Zimbabwe tobacco rebounds amid health and labor concerns – NBC10 Philadelphia
Zimbabwe, Africa’s largest tobacco grower and one of the world’s leading exporters of nicotine leaf, has opened its selling season for the harvest amid pledges to tackle deforestation and child labor in response to pressure from rights groups, environmentalists and international buyers.
Tobacco is enjoying a rebound in the southern African country 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 following the expulsion of several thousand white farmers who represented the majority of producers.
In recent years, Zimbabwe has rapidly increased the size of its crop, regaining its place among the world’s top five tobacco exporters. It exported just over 200 million kilograms (220,000 tonnes) of tobacco in 2021, according to the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board.
According to one of the country’s largest traders, TSL Limited, this year’s harvest is expected to be around 10% and 15% lower due to unfavorable weather conditions.
Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s main sources of hard currency, alongside minerals such as gold and remittances from Zimbabweans living outside the country. Tobacco brought Zimbabwe about $1.2 billion in exports last year and the government would like to see that increase ‘to become a $5 billion industry by 2025’, the minister said. Agriculture, Anxious Musuka, during the opening of the tobacco auction season at the end of March.
The government hopes to encourage an increase in the size of the tobacco crop to 300 million kilograms (330,000 tonnes) per year by providing more local finance to farmers, Musuka said.
With tobacco’s proven role in causing cancer, international traders are urging Zimbabwe to avoid further controversy by producing the crop in a way that does not harm the environment or use child labor.
Most of Zimbabwe’s tobacco is exported to Asian countries, with China being the biggest buyer.
China has been an integral part of Zimbabwe’s tobacco boom by establishing a grower contract system run by the state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation, the world’s largest cigarette producer. Under this system, the company lends seeds, fertilizers, food, and money for labor and timber to farmers, who in turn are forced to sell their harvest to the farmer. company or its agents.
Most of Zimbabwe’s yellow tobacco crop now comes from more than 100,000 small black farmers, many of whom have been resettled on farms formerly owned by whites. Small-scale farmers produced 133 million kilograms (about 147,000 tons), about 63 percent of the total crop of 211 million kilograms (about 233,000 tons) sold last year, according to the tobacco marketing board.
This massive shift from large-scale commercial agriculture has changed who is doing the labor-intensive crop production work. Large, white-owned commercial farms used to employ dozens of full-time workers, but now small farms are mostly family operations that often rely on child labor, rights activists say.
Another problem is that many of the new small tobacco growers cannot afford the electricity or the coal needed to dry the tobacco leaves. So they cut down nearby trees, which has caused Zimbabwe’s forests to decline by around 15-20% a year in recent years, researchers say.
Under international pressure, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry is trying to reduce these problems, Meanwell Gudu, CEO of the tobacco marketing board, told The Associated Press.
“Many of the top companies that are our customers have developed a code they call the Sustainable Tobacco Program. As a supplier, we must comply with this code, which lists deforestation and child labor as undesirable practices,” Gudu said.
The country has seen a “reforestation blitz” that includes farmers receiving tree seedlings to establish woodlots in their areas, Gudu said.
“We plant a lot of trees to be like our competitors. For example, if you look at Brazil, the farmers there are curing their tobacco from woodlots that they established and not from native trees…that’s what we want to do,” Gudu said.
Reducing the use of child labor could be a more difficult task because many families have been doing it for generations, some farmers said. Children as young as five work in the fields with their parents as part of their normal upbringing to help meet family expenses, they said.
A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch said that children on Zimbabwean tobacco plantations “work in hazardous conditions, performing tasks that threaten their health and safety or interfere with their education.”
The report notes that “working children are exposed to toxic nicotine and pesticides, and many suffer symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves.”
Zimbabwean law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 while prohibiting children under 18 from “performing hazardous work”, but does not specifically prohibit children from handling tobacco.
“I worked in the maize (maize) fields when I was a child. Everyone did that and there was nothing wrong because that’s the norm,” said 37-year-old Berrington Mupande.
“However, I think the tobacco environment is too harsh for children,” he said. “But we see people still working with their children or young parents because they don’t have the money to pay for the work.”