Obert Chifamba-Agri-Insight

WHEN legendary physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton came up with his third law of motion — “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” — in 1686, his intentions were to explain what happens in nature — there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

In layman terms, Newton was saying for every action taken, there is a consequence or reaction that is equal in strength but goes in the opposite direction.

Today, as the country pushes to achieve a US$5 billion industry by 2025, it is important to remember Newton’s third law of motion, minus its scientific insinuations, and look at how tobacco farmers’ activities will impact the environment. Obviously, the volumes we are targeting to achieve will be an amplification of what is currently being produced, so there will also be need for the deployment of more resources compared to what is presently happening.

The long and short of it is that input quantities are going to change and so will the footprint left by the activities on the environment, if no measures to curtail drastic changes are put in place. 

Tobacco curing, in particular, will easily hog the limelight for the wrong reasons, especially if those farmers who rely on wood for fuel do not have a plan to replenish what they would have subtracted. 

Of course, there are a number of ways such farmers can make up for the extraction of wood they would be doing. One such way is through switching to the tunnel concept that was developed as far back as the 1970s, but has not been explored to its fullest, especially in Zimbabwe. 

Tunnels are economical in their consumption of coal, with a standard 30ha tunnel only requiring as little as 0,7kg of coal per kilogramme of dry tobacco and can also run on 15KW of electricity per hour (20KVA generator).

Conventional barns on the one hand require between three and four kilogrammes of coal per kilogramme of dry tobacco, which makes the former a worthwhile investment for saving on coal, electricity and labour. 

A tobacco tunnel is a continuous system that has hot air blown into one side and is pushed through the tunnel to be exhausted at the end with some of the moist air returned to the heat exchanger room and mixed into the hot air stream to allow humidity to be controlled.

Farmers with access to generators can use them for curing their tobacco to escape electricity outages but the option does not come cheaply, as it is also laden with the cost of securing fuel. 

Obviously, this one shuts the door on the resource-poor farmer expensive who will then be left with wood as the only affordable and accessible alternative.

The majority of the country’s 140 000 smallholder farmers who grow tobacco heavily relies on wood for curing the golden leaf, which puts massive pressure on forests.

Kutsaga Research and the Forestry Commission have always been fighting in both the farmers and environmentalists’ corner and going the extra mile to protect forests from complete extermination as farmers harvest wood for tobacco curing. 

For some years now, Kutsaga Research has been giving farmers free gum tree seedlings to plant once they buy tobacco seedlings from them, while the Forestry Commission has been on a whirlwind distributing gum tree seedlings in every part of the country to ensure citizens replace trees they would have cut down with fast maturing exotic tree varieties.

In 2005 Forestry Commission launched a Tobacco Wood Energy Programme to encourage farmers to set aside a piece of land on their plots to plant a woodlot of fast growing tree species such as eucalyptus for the purpose of tobacco curing. 

Farmers can also find a piece of land to establish a communal plantation of eucalyptus trees where they can always harvest trees for wood curing without disturbing natural forests. 

On the one hand, the commission is always doing research on fast growing indigenous tree species that farmers can choose to grow in their woodlots so they do not come to a point where they fail to get wood for fuel.

The Forestry Commission has since revealed that the aggregate annual rate of forest loss in the country was determined to be approximately 262 349 hectares as at 2017 with 20 percent of this deforestation rate associated with the tobacco production value chain.

Naturally, this has serious implications on the environment and the tobacco industry. 

Farmers in most tobacco growing areas cut indigenous trees for tobacco curing, hence the push by Forestry Commission and other stakeholders for growers to establish woodlots dedicated to their production activities.

To date Forestry Commission has distributed 8 500 000 gum tree seedlings to the country’s four tobacco growing provinces – Mashonaland East, West, Central and Manicaland and a few districts in the Midlands province.

It is now the farmers’ obligation to ensure the young trees are nursed to maturity if they have plans to grow tobacco way into the future without creating deserts of their once-bustling forests. 

It is sickening to note that millions of hectares have been stripped of tree cover by farmers plucking out wood for tobacco curing and not planting new trees the lot they would have extracted. 

The sad reality, however, is that their actions will eventually come back to haunt them especially with the growing global feeling that the crop is destroying the environment hence the push to boycott tobacco confirmed to have been produced using methods detrimental to the safety of the ecosystem.

In recent times most contractors have resorted to giving farmers some coal for tobacco curing but the quantities have often fallen short of meeting their requirements forcing them to turn to wood. 

Currently, 95 percent of the country’s tobacco is produced under contract arrangements with the remaining percentage going to the self-financing group. 

This group usually comprises both classes of people – the haves and have-nots. Those with the means usually use other options in place of wood to cure their crop while the not-so-privileged ones turn to the naturally available wood but do not have the capacity to then roll out remedial measures to replace the trees they cut.

Deforestation and afforestation matters aside – farmers must also realise that for the country to attain a US$5 billion tobacco industry by 2025, which is next year, it will not be just a matter of them increasing quantities of the crop.

The crop must be of good quality for it to fetch high grades at the market, which will translate into high earnings. 

This will require them to use the right management practices.

Proper management practices will start from the agronomy to the point at which the crop is sent to the market.

It has to be a complete package that meets the expectations of the market both domestically and internationally.

If the crop was produced using sustainably recommended methods and is then cured, graded and packaged properly, there is no way in which the country will fail to meet the grade. The production volumes have been increasing in recent times with the year 2023 recording the highest record of 296 million kilogrammes of the golden leaf worth over US$897 million.

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