Tobacco success a bitter pill

The success story of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe can aptly be described as a heavily sugar coated pill - sweet outside but bitter inside.

Though touted as one of the success stories of the land “reform” programme, tobacco farming has left a trail of environmental degradation, a starving nation and a health compromised tobacco small-scale farming community. Farmers use wood to cure tobacco, have abandoned food crops and the health implications of improper handling of tobacco chemicals are chilling to think of. In the past smallholder farmers were credited for producing much of the country’s grain – but recent years have seen a significant shift away from this.

A farmer from Mutare district in Manicaland province, Witness Chinene, summed it up when he said: “Our children will judge us harshly for destroying the environment and failing to feed the country.”

Trees are gone

“Look here,” he added pointing to vast swathes of bare ground which used to be thickly forested by indigenous trees. “The trees are long gone because farmers have been cutting them indiscriminately to cure tobacco. But we still have nothing to show for this tobacco farming craze. Tobacco farming was a failure in most parts of this area. And many farmers were left with heavy debts and no food for their families”.

A visit to some households in some parts of Manicaland revealed a frightening drift as granaries have been substituted by crudely built tobacco barns. Phibion Chadambuka was left deep in debt and could not pay some of the people he had engaged to harvest and cure his tobacco.

He had concentrated on tobacco and hoped to buy maize after selling his crop. Instead he was left deep in debt and his family had no food. But another farmer from the same area had a different story. Tendai Katsaruware hit the jackpot at the tobacco floors. He said he got nearly $5,000- a substantial amount by rural standards- after selling his tobacco. He married a wife, bought a cow, an ox-drawn plough, building material and a few household utensils. And for days afterwards, he was a daily feature at a local drinking spot, buying beer for anyone who knew his name.

Penniless

Hardly two weeks after selling his crop, Katsaruware was penniless. He sold the cow he had bought. He sold the ox-drawn plough and building material too, and reports said he sold some of the household utensils. Some people crudely alleged that he could have sold the wife too had the+ right price been offered.

This reporter caught up with Katsaruware at Gutaurare Business Centre in Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme where he was sharing opaque beer with his uncle. “I made a lot of money but I don’t know what happened to it. Next time I will be more careful and I will buy maize for food soon after selling my tobacco. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of last season,” he said.

Another farmer, Zwanai Sherekete could not hide his frustration. He was a maize farmer of repute but during the past two seasons he tried his luck in tobacco. This past season the results were catastrophic.

Impending crisis

“I registered good results during the first season but last season was a complete disaster; the prices were too low to sustain a future in tobacco farming. If I had grown maize and found that the prices were low I could simply withhold the crop and sell it to my neighbours. But with tobacco you cannot do that – you have to take your crop to the tobacco floors,” Sherekete said.

The tobacco craze has spread to farmers even in hot, dry areas like Buhera and Marange in Manicaland and Gokwe in Midlands, as well as some parts of Matabeleland previously known for growing small grains. A Buhera villager, Tongesai Murandu, warned of impending food crisis in most parts of the country if more farmers continue to discard food crops for tobacco.

Made insists

“A tobacco field day was held at the MP for Buhera North’s homestead and that alone sends wrong signals. This season we are expecting more farmers in Buhera to abandon small grains for tobacco – a serious food crisis is looming,” Murandu said.

Despite all these disturbing revelations, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, insists the tobacco sector had done well and the crop did not compromise the production of any other crops. In fact, he said all farmers who produce tobacco also produce maize – but events on the ground prove him false.

“It is a fallacy that tobacco has taken the space of other crops. It is a myth to say tobacco is competing with grain crops. In fact tobacco produces residual nitrogen which benefits the grain crop, especially maize. It is the reality of the land reform that whites thought black farmers could not produce tobacco. Our farmers have done so well in the shortest possible time achieving right now 217 million kg of cured tobacco while in the whole time of white commercial farmers achieved 237 million kg,” said Made.

“In a very short space of time look at what our farmers have done. Can you imagine $700 million going straight into the pockets of black farmers? Which other crop has given that much to the small holder and newly resettled farmers? It is those who want to undermine the land reform programme who says tobacco is competing with grain crops. There is nothing like that. It is a lie”.

Agricultural specialist Professor Sheunesu Mpepereki revealed in a recent paper that thousands of farmers have abandoned maize production for tobacco in recent years.

Failed to swim

“Many failed to swim while a few lucky ones made a fortune. Lack of knowledge, inexperience and lack of adequate resources all connived to deny many aspiring tobacco farmers the sweet fruits of the golden leaf,” said Mpepereki.

“In the past season even elderly women have put their home fields under tobacco, remaining with virtually no patch of maize even just for some green mealies for roasting. The recent reports that farmers in Buhera, Matabeleland and Gokwe have registered to grow tobacco must send alarm bells ringing among those concerned with Zimbabwe’s food security,” he warned.

Tobacco in Zimbabwe has registered phenomenal growth with about 106,127 growers having registered for the 2013/14 season. And by July this year, 60,110 farmers had registered for the 2014/15 season, with 27 660 being communal, 22 577 A1 farmers, 5 103 A2 farmers and 4 775 small-scale commercial farmers. When this reporter visited leading tobacco producing areas like Odzi and Makoni district in the past weeks, many tobacco farmers had already planted their irrigated crop and preparations for the dry land crop were at an advanced stage.

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