Zimbabwe Tobacco Revival Causes Forests to Go Up in Smoke

Jeremiah Sarudza stands outside his mud and thatch hut and watches his wife and children prepare a tobacco field surrounded by tree stumps.

The 32-year-old, like most of Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers, relies on wood to cure tobacco, a practice that’s stripping the gently rolling hills and granite outcrops of the country’s northern region of their woodlands.

While production of the crop in Zimbabwe, which once rivaled the U.S. as the source of the world’s best quality tobacco, is recovering from its collapse following the seizure of white-owned commercial farms by President Robert Mugabe’s government. The revival is coming at a cost to the environment.

In the place of 1,400 commercial farmers who ran large mechanized operations, more than 90,000 small-scale cultivators rely on freshly cut wood, rather than more costly coal or electricity, to produce so-called flue-cured tobacco.

“What can we do?” Sarudza said at his farm near Raffingora, 164 kilometers (102 miles) north of the capital, Harare. “We grow tobacco on contract for companies and by the time they have deducted the cost of inputs like seed, fertilizer and chemicals, the profit is small, so adding coal would make the crop a financial loss.”

The growers account for about 15 percent of the country’s annual deforestation of about 330,000 hectares (815,000 acres), according to the state’s Forestry Commission. Most of the rest is felled for sale as firewood in the nation’s cities.

Lost Land

The commission, run by Zimbabwe’s environment ministry, said in April that only 45 percent of natural forest remains and, at the current rate, indigenous forests will disappear within 50 years.

Between Sarudza’s small plot and his nearest neighbor three kilometers away, scrubland has replaced fields once worked by Zimbabwe’s mainly white large-scale farmers.

About 3,500 farmers lost their land and homes between 2000 and 2009 in often-violent invasions sponsored by President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party. Just over a third of those farmers grew a record 237 million kilograms (521.4 million pounds) of flue-cured Virginia tobacco in 2000.

While production plunged to as low as 45 million kilograms in 2008 it recovered to 205.5 million kilograms this year and is forecast to match the record crop in 2015.

Most of the coal or electricity-powered barns large-scale farmers used to use now stand empty, many in a state of ruin, their roofs and furnaces plundered for the construction of makeshift shelters and sheds used by the new occupants of the land.

‘Terrible Cost’

Small-scale farmers generally can’t afford coal deliveries to remote areas and rely on felling indigenous hardwoods, such as msasa, mountain acacia and mnondo trees, to cure their tobacco for sale.

“That’s come at a terrible cost to woodland,” Jerry Moyo, 51, who farms on a larger scale, using tractors to plow and coal to cure his crop, in the fertile Mvurwi district 70 kilometers north of Harare. “The crop has been effectively corporatized. The whole process from seedbed to sale belongs to corporations who have killed the private enterprise nature of the crop.”

While in 2000 all of the crop was sold at auctions, today 70 percent is grown under contract for companies such as British American Tobacco Plc (BATS) and Universal Corp. (UVV), according to the state-run Tobacco Industry Marketing Board.

Merchants who fund and then buy the crop “don’t give a damn about deforestation,” Moyo said. “These corporations say they provide gum-tree seed to farmers so they can grow their own timber, but it’s just a joke. What small-scale guy is going to plant trees on his measly two hectares, then wait five or 10 years to harvest the wood for curing?”

‘Strongly Urge’

Tobacco buyers including Mashonaland Tobacco Co., Tobacco Processors Zimbabwe Ltd., Alliance One (AOI) Inc and Universal’s Zimbabwe Leaf Tobacco declined to comment.

“We supply gum seed with all tobacco seed purchases and strongly urge farmers, no matter how small or large, to make us of them in order to avoid a deforestation crisis,” Andrew Matibiri, chief executive officer of the TIMB, said in an interview.

Still, the Harare-based Sustainable Afforestation Programme, funded by the tobacco-buying companies, says it plans to spend $33.5 million over the next seven years replanting about 5,000 hectares of tr‘es a year.

“We’ve planted 600 hectares, about 1.3 million trees, in four districts so far,” Maggie Okore, the organization’s general manager, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The organization was founded late last year.

“How can I plant trees when I have only two hectares? The trees will take most of the land and then where will I plant tobacco or corn for my family?” Sarudza said. “There’s room to grow trees or tobacco, not both.”


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