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Up in Smoke

In Zimbabwe, a booming tobacco-growing sector threatens the country’s forests

This year alone, Zimbabwe is expected to earn a record $777 million dollars from tobacco sales, mainly to China. The country’s tobacco farmers and tobacco traders be may thrilled, but their joy is an environmental catastrophe for the African country.

photo of tobaccoPhoto by Sean Jackson A tobacco farm in Zimbabwe.

Flu-cured tobacco (also called Virginia tobacco) is Zimbabwe's most lucrative cash crop, dwarfing maize, cotton or cut flowers destined for Europe. The country produces some of the world's finest Virginia tobacco, and today tobacco sales account for 26 percent of the country's foreign currency earnings. The country is among the top producers of Virginia tobacco, alongside Brazil and the United States. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of tobacco farmers increased from 1,400 to 87,000, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

But tobacco has been an outright disaster for the country's woodlands. Since 1997, Zimbabwe’s deforestation rate accelerated at 1.5 percent a year, according to the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission. A significant percentage of this is due to tobacco cultivation. Since 2012, the small-scale farmers who make up 80 percent of the country's tobacco growers have been clearing 5.3 million trees a year as they expand tobacco plots, seeking to increase their profits. "The national rate of deforestation currently stands at more than 300,000 hectares per annum, of which 15 percent is attributable to tobacco production activities," says Forest Commission Agency chief research scientist Tom Deva. "It's an unthinkable catastrophe.”

According to the agency, every year Zimbabwe is losing an area of forest that is three times bigger than the country's capital city, Harare.

Flu-cured tobacco is an energy-intensive crop that requires intensive heat to dry out and cure the crop's leaves. Curing means circulating hot air around the crop for seven days. The hot air could be generated from coal (of which Zimbabwe had plenty) or gas. But Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers (many of whom seized their small plots of lands from white farmers in 2000) don’t have sufficient money to buy coal for drying their tobacco. Firewood is an easy alternative to coal. On average, small-scale tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe own 3.2 hectares of cropped land, according to Consultancy Africa Intelligence. To prepare tobacco for sale, nearby forests are cleared and the wood stockpiled to heat and dry the crop.

Because wood is less efficient than coal or gas, more forests are mowed down to provide fuel. In 2011 alone, “This sadly meant 46,000 hectares of woodland were burnt," admits Andrew Matibiri, the chief executive officer for the Zimbabwe Tobacco Industry Marketing Board. And in Zimbabwe it's no one's priority to plant new trees to grow back green forests.

In the country's Mashonaland province (commonly referred to as the 'Tobacco Belt") deforestation has laid the land bare and arid. Vanishing forests have brought flash floods, erosion and mass displacement of wildlife. Many farmers there are draining wetlands and drying shallow wells as they extend their fields.

"As forests vanish in this province, wildlife and people are on the mouth of drought, floods and hunger very soon," says Howard Faws a prominent economist in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean farmers’ preference for growing inedible tobacco for export leaves the country on the edges of acute hunger. But farmers have a hard time resisting, because tobacco is such a lucrative crop. Fuelled by China — which bought 328 million kilograms of tobacco in 2014 — the price of tobacco in Zimbabwe has shot up to $6 per kilogram. This inspires farmers to lay their hands on previously protected prime forests. Water bodies are contaminated with pesticides as farmers try to protect their crops. As long ago as 1977, the United Nations Environment Programme was worried that fuel wood scarcity, land degradation and deforestation in developing countries could be linked to tobacco farming.  

The country's laws compel tobacco farmers to establish fast growing tree species as replacements. But this regulation is rarely obeyed. The judicial fine for destroying forests in Zimbabwe is low, as offenders only have to pay $300 no matter how large a forest is burned down. 

In 2011 the country's largest replanting target was met with 10 million new trees. "Forests have a paramount contribution to make as engines of future sustainable development," Saviour Kasikuwere, Zimbabwe's water and climate minister, told me in an interview last year. However there is doubt about how many of the new trees survived subsequent wild fires that accompany tobacco farming.

Some international tobacco merchants operating in Zimbabwe have sought to improve the situation. For example, the multinational British American Tobacco Company introduced what it called a "rocket barn." This is a tobacco drying kitchen that uses 50 percent less firewood and only burns wood harvested from commercial forests, not natural ones.

There has been a silver lining in tobacco farming, too. Despite a wipeout of forests, tobacco has been credited with reviving the rural economy in a country with 80 percent unemployment and a de-industralizing economy. According to the country's Tobacco Industry Marketing Board, 32 percent of growers this year in Zimbabwe are women. 

Still, tobacco remains an unhealthy balancing act for Zimbabwe — earning vital dollars in the short-term, but wiping away the country's precious ecosystems in the long-run.

Ray Mwareya
Ray Mwareya is an international reporter for the Global South Development Magazine.

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