27 January 2014

Zimbabwe: Going Up in Smoke - the Environmental Costs of Tobacco Boom

Smallholder tobacco production in Zimbabwe has been a real success, but at what cost to woods and forests?

The growth of smallholder tobacco production in Zimbabwe has been an undoubted success story in recent years. In the last season, there were around 90,000 registered producers producing nearly 170 million kilograms and around $612 million in revenue. This has been made possible in large part by land reform. In addition to tobacco profits providing much needed export earnings for the exchequer, the ability to sell a profitable crop has transformed the lives and livelihoods of many farmers in the tobacco growing areas.

But all this success has come at a cost, particularly to the environment. Most of Zimbabwe's tobacco is flue-cured on farm; across the farm landscapes of Marondera, Mazowe, Guruve, Hurungwe and beyond, there are literally hundreds of tobacco barns, all erected in the past few years. These are where tobacco is dried and cured ready for market. The farmers have learned the process quickly, and reports suggest that quality is high and increasing. However the technologies used are basic and inefficient, and rely primarily on woodfuel.

One kilogram of tobacco requires about nine kilograms of wood to cure it under traditional curing systems. As new farmers settled on former large-scale farms there was plenty of surplus wood to use as land was cleared. These were often huge properties with only a portion of the area cultivated. From an agronomic viewpoint they were grossly underutilised, but they retained a large reserve of forested land. This was largely unused, although it provided a range of ecosystem services. Now with the land cleared and the farms populated, there are fewer and fewer patches of woodland left. To get fuelwood for tobacco curing, hillsides are being cut, with all sorts of consequences for soil conservation, watershed hydrology and so on.

Because of the growing demand and shrinking supply there has emerged a whole industry of wood supply. In small towns such as Mvurwi in Mazowe, there are chainsaw contractors who move around the area cutting wood in large quantities. They seek out wood resources wherever they can be found, often on 'A2' commercial farms with larger plots. But the resources are unquestionably dwindling. The Forestry Commission estimates that each year 330,000 hectares is deforested nationally, with 15% of this due to tobacco production.

At the end of each year there are ritual tree planting ceremonies at schools, council plots and so on. This year in the tobacco areas, officials beseeched people to start planting fast-growing trees. They will have to do so in vast numbers. Already farmers have started to establish small eucalyptus woodlots, and many are talking about alternative sources of fuel (coal is more efficient, with 2.5 kg curing a kg of tobacco), and improving the efficiencies of their flue-curing system ('rocket barns' for example are being proposed by the Tobacco Board). Innovation is of course the classic response to resource scarcity. The projections of the Forestry Commission suggest that there will be no trees left at all before the end of the decade. But of course this doomsday scenario won't happen. As resources dwindle, alternatives have to be found, especially for a highly profitable enterprise like tobacco farming.

History repeating

What is being experienced now is of course a repeat of what happened in the white commercial farming areas in the 1950s. The post Second World War boom in tobacco production was driven by the new settler farmers, often war veterans from the UK. They mostly used very similar technologies to those being used by resettlement farmers today. Even though their land areas were somewhat larger, they soon ran out of woodfuel (or it became too expensive to collect) and they switched to alternative fuels (notably coal and gas fired flue systems), planted woodlots and improved the curing technology; later to highly sophisticated and capital intensive systems.

This will certainly happen again. But in the meantime efforts to encourage fuel switching, tree planting and trees on watersheds must intensify. The commercial tobacco farmers of the 1950s and 1960s were encouraged to establish Intensive Conservation Areas (ICAs) across a network of farms, supported by the Natural Resources Board (NRB). This was largely a voluntary association, but with significant subsidies for a range of environmental improvements. This provided a bottom-up set of incentives for environmental management. The alternative approach is to impose regulations and try and police them. This was of course the NRB's approach in the native reserves, and was widely hated and resisted, and so largely didn't work.

As the Environmental Management Authority and the Forestry Commission contemplate how to respond to the environmental challenges of tobacco production, these two contrasting experiences are worth reflecting upon.

This post originally appeared here on Zimbabweland.

Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, and Co-Director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, Sussex. He is an agricultural ecologist by training, and has led a number of large, multi-country, interdisciplinary projects.

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