Zim tobacco ‘boom’ marred by environmental warnings

Deforestation, threats to water supply and an ongoing failure to produce critically needed food are just some warnings marring Zimbabwe’s tobacco ‘boom’.

The much publicised ‘success’ of the tobacco sector has been lauded by ZANU PF, which led the land grab campaign that saw top party officials and loyalists seize commercial farms.

Under the guise of ‘reform’, the campaign resulted in the destruction of the agricultural sector and in turn helped shatter the failing economy. There has also never been a return to the level of local food production seen prior to the launch of the land grabs, leaving Zimbabwe dependent on food imports and an estimated two million Zimbabweans reliant on food aid.

But in recent years a growing number of smallhold tobacco farmers has seen the output of this sector begin to surge.

Commercial Farmers Union president Charles Taffs said what is being witnessed in the tobacco sector is far from a ‘boom’, but rather a “partial tobacco recovery.” He told SW Radio Africa that Zimbabwe is “way, way short of where we were 14 years ago,” in terms of tobacco production. He also warned that the tobacco success has come at a serious expense, saying that the path Zimbabwe was currently on was “unsustainable.”

“We’ve come from a hugely diverse agricultural base, to a single crop base. And we are relying on one commodity and as a country we cannot afford to do this,” Taffs said

Deforestation, in particular, has been the main impact of Zimbabwe’s tobacco surge, with warnings that if the current trend continues, by 2016 the major tobacco areas will have no trees. Timber is used in the curing of tobacco, with small scale farmers (said to make up about 83% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers) not having access to coal, the more expensive, alternative fuel for tobacco curing.

“We’re losing vast amounts of indigenous timber to cure this tobacco. What happened is that we were moving away from timber towards coal with electrification. But with the expansion of the small scale sector, most of the farmers don’t have access to power,” Taffs explained.

He said that the knock on affects of this were widespread, with deforestation leading to major siltation of the rivers and long term damage of soil. He warned that, if allowed to carry on unchecked, the deforestation as a result of tobacco farming would be “catastrophic.”

“So we are seeing the growth of the small scale tobacco industry at the expense of timber. And in three or four years time we will have no timber and no tobacco,” Taffs said. – SW Radio Africa

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