Zimbabwe: Tobacco farming is ‘fueling deforestation’

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 20 June 2022 17:15

A woman harvests tobacco at a farm outside Harare
A woman harvests tobacco at a farm outside Harare, Zimbabwe, February 20, 2019. Picture taken February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Zimbabwe, the largest producer of tobacco in Africa and sixth globally, is looking to turn tobacco farming into a $5bn industry by 2025. It is one of the biggest foreign currency earners for the Southern African nation, along with gold and remittances.

Last year alone, tobacco earned $1.2bn, but statistics show that tobacco farmers are responsible for ravaging 60,000 hectares of forests each year, around 20% of the country’s total forest loss of 262,000 hectares per annum. Can a sustainable solution be found before the industry reaches its new goal?

Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry is dominated by smallholder farmers who contribute to more than 50% of the country’s yearly produce.

In 2021, about 106,000 smallholder tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe produced 133,000 metric tons out of total production of 211,000 metric tons, according to Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB).

Most of these smallholder farmers use firewood to burn their tobacco in homemade barns in a process known as curing – the removal of moisture from tobacco leaves using controlled temperatures for several weeks.

For every kilogram of tobacco, about ten kilograms of wood is used in the curing process and it’s that wood that is quickly depleting Zimbabwe’s forests.

Tobacco farming a menace for stakeholders

“The issue of tobacco farming in the country is worrying to us because of the current situation that is being done in an unsustainable manner,” says Violet Makoto, a spokesperson for the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ), a state agency mandated with regulation, management and conservation of forests.

They [farmers] rely entirely on fuel wood for tobacco curing and this is resulting in extensive deforestation

“From the Forestry Commission viewpoint, we are looking at the amount of fuel wood that is required in the production of tobacco. That is causing a lot of deforestation in the country.”

Makoto tells The Africa Report that most smallholder farmers rely on indigenous trees for wood fuel to cure their tobacco.

“Approximately 85% of tobacco growers are smallholders and this group is utilising less than two hectares of land for growing the crop, so they rely entirely on fuel wood for tobacco curing and this is resulting in extensive deforestation,” she says.

“As a farming venture itself, right from the onset, it causes a lot of deforestation. When the farmer is actually clearing the land to prepare for a tobacco field there is deforestation and at the curing stage. There is a lot of timber that is being used. Most of these small-scale farmers are utilising our indigenous resources.”

Although Zimbabwe ratified the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1997 and the FCZ launched its Tobacco Wood Energy Programme (TWEP) in 2005 to assist smallholder farmers to establish woodlots for firewood used to cure tobacco, the problem of deforestation persists.

Every year, around 3.5 million hectares of land globally are destroyed for tobacco cultivation with about 90% in the developing world. These countries are vulnerable to intensive tobacco industry interference and marketing tactics, according to the World Health Organisation.

Can tobacco’s stakeholders in Zimbabwe do more?

Makoto says they tried to promote charcoal, but that has been met with resistance from farmers because of the cost component. “The farmers would need to buy the charcoal. Somehow our farmers do not factor in fuel wood as part of inputs when planning, so they [would] rather go for something they perceive [as] a free source, which is the forest where they cut down trees,” she says.

There is a lack of enforcement. Programmes, such as tree planting day, are not being implemented throughout the country

Since 2015, it has been obligatory for tobacco farmers to pay a levy from their sales to go towards reforestation. The levy is collected by TIMB, channelled to the Central Bank and then distributed to the FCZ.

They use this fund to expand their nursery operations so they can propagate fast-growing species of trees that can be distributed to tobacco farmers.

“The idea here is to promote farmers, apart from their crop, to set aside a piece of land where they set up a woodlot of fast-growing [species] of trees like the eucalyptus that is fast growing and used for tobacco curing,” she says.

Chelesani Moyo, a public affairs officer at TIMB, says his organisation is doing awareness campaigns across the country to curb deforestation.

“Currently, TIMB is undertaking a project with the Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA) to establish woodlots for all tobacco growers. To date, 150 hectares of eucalyptus have been planted in Manicaland and 79 hectares in Mashonaland East with the aim of planting 120 hectares,” he tells The Africa Report.

“Every tobacco grower is encouraged to establish a woodlot on their land. At least 0.3 hectares of wood per hectare of tobacco grown. Willing farmers get tree seedlings for free. Tobacco growers are also encouraged to use fuel-efficient barns as well as other sustainable fuels like coal and electricity.” Laura Mlambo, a monitoring and evaluation officer at Environment Africa, says more needs to be done.

“There is a lack of enforcement. Programmes, such as tree planting day, are not being implemented throughout the country. Some farming areas are being left behind. Some farmers are smallholder farmers who do not have enough land to grow trees. They end up just cutting down trees without growing any,” she says.

Makoto hopes that tobacco farmers will resort to these fast-growing trees that are renewable in their nature as they regenerate fast other than to indigenous trees that are slow-growing in nature and difficult to propagate.

“We want people to grow their own source for fuel wood. We have challenges for small-scale farmers. They have small pieces of land. It is difficult for them to set aside land for woodlots, but we are encouraging them to have community woodlots,” she says.

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