A DRIVE through Mashonaland Central province -- including Mudhindo village -- will shock any remotely environmentally-conscious person as vast stretches of forests have been left barren, risking denudation due to the massive cutting down of trees by small-scale tobacco farmers who use firewood to cure their tobacco.
Although technically it is nothing close to desertification -- land degradation in which a relatively dry land region becomes increasingly arid, typically losing its bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife -- it is clearly deforestation.
Observations in the area show that deforestation is underway due to the cutting down of trees by small-scale farmers without sufficient reforestation -- natural or intentional restocking of existing forests and woodlands that have been depleted -- raising fears of widespread damage to the habitat, biodiversity loss and aridity, something that has an adverse impact of bio-sequestration (capture and storage) of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Deforestation on a larger scale causes soil erosion; some areas can be degraded into wastelands causing extinction to fauna and flora, changes to climatic conditions, desertification and displacement of populations as observed by current conditions in certain areas and in the past through the fossil record.
The number of small-scale tobacco growers has grown exponentially since the country's controversial land reform programme which saw thousands of subsistence farmers resettled on prime agrarian land formerly owned by white commercial farmers.
The tobacco farmers find themselves in what could be a vicious cycle. While tobacco farming affords them the opportunity to increase household income in the short-term and rescue themselves from poverty, it is inextricably linked to serious degradation of the ecosystem, raising questions about the sustainability of their operations.
Compounding their plight are the low tobacco prices this year which could leave many of them unable to afford inputs for the coming season, or failing to pay their debts at a time when funding is hard to come by due to the prevailing liquidity crunch gripping the economy.
Tobacco industry sources estimate there are now 47 000 small-scale (holders of A2 farms) tobacco farmers making up about 83% of Zimbabwe's total tobacco farmers, most of whom joined the industry in the past two years.
In 2004, there were only about 4 000 small-scale black farmers. The decline in the prices of cotton and other cash crops has drawn a large number of the farmers to tobacco farming which offers better returns.
The main variety grown by the small-scale farmers, flue-cured tobacco, requires an energy-intensive drying process (called curing) in specialised barns. While coal would be ideal, new farmers cannot afford it and so they use firewood instead, resulting in environmental degradation through deforestation. Both deforestation and the burning of fuels contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, because tobacco plants are highly susceptible to diseases, farming of the crop needs extensive use of pesticides which contribute to land pollution.
The environmental impact of the small-scale growers is as alarming as it is unsustainable: about 5,3 million trees are being cut down each year as a part of tobacco production in the country, according to experts.
A single hectare of smallholder farming produces about 1 400kg of tobacco that requires seven tonnes of firewood to cure. The knock-on effects of this are widespread, with deforestation leading to siltation of the rivers and long-term damage of the soil structure, texture and fertility, hence low productivity in the long-run.
According to Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ) data released recently, Zimbabwe is estimated to have lost 15% of its tree cover in the last 15 years due to deforestation with experts saying at the current rate, the sobering thought is that the country risks turning into a desert in just 35 years. In fact, at current deforestation rates, it is estimated that by 2016 the major tobacco areas will have no trees.
As more and more farmers get into tobacco farming attracted by the lure of good returns for the right-quality crop, Zimbabwe's forests are increasingly under threat from land clearances for agriculture, firewood collection, wildfires and even illegal harvesting for wood curio carvings.
Constant electricity cuts caused by the country's power deficit have not helped matters as more people turn to firewood as a substitute for electricity.
In an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent this week, a new tobacco farmer based in Guruve, who requested anonymity, said farmers had no choice but to cut down trees because the energy alternative -- coal -- is expensive and unaffordable.
"There is an alternative to firewood, coal, which is very expensive and unaffordable for most new farmers. Companies that contract farmers also provide coal, but the problem is that it is very costly," the farmer said from Mudhindo village which is also devastated by deforestation.
"We have to pay US$250 for one tonne of coal and the farmer has to insure the farm for an extra US$300 per hectare. Farmers are running away from incurring huge costs given the fluctuations in tobacco prices. So we cut down on energy costs by using firewood."
Environment Management Authority (Ema) education and publicity manager, Steady Kangata, said his organisation was seized with the issue of land degradation caused by tobacco farmers.
"Cutting down trees is an offence and we are working with traditional chiefs, local authorities and even volunteers at ward levels to educate people on the need to preserve our environment," Kangata said.
However, analysts say such education is unlikely to be put to practical use as long as the farmers cannot afford the alternative to firewood, coal, and as long as trees are still available.
Kangata also said traditional leaders use their local authority legislation to preside over cases of unlawful cutting down of trees and so far 101 cases have been tried countrywide.
Tobacco farmers are also heavily weighed down by the current low price of tobacco which has gone down to as low as US$0,10 per kg. Figures from the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board indicate so far the opening price has slumped to US$3 for the first two weeks of sales compared to last year's US$3,57, a 16,27% plunge.
Tempers boiled over last week after farmers accused tobacco buyers of fleecing them through low prices. At Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, which caters for small-scale growers, irate farmers protested against buyers whom they felt were deliberately short-changing them by buying tobacco at rock-bottom prices -- as low as US$0,60 per kg -- and then selling it for US$3 a kg later.
Tobacco growing is a labour-intensive undertaking requiring knowledge, the right inputs and correct packaging among other necessities. It provides employment for thousands of people hired for weeding, picking, curing and packaging. So it is hardly surprising that tobacco farmers are demanding what they feel is due to them given the rigours of tobacco farming.
However, in an interview with the Independent Timb chief executive Andrew Matibiri dismissed the farmers' allegations, insisting tobacco prices are determined by the quality of the leaf and no one was being ripped off.
"No-one is being cheated because the tobacco prices are determined by the grade and quality of the leaf and not by the buyers," Matibiri said. "Contracted farmers also get their prices from the auction floors and this is not being appreciated by the farmers who feel they are being been short-changed."
Matibiri said Zimbabwe's tobacco output may rise to 180 million kg this season, as more farmers have grown the crop as the nation's climatic conditions improve.
"Small-scale tobacco farmers currently account for more than half of Zimbabwe's output. As production rises, farmers should now focus on improving quality," he said.
Matibiri also said the onus is on the FCZ and the Ema to educate farmers on sustainable tobacco farming methods.
But, as things stand, sustainable tobacco farming methods appear to be the least of the farmers' worries: more pressing for them is the issue of a fair return for their labour -- not deforestation.