Saturday, November 13, 2010

(NEWZIMBABWE) Tobacco threat unites Mugabe, farmers

Tobacco threat unites Mugabe, farmers
by Farai Mutsaka
13/11/2010 00:00:00

FOR YEARS, President Robert Mugabe and his allies have sought to drive white farmers from their land, and the farmers have fought back through the courts. However, in recent weeks, the World Health Organization has managed to bring the two warring camps together by attacking one of their few shared interests: tobacco.

The WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control seeks to cut global production and demand for a crop that is the lifeblood of Zimbabwe's economy - accounting for 26 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, according to the Ministry of Finance. The 171 countries that are party to the convention will meet in Uruguay next week.

Zimbabwe officials and farmers—white and black—are banding together to explore how to respond to a treaty that could derail the country's fragile recovery after a decade of economic and political tumult.

"We have to set aside our differences to save the country's economy," said Kevin Cooke, president of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, the main tobacco farmers' body. "There are no alternative crops that come near tobacco."

Minister of Agriculture Joseph Made, a close ally of President Mugabe, says the government is scrambling to save a dominant cash crop grown by the country's largest and smallest of farmers, of all colors.

"There are no differences between us on this one," he says. "Everyone is working together and certainly we hope this togetherness can last."

Made admits that Zimbabwe alone doesn't have much leverage, and says it is relying on support from other countries that also oppose elements of the treaty.

The show of unity is remarkable in the current political climate.

The shared government of President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change is nearing an end.

Officials in both parties, including President Mugabe, say they want elections next year to replace the troubled coalition government, but another vote risks a repeat of the 2008 elections, in which hundreds are believed to have died in political violence.

Zimbabwe's white farmers have tended to support Tsvangirai's MDC-T party.

The prime minister has spoken out about the need to resolve land disputes in a legal and transparent manner — a stance that appears to side with international court decisions, including the Southern African Development Community tribunal that in 2008 ruled in favor of the land rights of white farmers.

President Mugabe's government has said it won't abide by that ruling. Still, it isn't clear how long the unlikely alliance can last.

The killing last month of Kobus Joubert, a leading white tobacco farmer and former president of the ZTA, highlights the insecurity faced by the few remaining white farmers.

Joubert's death has been described by police as occurring during a robbery, but farmer representatives say such violence has often been part of the farm evictions supported by President Mugabe.

Today, fewer than 300 whites remain on farms, down from 4,500 when evictions started about a decade ago, according to Deon Theron, president of the Commercial Farmers Union.

"Our members are still being violently evicted even when they have court orders on their side," he said.

But when it comes to tobacco, the fighting has stopped, for now.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe's biggest agricultural employer, providing jobs for 350,000 people; an additional 500,000 work in related industries, such as cigarette manufacturing, according to the government and farmer unions.

In September, Zimbabwe's finance minister raised projections for full-year economic growth to slightly over 8 percent from its July forecast of 4.5 percent, largely because of resurgent tobacco sales.

The industry earns much-needed foreign currency from its overseas sales of Burley tobacco, a product blended into such famous cigarette brands as Altria Group's Marlboro.

But the WHO treaty would hit countries that grow Burley tobacco hard.
The crop requires blending with other ingredients that global health authorities deem harmful.

In the draft guidelines, the WHO urges member governments to examine how to restrict or ban ingredients — such as those blended with Burley — that increase the attractiveness of tobacco products, "as a tool to help limit youth initiation," said a WHO spokesman, in an email response to questions.

The treaty is expected to spearhead a global anti-tobacco campaign to reduce consumption of tobacco products, which the WHO says kills five million people a year, or one person every six seconds. Most of the deaths occur in middle- and low-income countries, according to the WHO.

The International Tobacco Growers' Association has accused the WHO of rushing ahead with regulation without fully understanding the impact on tobacco farmers or directly consulting them.

"If they are pushed to produce something else what are they going to do? You lose millions of jobs," says Antonio Abrunhosa, chief executive of the ITGA, which says it has 30 million members world-wide. "Can you regulate chocolate without talking to chocolate producers?”

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