high demand for firewood cannot be sustained because of the increasing deforestation of Miombo
According to the study, 75 percent of households in Tabora districts were regular tobacco growers, cultivating an average of 1.3 hectares of tobacco per farmer each season and requiring 23 cubic metres of firewood to cure it.
The lead researcher, Mwita Mangora, argues that the region's remaining forests will not be able to meet the growing demand for firewood to cure tobacco leaves.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.