“Wake up and smell the tobacco!” That is what you say to someone sitting on US$21,5 million meant for responsible and sustainable farming of the golden leaf.
As we reported yesterday, the money collected under the Tobacco Levy since 2015 has not been disbursed because of “administrative bottlenecks”.
And because of such inaction, we risk losing our major cash cow and our forests. Talk about killing the proverbial golden goose!
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, worldwide, over one billion people smoke. Although WHO is not particularly excited by this fact, it is sweet music in the ears of local tobacco farmers. Last year, tobacco sales hit a record 250 million kilogrammes worth $729 million.
As a crop, tobacco quickly gained ground as the corner stone of the land reform success story.
In fact, tobacco is Zimbabwe’s single largest foreign currency earner. With Zimbabwe experiencing crippling foreign currency shortages, which have seen the country struggling to import adequate essential commodities such as fuel and medical drugs, inflows from this year’s crop are expected to improve the situation.
However, the success of the crop has not been without its flaws. The environment carries the deep scars of thriving tobacco production.
Woodlands are fast diminishing.
In a bid to ensure that the economic benefits derived from tobacco production do not destroy an even more valuable natural resource, Government, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB), farmers and other stakeholders came up with an afforestation programme which would also address global concerns raised by anti-tobacco movements.
In line with this noble cause, the Tobacco Levy was introduced in 2015.
However, bureaucracy has reared its ugly head.
This is despite the fact that the tobacco industry is battling to meet the 2020 Global Tobacco Cigarette Companies Guidelines on producing the crop in a sustainable way.
The Global Tobacco Cigarette Companies Guidelines state that as from 2020, international buyers will no longer be accepting tobacco that has not been produced in a sustainable manner, including that which is cured using coal.
Government introduced the levy, meant for afforestation, in January 2015 and it was levied on all tobacco farmers at a rate of 1,5 percent in the first year and 0,75 percent in subsequent years.
TIMB chairperson Mrs Monica Chinamasa blamed the delays in the distribution of the fund to administrative bottlenecks.
“Farmers are fighting to meet the global market requirements, but bureaucratic bottlenecks have come into play. We were told the funds must have a constitution that is passed by Parliament and it dragged on and on.
“Before the new Cabinet, three ministers responsible for Lands, Environment and Agriculture met and agreed that all the money should move to the Ministry of Agriculture then TIMB would access that money for farmers to grow trees as they know the growers.
“It is critical that our farmers grow trees or else the global market will not buy our tobacco,” she said.
Such “administrative bottlenecks” must be frowned upon. The tobacco industry must be given the attention it deserves.
Strange as it may seem, Zimbabwe is not alone.
In Malawi, which is the world’s largest producer of burley leaf tobacco, the annual cost of tobacco-related deforestation has been estimated at US$6,4 million. Tanzania — one of the top three African producers together with Zimbabwe and Malawi — is also facing the same problem of deforestation.
Why fast-growing trees like the eucalypti are not being planted remains a mystery.
Eucalypti, also known as gum trees, are used around the world for reforestation, in part because they grow fast. Farmers can expect to use them within five years, instead of waiting 20 years, which is standard for many other trees.
In Zimbabwe, the Forestry Commission has targeted to raise 25 million gum tree seedlings and five million assorted tree seedlings of fast growing tree species that can provide fuelwood.
Research is also being done by the Tobacco Research Board on the use of solar energy, ethanol and biogas for use in curing tobacco.
We urge the responsible authorities to act, and fast. We need the forex from tobacco and to get the money we need the market.
The market demands that we be responsible, and that is not an unreasonable demand. In any case, the trees to be planted are for Zimbabwe and not the market.
We cannot afford to have US$21,5 million lying idle.
Let’s plant the trees not only for ourselves, but for future generations.