While, smoking tobacco is extremely harmful for human beings growing it has been good for Zimbabwe's economy and its farmers. Now, however, both the government and farmers have become increasingly aware that tobacco farming also comes at a great cost to the environment.
Income from tobacco in 2013, accounted for at least 10.7 percent of the Zimbabwe’s GDP and 21.8 percent of all exports, compared to 9.2 percent for other agricultural commodities. However, Zimbabwe's Forestry Commission says 20 percent of the 330,000 hectares of natural forest lost annually (the Commission's 2005 figures) was cut for firewood to cure tobacco.
The deforestation rate was particularly high during the height of the land reform programme, which began in 2000. Under the programme the government intended to acquire 11 million hectares of white-owned farmland and redistribute it on a massive scale.
A majority of the new farmers use wood to cure their tobacco, said Abedinigo Marufu, deputy general manager of Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission.
Prior to the land reform, most of the about 1,500 white large-scale tobacco growers used forced air curing units which use power to drive motors and fans to push the hot air fired by coal, through the curing system. The remainder used wood. The rate of deforestation "was insignificant”, Marufu said. He explained that some of the white farmers who used wood had their exclusive forest lots which they used to harvest the wood from, while those who cut indigenous trees cut them selectively.
The most authoritative figures on forest cover loss come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Global Forest Resources Assessment. Its 2010 edition, listed Zimbabwe as being among 10 countries that recorded the largest forest cover loss between 1990 and 2010. It said Zimbabwe had been losing 327,000 hectares of forest cover per year over the two decades.
Besides being used as firewood for curing tobacco and in other sectors such brick-making, the other drivers of deforestation in Zimbabwe include agricultural expansion driven by population growth and forest fires.
The decimation of forests has reached such alarming proportions that during his Independence Day address earlier this year, President Robert Mugabe threatened to ban the growing of tobacco. “Our people are growing tobacco and want to make money out of it but on the down side we have seen massive deforestation leading to desertification in some areas. We are saying to them, ‘use coal or we will stop tobacco production’,” he said.
Coal not a cheaper option
Roselyn Rukasha is one of the many tobacco farmers who uses wood to cure her tobacco. “Every step of growing tobacco needs attention to detail and how well you cure your crop will make a difference to what you get paid for it,” she told IRIN at one of the tobacco auction floors in the capital, Harare, where she had delivered her crop.
She is aware of the impact of indiscriminate tree-cutting but has no choice, at least for now. “I have set aside some land for a wood lot and have planted some eucalyptus trees,” she explained as part of her efforts to control the damage to the environment. But the trees will only be ready for harvest in about five years. In the meantime she hopes to start using coal to cure her 2014-15 crop.
But getting the coal to where she farms is going to be a challenge. Andrew Matibiri, the chief executive of the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB), said that while the country had an abundant supply of coal it is not distributed widely or adequately to the tobacco farming regions in northern Zimbabwe. “Coal is mined about 800km away in Hwange [western edge of Zimbabwe] and the issue is about transportation,” he said, adding that while coal is cheap at source, the cost of transporting it to the tobacco growing regions made it expensive.
“In most cases it’s [coal] delivered by the wagon load of about 40 tons and most small scale growers can only afford to buy 50 or 100kg bags at a time,” said Matibiri. A farmer needs at least 3.5kg of coal to cure a kilogramme of tobacco.
He said TIMB is working with various distributors to see if they can make the coal available in affordable bags for the farmers.
The use of coal raises production costs. According to Rodney Ambrose of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA), the average cost of coal to a farmer is US$170 per ton. Buying coal can amount to 10 percent of the farmer's production costs.
David Musabayane, who grows tobacco in the Wedza area (140km southeast of Harare), cited cost, rather than non-availability of coal as the problem in his area. “The local council has a pile of coal for sale but the farmers would rather cut down indigenous trees to cure their tobacco because they do not have the money or they just don’t want to add to their production costs,” he noted adding that to the farmers wood is free.
In search of sustainable solutions
TIMB's Matibiri suggested that farmers use a more fuel-efficient way of curing tobacco by erecting rocket barns (furnaces), which use 50 percent less wood because of the way they are designed. However, ZTA's Ambrose says rocket barns cost US$5,000-6,000, which puts them beyond the reach of most smallholder growers who still use the less fuel-efficient conventional barns.
Forestry Commission’s Marufu pointed out that there are efforts in place to try and mitigate the loss of trees such as the Sustainable Afforestation Association set up in 2013 by tobacco growers and merchants. The association planted about 600 hectares of woodlots for future curing.
But this is clearly not enough. The Environmental Management Agency's (EMA) Steady Kangata told IRIN that more trees are being felled than being planted.
Tobacco farmers are required to pay $25 for a permit to cut firewood to the Forestry Commission every year. This money is then used to plant seedlings in deforested areas. However, Marufu says, the farmers have resisted paying the fee, and feels a sustained campaign to educate farmers is required.
Marufu says penalties ranging from $20 to $,1000 or custodial sentences are in place for tree-fellers without permits. The EMA also has a schedule of fines ranging from $5 to $5,000. He told IRIN that some arrests have been made. The police are empowered to demand a licence from anybody found with large amounts of wood and can arrest anybody who fails to produce one.
The Commission also launched a Tobacco Wood Energy Programme in 2005 to encourage farmers to set aside a piece of land on their plots to plant a woodlot of fast growing tree species such as eucalyptus for the purpose of tobacco curing. The commission is also carrying out research on fast growing indigenous tree species so farmers can have a wider choice of what to grow in their woodlots.
But while coal and non-indigenous fast growing tree species are seen as the panacea for deforestation in Zimbabwe, environmentalists say these options can create other problems. Coal emits warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while the water-hungry eucalyptus trees may deplete water sources.
EMA’s Kangata maintains renewable, clean energy is the ultimate solution for tobacco growers. “We have an abundance of sun here in Zimbabwe and while the start-up cost is high the running costs are not that high so solar energy would be a solution.”
Matibiri of the TIMB told IRIN that research is currently being undertaken at the Tobacco Research Board on the use of solar energy and biogas for use in Zimbabwe and the government is going to promote these alternative energy sources once it is complete.