HARARE, Zimbabwe ( Associated Press) — Zimbabwe, Africa’s largest tobacco producer and one of the world’s top exporters of nicotine leaf, has pledged to fight deforestation and child labor in response to pressure from rights groups, environmentalists, crop For its sales season has opened. and international buyers.
Tobacco is on a rebound in this southern African nation, where production fell from a peak of 260 million kilograms (290,000 tons) in 1998 to less than 50 million kilograms (60,000 tons) a decade later to oust several thousand white farmers. was responsible for. majority of producers.
Zimbabwe has rapidly increased the size of its crop in recent years, regaining its position as one of the world’s top five exporters of tobacco. According to the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board, it exported just 200 million kilograms (220,000 tonnes) of tobacco in 2021.
According to TSL Ltd., one of the country’s largest traders, this year’s crop is expected to be reduced by around 10% and 15% due to unfavorable weather.
Tobacco is one of the largest earners of Zimbabwean foreign exchange, along with minerals such as gold and money remitted by Zimbabweans living outside the country. Tobacco generated about $1.2 billion in exports last year and the government would like to see that increase “into a $5 billion industry by 2025,” Agriculture Minister Chinta Musuka said at the opening of the tobacco auction season in late March.
Musuka said the government hopes to encourage an increase in tobacco crop size by 300 million kilograms (330,000 tonnes) annually by providing more local funding to farmers.
With tobacco’s proven role in causing cancer, international marketers are urging Zimbabwe to avoid any further controversy by producing the crop in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or use child labor.
Most of Zimbabwe’s tobacco is exported to Asian countries, with China being the largest single buyer.
China has been an integral part of Zimbabwe’s tobacco boom by establishing a producer contract system operated by the state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation, the world’s largest cigarette producer. Under the system, the firm lends money to farmers for seeds, fertilisers, food and labor and timber, who in turn are obliged to sell their crops to the firm or its agents.
The bulk of Zimbabwe’s flu-cured tobacco crop now comes from more than 100,000 small-scale black farmers, many of whom settled on formerly white-owned farms. According to the Tobacco Marketing Board, small-scale farmers produced 133 million kilograms (about 147,000 tons), about 63% of the total crop of 211 million kilograms (about 233,000 tons) sold last year.
This major shift away from large-scale commercial farming has changed who produces the labour-intensive crop. Rights activists say that large white-owned commercial farms used to employ full-time workers, but now smaller farms are mostly family operations that often rely on child labor.
Another problem is that many new small tobacco growers could not afford the electricity or coal needed to recover the tobacco leaves, so they cut down nearby trees, which in recent years has destroyed Zimbabwe’s forests. There is a decline of about 15% to 20% annually. to researchers.
Under international pressure, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry is trying to mitigate these problems, Meanwel Gudu, CEO of the Tobacco Marketing Board, told the Associated Press.
“Many blue-chip companies that are our customers have developed a code that they refer to as the Sustainable Tobacco Program. lists labor as some undesirable practices,” Gudu said.
Gudu claimed that the country is on “an onslaught of afforestation”, which involves obtaining tree saplings for farmers to establish woodlots in their areas.
“We are planting a lot of trees so that we can be like our competitors. For example, if you look at Brazil, the farmers there treat their tobacco from the woodlots that they set up, not the indigenous trees… that’s what we want to do,” Gudu said.
Some farmers said that reducing the use of child labor can be a daunting task as many families have been doing it for generations. Children below the age of five work in the fields with their parents to help meet the family expenses, he said.
A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch said that children on Zimbabwean tobacco farms “work in hazardous conditions, perform tasks that endanger their health and safety or interfere with their education.”
The report states that “child workers are exposed to nicotine and toxic insecticides, and many suffer from symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves.”
Zimbabwean law sets the minimum age for employment at 16, prohibiting children under the age of 18 from “doing hazardous work”, but does not specifically prohibit children from handling tobacco.
“I worked in the maize (corn) fields as a child. Everyone did it and there was nothing wrong with it as it is the norm,” said tobacco farmer Berrington Mupande, 37.
“However, I think the tobacco environment is very difficult for children,” he said. “But we see people still working with their children or young relatives because they don’t have money to pay for the labour.”