Tobacco boom vs deforestation


Jeffrey Gogo  Climate Story
Tobacco remains a very important revenue earner for Zimbabwe, but the crop is an environmental menace.  The processes under which it is produced have docked 15 percent or 7,5 million trees from national forests per year in recent years.That’s a monumental environmental catastrophe, by any measure; particularly given Zimbabwe is planting an inadequate 2,5 million trees more each year, under the Forestry Commission. The costs of replacing the 7,5 million trees destroyed by tobacco each year tops US$22,5 million, if those trees are indigenous, barring other overheads such transport, labour, etc.

Now, the magnet of foreign currency has drawn 28 000 new farmers to tobacco in 2013, according to latest data from the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, pulling farmers even from previously unsuitable non-tobacco growing regions such as Matabeleland. The growth escalates environmental risks.

Of the new registrations, 48 percent are communal farmers, already well known for poor forest management practices. In short, they are well-drilled tree fellers who pay little attention to the environmental impacts of their actions.

With the new additions, there are now over 90 000 tobacco growers in Zimbabwe from just a few thousand five years ago. Happy readings for empowerment advocates but dreadful figures for environmentalists, only if the current production patterns are not significantly altered.

During the month of December, where multiple tree planting gestures are performed countrywide by the Government, corporates, schools and individuals among others as part of the annual National Tree Planting Day commemorations, the rising tobacco growers numbers, under the existing status quo, are a significant threat to such activities.

Farmers have consistently decimated indigenous forests, as if there was no tomorrow, chipping off scotchcart loads of wood, a very important source of energy for tobacco curing. However, one would require lots of it to treat just a few kilos of the crop.

Those that buy the crop should also share blame for the rampant loss of trees caused by tobacco production. Merchants and tobacco firms have been slow to respond to the forests disaster. Farmer awareness systems are generally weak.

Even with signposts standing high as early as 2000 during the formative years of Zimbabwe’s fast track land reforms that the new breed of farmers were more than likely to swell the industry, tobacco companies remained fixed on history, blind to the unfolding events, which ushered in the future.

The sorry state of events we are now witnessing around tobacco and deforestation today may be a direct result of many years of poor planning and lack of foresight not just on the part of tobacco firms but Government and other stakeholders as                                                       well.

Research and investment into alternative environmentally-friendly forms of energy for curing the crop have failed to satisfy anyone.
Big companies like BAT started encouraging farmers to adopt coal briquettes as an alternative to fuelwood as late as this year. The take up rate is still very slow.

Yet, the international tobacco market increasingly demands assurances regarding the quality and environmental impacts of production systems.

When compared to wood, coal briquettes are a better alternative, as they slow down the rate of deforestation. The briquettes were designed in a way that they can burn unassisted and thus no need for a fan.

Coal is efficient, burns faster and produces twice as much heat as wood. That means one requires less coal than they would for wood to cure the tobacco. At least 2,5kg of coal cures 1kg of tobacco, or a tonne of coal will give one three tobacco bales of average weight 120kg each. That compares with 9kg of wood necessary to treat one kg of tobacco.

The biggest challenge is transporting the coal, if someone does not bring it to the farmer’s doorstep, and convincing them to convert to wood. Forestry Commission spokesperson Violet Makoto said in a previous interview that it would be a great achievement “if we manage to commit just 50 percent of tobacco farmers to using coal instead of wood energy”.

Although there has been some movement by different stakeholders towards promoting tree planting to curb further loss of indigenous species, most farmers, particularly communal, remain ignorant of the consequences of their tree-felling actions.

The other alternatives include use of solar barns and that of fast growing exotic and indigenous trees such as eucalyptus and the acacia. The Tobacco Research Board is currently distributing seedlings for these tree species to farmers for free although the solar project is still work in progress.

It is important to support and strengthen the framework of policy and regulation that delivers improved economic, social, environmental and cultural outcomes from prudent farming practices.

New hope

TIMB chief executive officer Dr Andrew Matibiri revealed last week that the board was in the process of establishing a revolving fund to establish what are known as rocket barns for small- scale tobacco growers.

A rocket barn is another form of barn, which uses fuelwood but much more efficiently. Dr Matibiri said rocket barn use reduces consumption of firewood by as much as 55 percent “thereby saving the environment from deforestation”.

Each rocket barn that can cure up to 2 hectares of tobacco costs US$1 200 to construct.
“The environment will benefit because less trees will be cut. TIMB regional staff will identify beneficiaries. The quantum of funds for the scheme is being worked out,” said Dr Matibiri.

He further stated that the TIMB and tobacco merchants had established a Sustainable Afforestation Association to spearhead re-afforestation. The merchants will be expected to contribute an amount equivalent to 1.5 percent of total tobacco sales for that initiative.

“In addition, the same initiative is funding research into alternative energies that can be used for curing tobacco. These include coal, bamboo, biogas and solar,” he said.

Ms Makoto said the Forestry Commission had deliberately kept prices for tree seedlings of exotic extract low, some as low as US20c per plant, to support tobacco woodlot programmes.

Farmers are now being encouraged to secure a portion of their farmlands for the planting of trees, particularly eucalyptus, which grows faster, and thereby avoid mowing down natural forests.

Forests conservation within the tobacco industry must now take on a new shape and face. It is most likely wood would remain the dominant energy source going forward because it is cheap and readily accessible.

But the abuse of finite natural resources such as forests will only return to bite mankind.  Trees maintain the ecological balance without which Zimbabwe will emerge into a new Sahara with devastating impacts. So by saving trees farmers, tobacco stakeholders and everybody else should know they are actually saving themselves.

God is faithful.

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