Tobacco industry moves to reverse crop’s ecological footprint

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Tobacco industry moves to reverse crop’s ecological footprint The Sustainable Afforestation Association targets to plant up to 30 000ha (or 4 000ha-5 000ha each year) of the fast-growing gum tree in seven years
The Sustainable Afforestation Association targets to plant up to 30 000ha (or 4 000ha-5 000ha each year) of the fast-growing gum tree in seven years

The Sustainable Afforestation Association targets to plant up to 30 000ha (or 4 000ha-5 000ha each year) of the fast-growing gum tree in seven years

Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
The Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA) has spent $3,7 million planting nearly 4 000 hectares of eucalyptus in the past two years, hoping to cut tobacco’s 15 percent share of deforestation, but the plan is running below the association’s long-term targets.

Formed in October 2013, the SAA is a tobacco industry initiative that aims to curb tobacco-related forest loss, and protect future profits.

Fifteen merchants are funding the project by way of a 1,5 percent voluntary levy on the value of their tobacco purchases.

The association targets to plant up to 30 000ha (or 4 000ha-5 000ha each year) of the fast-growing gum tree in seven years, which it hopes will build a sustainable energy source for tobacco curing and other ancillary activities for the future.

SAA operations director, Mr Andy Mills, said just 600ha were planted in the inception year and a further 3 340ha during the 2014 /15 season. He is not too disappointed with the level of progress so far.

“The expansion of planting has to be carefully managed, and as this expands, so does the area requiring protection against disease and fire,” said Mr Mills, in an interview.

“During the winter months, fire is a major potential threat, but the strategies adopted by the SAA of involving local communities looks as if they have been successful.”

Uncontrolled veld fires are a major hazard for new forest plantations, destroying over 900 000ha each year, says the Environmental Management Agency.

However, the SAA has trained communities in areas where they have plantations in fire prevention, and has also set up stand-by fire brigades.

Ecological curse, new options

Tobacco may be Zimbabwe’s biggest agriculture export, raking in over $1,1 billion combined in the past two selling seasons, but the crop is also an ecological curse.

Each year, 49 500 hectares of native forests like the Mopani or Miombo are lost to tobacco production, according to the Forestry Commission.

Forests are crucial to climate change mitigation, removing billions of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But deforestation and forest degradation is also a major source of greenhouse gases, contributing 19 percent of all world emissions, much higher than the transportation sector at 15 percent, says the UN’s expert panel on climate change.

With tobacco curing, 9kg of wood will be required to cure a kg of tobacco, Dr Dahlia Garwe, chief executive of the Tobacco Research Board said in a previous interview.

That is, for every half hectare with an output of 600kg, 60 full grown trees must be cut.

Now, the association is aiming to catch up with its 4 000ha minimum annual new plantations goal, expanding the existing 32 plantations dotted in the main tobacco growing regions of Mashonaland West, Central and East, and Manicaland, but that also means a lot of work in research and development.

Mr Mills did not specify how much they are spending on research and development, but the association has started experimenting with new fuels like bamboo and methane gas, as curing options.

Early trials for bamboo charcoal at Kutsaga Research Station have proved satisfactory.

SAA looks to expand the range of species currently planted, with four trial plots to evaluate the growth performance of 15 species that have potential for tobacco curing already established. Just four species are grown as of now.

“The objective is to identify suitable trees (eucalyptus and non-eucalyptus) that grow relatively fast and can be used to replace gum trees in curing tobacco,” said Mr Mills.

The new hybrid species, if successful, must also be able to resist disease such as the Blue-gum Chalcid, a gall wasp rapidly spreading across Zimbabwe.

SAA plantations at Rothwell Farm at Zvimba have been hard hit by the pest, severely hindering growth.

Can it Work?

The SAA wants to build forests for the future. The plan is very feasible. It will work, but depending on how many of the affected communities are involved in managing those forests.

After all, and until now, little effort has gone towards stemming the unsustainable levels of deforestation meted out, principally, by smallholder tobacco growers. It’s worth a cheer.

In most African countries, the delegation of forestry rights to communities is incomplete, discretionary or limited in scope, said a November 2013 report on forests management by the US Agency for International Development.

So far, the SAA appears to have minimised those pitfalls. The trees planted at Rothwell Farm in Zvimba last year and at Featherstone have developed well, with an 85 percent survival rate — much better than the Forestry Commission’s 65 percent in its nationwide projects — but are under severe attack from pests.

The SAA does not have farms of its own. So, it has negotiated partnerships with land owners, who, in all fairness, have been under-utilising their farms.

Farmers get 20 percent of output and can choose to continue with the project when the SAA eventually pulls out in about 20 years, after three harvests.

That farmer will not have to do much apart from peripheral management because the SAA provides technical and input support, as well as capacity building.

Through partnerships, the SAA’s projects are beginning to show potential to yield important short-term community benefits from projects otherwise predominantly targeted at combating existing and future climate risks.

Villagers are employed seasonally for planting and weeding. But there is no telling if they truly feel or understand the projects belongs not only to the SAA, but them also. That is work in progress.

The Association’s projects will be most successful where empowerment of communities is strongest, even when they are not the primary partners.

The SAA should see to it that farmer and community benefits are significantly greater than “transaction, management and opportunity costs” of the joint venture arrangement.

Things can get worse

Unmitigated, tobacco-linked deforestation can result in wholesale desertification in a very short space of time. That’s the kind of threat existing in Mt Darwin’s Pfura district today.

At the current rate of illegal logging, forests in this key tobacco producing area will all but be wiped out as early as 2017, just 30 years since small-scale tobacco production started in earnest, according to satellite mapping by the SAA.

In 1986, there was 4 264ha of forest cover in Pfura, but that figure had declined 191 percent to 1 464ha by 2008. And that was meant to feed only 561ha of curing needs.

By starting new forest plantations, the SAA is not only helping to save the environment, but also securing the future profits of its funders. It is a win-win.

However, with 85 percent of deforestation occurring outside the tobacco sector, Mr Mills was never going to be the one to accept responsibility.

“While tobacco curing certainly contributes towards deforestation, it is not the sole or even the biggest culprit and cannot be expected to solve the problem on its own.” he said.

God is faithful.

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