9 February 2014

Zimbabwe: Make Tobacco Farmers Establish Woodlots

Photo: The Herald
Tobacco farmers.

Maria Mambo* (54) is an enterprising widow. Although many people, most of them much younger than her, complain of the economic hardships in Zimbabwe and the financial crisis they face, Mambo is determined to turn around her fortunes through hard work.

She has a small but thriving poultry project that she has operated from her house in New Canaan, Highfield for the past five years. This year however, she has decided to embark on an even more ambitious project -- tobacco farming.

Her brother was one of the many that benefitted from the government's 2000 fast track land reform programme, seeing him owning land.

As time went by, however, it was to become apparent that Mambo's brother neither had the skills required to make the farming business a success, nor the capital. After failed attempts at growing maize for four consecutive years, Mambo's brother decided to call it a day.

The land given to him had been lying idle for several years, until last year when his business-minded sister decided to come to the rescue.

Theirs is a mutually-beneficial business arrangement. The sister provided the capital, while the brother would stay at the farm, tending to the crop and monitoring workers, as Mambo lives in Harare while the farm is in the Mazowe area, about 40km from the capital.

Exuding immense pride, Mambo carries with her pictures of their fully-developed flue-cured Virginia tobacco crop in her cellphone.

Although this year they only managed to utilise three hectares, she said she was sure next year they would plant on thrice as much land.

Asked whether they would use electricity or coal to cure their crop, she looked at me like I had lost my mind. She said her brother was currently overseeing the construction of a barn at the farm and that "we are lucky the area is quite heavily forested, so wood is not a problem."

"So you have some gum trees you have planted there or what?" I asked.

Apparently, they have no woodlot. In fact, establishing a woodlot did not seem to be exactly near the top on Mambo's short-term priority list. She was not aware of the recently-enacted law that makes it mandatory for every local tobacco farmer to establish a woodlot from which to harvest the wood used in curing their crop.

Like Mambo, many Zimbabweans that have access to land have turned to tobacco farming after it became clear the crop provided attractive monetary returns.

Many that previously grew mostly maize have since abandoned the crop, citing the erratic rainfall patterns coupled with the crop's low returns as the reason. This abandonment of most food crops in favour of tobacco has been blamed for the food insecurity state the country currently finds itself in, having to import maize every year to cover the deficit.

Meanwhile, the tobacco boom is being hailed in the country as evidence the land reform programme was a success. The ecological disaster that accompanies this "success" however, is a subject authorities often seem to ignore.

According to statistics provided by the Forestry Commission, tobacco farmers are responsible for 25% of the country's deforestation.

The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) will open the 2014 flue-cured tobacco marketing season on Wednesday February 19.

That means it is that time when tobacco farmers run around to cure their crop in time for the market.

In Makoni District for example, over 1 000 farmers reportedly took up tobacco farming in 2012 and were cutting down trees indiscriminately.

The rate at which indigenous trees were disappearing shocked then Environment minister, Francis Nhema into suggesting a ban of the high-value flue-cured Virginia tobacco in preference of burley tobacco which does not require wood, coal or electricity to cure.

With pressure mounting from environmentalists and many concerned parties, the government finally made it law for all tobacco farmers to establish woodlots, but it is a piece of legislation that many farmers are still struggling to comply with.

Most people believe what is needed is more stringent measures that make it very hard for the farmers that do not have woodlots to operate.

The British American Company (BAT), a cigarette company, is one locally-operating company that has shown its support of the law by making it a policy that all tobacco farmers contracted through their conduit, Northern Tobacco, have their own woodlots.

If more companies working with tobacco farmers establish similar policies, the farmers will not be able to evade the law.

While the fact that tobacco farming is contributing significantly to the country's GDP can never be denied, the fact that it is coming at a great ecological cost cannot be downplayed.

*Not her real name

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