Tobacco: Forests under siege

Source: Tobacco: Forests under siege | The Herald June 23, 2016

Tedious Manyepo : Correspondent

AFTER years of toil in subsistence farming with hardly any surplus to sell, 45-year old Peter Chiwara of Wedza finally decides to try his hand in tobacco in the 2015-2016 agricultural season. A natural hard worker himself and religiously following expert guidance from agricultural extension officers, Chiwara suddenly starts to sniff a fortune from the tobacco sales floors as his healthy crop, spread on a single hectare, nears maturity.But not without first having to contend with the rigorous process needed to cure it.

The nearby bushy area swiftly disappears as fellow villagers jostle to gather firewood to be used in the curing of the tobacco on the request of Chiwara who promises to pay them upon selling the crop.

As soon as the tobacco marketing season opened in late March, Chiwara was one of the early birds and as a first time tobacco farmer he is thankful that he did not labour in vain.

As the father of three currently enjoys the rich pickings with his family, inspired village colleagues work round the clock preparing their land for tobacco growing in the next farming season.

But they do not have any workable plan on the source of fuel they will use to cure the crop.

Such has been the trend on which more and more people have become interested in growing the golden leaf, unfortunately without due consideration to what their activities would do to the environment.

And who can blame them?

Most of them have tremendously improved their living standards. In fact these tobacco farmers have helped the country improve its export earnings.

This tobacco marketing season alone, the country has earned over $600 million from exporting the crop.

Yet it is the country which could actually lose more than what it is gaining from tobacco farming if the environmental question associated with the venture is not adequately addressed.

Out of the 80 987 registered tobacco farmers in the country, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of them use other energy sources like coal to cure their crop. The rest use firewood.

According to the Forestry Commission, tobacco farmers alone destroy about 50 000 hectares of forests across the country every year, representing 15 percent of the 330 000 hectares of forests the country is losing annually.

“We have found that more people are joining the bandwagon of tobacco farming, obviously due to all the lucrative rewards it offers.

“While the practice is worthwhile due to the fact that it is reaping a lot of benefits to the country, it should also be noted that due consideration is not being taken to protect the environment,” said Mr Stephen Zingwena, Forestry Commission’s operations manager.

Mr Zingwena said his organisation was working with other private players to see to it that tobacco farmers embarked on programmes to grow fast maturing tree species to be used in curing their crop.

He said the Forestry Commission had partnered with a private player, Sustainable Aforestation Association to ensure that the plan was effectively implemented without necessarily strangling tobacco farming which has hitherto proved to be one of the key pillars of the country’s economy.

“We are saying all farmers who wish to grow tobacco should demonstrate that they are able to grow at least 0,3 hactres of fast growing tree species for every 1 ha they wish to put under tobacco,” he said.

Mr Zingwena said he was happy though that most of the tobacco farmers were very much cooperative when it came to programmes which help reduce deforestation.

“I should say I am very much impressed by most of the tobacco farmers’ cooperation.

They do value all these programmes and most of them have actually started to grow these plantations,” he said.