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Tobacco farmers wiping out Zimbabwe’s indigenous forests

Following Mugabe's land reforms, Zimbabwe's farmers are turning to the booming tobacco industry to alleviate poverty, but this get-rich quick-fix scheme comes at what price to the local environment and farming communities? 

Andrew Mambondiyani
20 August 2013

Mpudzi Settlement area in Mutare district, east of Zimbabwe is a vast, poor farming community near the border with Mozambique. It stands on what was formerly a white-owned tobacco farm. It is now one of the oldest resettlement areas for black farmers arriving from various parts of Manicaland province since the country’s independence from British rule in 1980.

The majority of new farmers were maize farmers but the past 10 years have seen a decline in rainfall making maize farming more complicated.  Combined with a rising demand for flue cured tobacco from the Asian Markets (China is now one of the leading markets for tobacco from Zimbabwe), communities are turning to tobacco farming. 

Zimbabwe is one of the leading producers of flue cured tobacco in Africa, which today has more than 70,000 tobacco farmers registered to its Tobacco Marketing Board.   However, it is estimated that before Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, implemented the last 10 years of land reform programs, most of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop (which in 1998 registered at a record 260 million kilograms) was produced by no more than 3,000 white farmers using large-scale, sophisticated operations.  The growth in sheer numbers of farmers amidst growing international scrutiny over environmental degradation and the use of child labour must therefore be pictured against this backdrop. 

Tendai Katsaruware is one of the many new farmers who have turned to tobacco farming, with fairly successful results.  He raked in about US$7 000 in the most recent tobacco selling season.  This amount is quite substantial by the poor farmers’ standards. “It was a good year for me and I am happy,” Katsaruware said.  Part of his happiness may be down to his constant presence at a local beer-drinking hostelry. The previous week he had to be picked up by a fellow villager, having fallen in a ditch in a drunken stupor after having 'too many'. “Of course I did not use all the money to buy beer, I have also bought a cow, and an ox-drawn plough and I am really happy,” he added.

Another farmer, Francis Njikizana confirmed why most farmers had switched from maize farming to tobacco as the rainfall patterns in large parts of Zimbabwe had become unpredictable. “We used to get more than 5 tonnes of maize per hectare before the 1992 drought but today if try to grow maize you can hardly get a tonne. Last year I ventured into tobacco farming and the results were encouraging,” Nzikizana said.

The tobacco-selling season, which ended in July, has clearly seen thousands of farmers smiling all the way to the bank.  Crudely built tobacco-curing barns are now appearing behind most households in tobacco-growing communities in areas like Manicaland, Mashonaland West, East and Central and some parts of Midlands and Masvingo provinces. But behind the facade of this boom there lies an untold story of tobacco farming: the high costs that the lucrative venture exacts from the environment, most notably indigenous forests. 

While the previously rich, white tobacco farmers depended on electricity and coal to cure tobacco, the poor, new farmers have turned to indigenous trees in order to cure their crop. It is estimated that on average, it requires about 20 cubic meters, cleared from a hectare of wood to produce one tonne of flue-cured tobacco. This is not sustainable as the farmers are depending on indigenous trees which take years to mature. The indigenous forests, which the previous white farmers had jealously protected, are long gone, making way for vast bare ground across the country.

“The rate at which tobacco farmers are cutting down trees is shocking. Our forests are gone and if you look from here more than five kilometers from the highway you can see even small cars passing through that road, which was not possible a couple of years ago as there was dense forest. Yes, tobacco farming is a paying farming venture but we should take cognisance of the future. Something should be done as a matter of urgency to preserve our forests,” lamented, Nekias Mkwindidza, a concerned local elder in Mpudzi Resettlement area.

Though the Tobacco Market Board has encouraged tobacco farmers to have woodlots of exotic trees like gum trees, many farmers seem not to be interested in investing in the future of tobacco farming. They are worried about today’s profits with little interest in ploughing it back into the tobacco industry to achieve a more long-term, sustainable future. 

The environment minister, Francis Nhema was equally shocked by the rate at which tobacco farmers are wiping out indigenous trees, hinting that the government might have to force farmers to switch from the current high paying Virginia tobacco to burley tobacco which does not need wood, coal or electricity for cure. 

Nhema told tobacco farmers during a tour of Manicaland province that “the country had limited options of either coming down hard on farmers wiping out indigenous trees or banning the production of high value flue-cured tobacco”.  But preparations for the coming tobacco season have moved up a gear, with many tobacco farmers prepared to double their hectarage, doubling its impact on Zimbabwe’s environment and farming communities alike.  

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