Monday, February 10, 2014

(HERALD ZW) Editorial Comment: Tobacco boom, think of environment
November 16, 2013

THE land reform programme has been exactly what the doctor ordered, as the previously marginalised people are now proud owners of fertile land on which they are growing a variety of food and cash crops. Many people never imagined they would own pieces of land, let alone vast tracts in districts of high rainfall and very good soils as such areas were the preserve of white former farmers.

White former commercial farmers dominated the farming landscape with indigenous people working on the farms as labourers. Today, thanks to Zanu-PF’s people-centred policies, the majority of Zimbabweans have successfully turned the vast tracts of land into greenbelts of crops, bar the many challenges related to funding.

Before the land reform programme, the bulk of maize produced in the country came from communal and small-scale farmers as white former commercial farmers dominated the tobacco and horticulture sectors. Not many of us ever imagined that one day we would become big tobacco and horticulture growers.

Not many of us ever imagined that one day we would make a lot of money and improve our standard of living from tobacco production. Communal and small-scale farmers have made huge inroads into tobacco farming, with over 83 000 farmers registered by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board to grow the golden leaf this current farming season.

There has been a major shift by farmers from maize and cotton production to flue-cured tobacco largely because of the high returns.

Last season tobacco was auctioned at the floors at an average price of between US$4 and US$5 per kg, which translated to thousands of dollars for most farmers, especially those who managed to produce high yields.

Most tobacco farmers have been able to send their children to expensive schools, buy expensive cars and improved their general standard of living.

Such an improvement in the standard of living from tobacco proceeds has not escaped the eyes of cotton and maize farmers who have naturally shifted to tobacco growing.

While there is a lot of money in tobacco, we are, however, worried by the declining hectarages for food crops and the depletion of forests as tobacco curing is heavily dependent on firewood.

We have allowed many farmers to move into tobacco production without giving attention to the environmental degradation taking place.
Trees are fast disappearing in most tobacco growing districts and little, if not nothing at all, is being done to replace the trees being cut down.

At the rate at which farmers are abandoning other cash crops, such as maize and cotton for tobacco, it would not be surprising that soon the forests will be depleted and the future of tobacco growing would be under serious threat.

The alternative to firewood is coal but communal and small-scale farmers have not yet achieved yield levels to warrant them using coal for curing and still be able to make a profit.

Coal, as an alternative source of energy, is expensive for most farmers and this is why firewood has remained the best alternative.
It is the long-term future of tobacco growing that we are worried about and the sooner the issue of alternative energy sources is tackled the better for everyone given the contribution of tobacco to the Gross Domestic Product.

There is need to make coal available at very affordable prices in the tobacco growing areas and that credit facilities could also be arranged for the farmers with payment being administered through the auction floors as the farmers sell their crop.

It is even easier for those into contract farming to provide coal for curing as part of the inputs package.

We can, as a country, come up with legislation that no farmer would be allowed to grow tobacco without first making a payment for coal. It can, indeed, be done as a way to protect our forests.

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