Zimbabwe: Tobacco Farmers Must Plant More Woodlots

editorial

Tobacco farmers need to take seriously the warnings that chopping down swathes of indigenous woodland to feed their curing barns is likely to imperil many of their markets and there is now urgent need to switch to other sources of fuel, such as the eucalypti woodlots being pushed by the Forestry Commission.

There are three factors, and an alliance of three large pressure groups, at work.

First many in the developed world are worried about the loss of tropical and subtropical woodland despite the fact that the bulk of the hardwood forests that once covered much of Europe have been cleared for agriculture and fuel over the past 2 500 years.

A glance at the sort of research being done, and this is backed by local research, shows that in these vulnerable tropical environments serious loss of woodland will lead to desertification, especially when combined with climate change as a result of the growing carbon dioxide emissions.

The second pressure is from those who see forest destruction as leading to heightened greenhouse gas emissions, not just by burning timber, but by removing the carbon sinks that can absorb and lock up carbon from the atmosphere.

The third strand is the anti-tobacco lobby. The health risks from smoking are well-known and accepted. And in time tobacco production will decrease as new generations are less likely to smoke and the growing taxes in most countries make smoking more expensive.

But the anti-smoking lobby is always looking for extra pressures to cut consumption sooner and quicker and destroying natural woodland to produce a product they detest does give that lobby a lot of ammunition.

So it is quite easy to see that an alliance of conservationists, people trying to ameliorate climate change and those totally opposed to smoking in the first place can easily create effective political pressures to put in place bans on imports of tobacco cured with forest wood.

Fewer and fewer people in legislatures and cabinets will be willing to block laws pressed by those who argue that destroying ecosystems to produce an unhealthy addictive drug while pumping more carbon into the atmosphere is an evil that must be stopped.

Indication of the pressures can easily be found on the information page of almost every book and on most packs of paper.

"The paper in this product is produced from managed and renewable plantations or forests." Lobbies have already created that pressure and can easily do the same for tobacco.

Many in Zimbabwe itself recognise that destruction of natural woodland, especially the miombo woodlands prevalent in most tobacco growing areas, is a bad idea.

We know land must be cleared for farming, but much of our actual arable land is already cleared and has been for centuries.

But we need to keep our remaining natural woodland on hills and kopjes and wherever else indigenous trees still grow.

This is why farm woodlots have become the norm for firewood and why charcoal burning is so strongly discouraged.

The preservation of woodland, like the preservation of wetlands, is needed to ensure the ecosystems that farming requires remain functional and there has been growing Zimbabwean pressure to conserve woodland for several decades, right back into colonial times.

The large-scale estate owners who dominated tobacco production right up to 2000 and the advent of serious land reform were switching to coal from the 1960s, if only because they had already chopped down most of the trees on their farms by then and needed a new source of fuel.

Wood was still required for the fire-cured leaf, but Virginia tobacco uses hot air, and farmers have always taken steps to keep smoke out of their barns.

The coal systems worked when there were only a couple of thousand large farms, all with access to a good road.

Coal merchants could send in large trucks, but anyone reading reports of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, the grouping of the large-scale estate owners, would find references for the need of Hwange miners to ensure that they mined enough coal in time and pleas for the farmers to order coal in time, usually alongside the pleas for them to order fertiliser in time.

The coal option is not really suitable for the small-scale farmers who now grow our even larger present tobacco crop, and in any case there are other environmental concerns including the contribution that fairly inefficient coal burning makes to global warming.

But the Forestry Commission has another solution, the expansion of farm woodlots of fast growing trees with eucalypti being recommended since there is a suitable species for almost all natural regions, outside the Eastern Highlands where other fast growing woodlot species can flourish.

Already, the major effort made from the 1980s has seen the farm woodlot become the norm in most areas of Zimbabwe.

Eucalypti not only grow fast they have that extra advantage that when the original tree is felled a raft of new trunks will grow from the stump, very quickly, and a lot of rural households now take as standard the fact that their firewood comes from the woodlot next to the homestead, cutting back considerably on household labour.

Obviously a lot more trees will be needed to fuel the barns, but it should be easy to calculate how many trees of any given eucalypti species are needed to cure each hectare of tobacco and then collect the free seedlings now available to grow enough so that within a decade the barns are fuelled from the woodlot.

Woodlots not only preserve the slower growing indigenous woodland. They are a renewable energy source that does not add to the carbon footprint of tobacco.

The trees take carbon from the air, which is returned when the tree is burned, but then reabsorbed as more trees grow. And the fallen leaves add to the stock of mulch that all farmers now need for modern farming.

Simply being able to have a certificate from an accepted authority on every container of tobacco we export stating that the tobacco inside was cured by renewable energy sources with negligible environmental impact and a net zero carbon footprint will reduce the pressures.

The health risks remain and so demand is likely to decrease over time, but sufficiently slowly to be manageable.

But to get those certificates we need all farmers, not just some, to take the growing demands of our customer countries seriously. And that requires the entire industry to work together to ensure that as soon as possible all our tobacco is cured with "renewable energy sources with zero net carbon footprint".

It is no longer an option we can put in the plans for "next year". It is something we must do now.

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