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Bulgarian tobacco harvest relies on help from children

Children must quit the classroom in some villages on the border with Greece to tend crops


Smoked out … the financial crisis has forced many Bulgarian children out of education in order to help their parents with the tobacco crop. Photograph: Petar Petrov/AP

For the children of Ribnovo, the winter marks a brief respite, when the tobacco crop in this Bulgarian village on the border with Greece needs no tending. In spring schoolchildren aged from seven to 17 work up to nine hours a day planting. In summer they weed, then harvest, bent double under the burning sun. Come autumn they iron leaves, stifled by clouds of dust. Now at last they may sell their meagre tobacco harvest.

Giultena Gusderov, 13, is stacking leaves. “It’s a relief,” when the season is over, she says, straightening up. “The planting part is back-breaking and when you’re ironing, you cough all the time,” she adds, wiping her brow. Even in the fields she dresses smartly, although she doesn’t get paid for her work. She knows all about the latest mobile phones, has a Facebook account and would love to see the film Twilight. Her teachers hope she will continue her studies, but Giultena knows otherwise. “In the country dreams don’t often come true,” she says.

“None of the families can do without their children,” says Feim Talamanov, Giultena’s chemistry teacher. “They’re hard-working kids but they have no time to study.”

Kadri Gusderov, 45, Giultena’s father, picks her up every day from school and takes her to the fields. Until recently he worked as a farm labourer abroad for six to eight months a year. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work,” he says. He used to bring home €2,000 to €3,000 ($2,500 to $3,750) a month. The tobacco was just a sideline, looked after by his wife. “My father was able to set aside money for my studies,” Giultena explains. But since the start of the financial crisis, work has dried up across Europe.

In the early 2000s the outlook for the Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria was rosy. Bulgaria was poised to join the European Union, growth was touching 6%, and everyone thought the area would become a tourist destination. Three huge ski resorts were built on the edge of the national park.

In the five years from 2004, dozens of NGOs toured the country, packing farmers’ children off to school as part of a programme to eradicate child labour led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In 2007 Bulgaria joined the EU, but a year later the economic crash halted hopes of development and the children returned to the fields.

The walls in Dragisa Pejovic’s office are bare, but for the tobacco-related calendar. The leader of Ribnovo town council is also a tobacco farmer and he is fed up. “It’s high time Europe opened its eyes. International buyers are trampling tobacco farmers underfoot … Just look at my contract,” he says, brandishing a form. “The buyers turn up at the start of the season, dish out seeds and get us to sign agreements which don’t mention the price.” He points out the parts left blank. “When it is time to sell, either you accept their price or you have to refund the seeds.”

In 2009 the EU ended subsidies for Bulgaria’s tobacco farmers. At the same time Sofia opened the market to competition. The multinationals could then negotiate better terms for the tobacco preferred in the developed world. The price paid to farmers plummeted. “At best we only earn €300 a month,” Pejovic protests.

But price is not the only issue. In 2001 Dr Sdravka Tonova, of the Academy of Science in Sofia, produced a report for the ILO on child labour in Bulgaria. “We highlighted the many diseases affecting children who work on tobacco farms,” she says. “Because they bend over to work, their lungs cannot develop properly. During the harvest they inhale tobacco dust containing carcinogenic substances. As adults they suffer from chronic bronchitis, TB, sometimes even cancer.”

Four men have arrived at Debren, south of Ribnovo. They work for one of the largest tobacco merchants. They settle themselves in village’s concrete market hall and wait for sellers. The harvest was good and farmers hope their crop will fetch €2.80 a kilo, but most get little more than €1.50. Bulgarian tobacco is the cheapest in the EU.

• This article appeared in the Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde

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