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Malawi’s forests going up in smoke as tobacco industry takes heavy toll

Malawi is reliant on tobacco for 60% of foreign earnings, but while demand is falling the cost of environmental damage caused by the industry is rising

For cigarette smokers and tobacco growers, the sight – and sweet smell – of the Chinkhoma auction house near Kasungu in central Malawi is heaven. Tens of thousands of metre-cubed bales of golden leaf, each with enough tobacco to make more than 50,000 cigarettes, cover the floor of a warehouse the size of three football fields.

Malawi, now the poorest country in the world according to the World Bank, depends on tobacco as a cash crop. Chinkhoma, in the heart of the tobacco-growing Central region, is where much of it is sold before being exported and made into cigarettes.

However, while tobacco is central to the economy, there is a high price to pay. The industry contributes greatly to the destruction of forests, with millions of trees required for the drying barns involved in air- and heat-curing. The cost also includes floods, changed rainfall patterns, and a reduction in food growing.

This year, bales are selling for about $200 (£128) each. This represents about three months’ labour for a smallholder farmer. The 160kg of – air- and heat-cured– tobacco that Chinkhoma and its sister house at Limbe, outside the capital Lilongwe, are expected to sell in the next month, will earn the country about $350m.

But as people in rich countries cut back on smoking and emerging economies like the Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil place higher taxes on cigarette sales, Malawi faces declining demand for its “green gold”.

International sales have held up, but on 21 July the government hit out at anti-smoking campaigners, saying tobacco played a vital role in the development of African countries like Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and warning that the western anti-smoking lobby risked plunging some of the poorest people in the world into further economic peril.

Allan Chiyembekeza, the agriculture minister, accepted that tobacco harmed health, but said it “is not alone in causing diseases”.

The impact of the industry is evident in the reduction of trees cut down or tobacco curing or construction of barns

Custom Nyirenda, Malawi’s principal forest officer
“Tobacco does not stand alone in this. Other habits derived from the consumption of agricultural products are dangerous. Alcohol is addictive and leads to even higher social costs than tobacco consumption, sugar added to food leads to diabetes and obesity, butter leads to increased cholesterol. We cannot accept the discrimination and we need to stand united and resist it,” said Chiyembekeza at an international tobacco meeting in Lilongwe.

According to Graham Kunimba, head of the Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama), tobacco is a strategic crop for some African countries. In Malawi, the industry is the second largest employer, with more than 350,000 farmers and their families, 70,000 hired labourers and 10,000 people in leaf-processing factories dependent on it, he said.

“Why is the target on tobacco products and not on other products which may have a negative impact on health, including sugar? This is not done in good faith but to punish poor countries like Malawi who rely on tobacco for its economic growth,” he said. “In the end, the people who suffer most from this situation are the tobacco farmers, who support a very large part of Malawi’s agricultural production.”

Campaigns to introduce plain cigarette packets in some countries, including Britain and France, will only drive prices down further and lead to illegal sales because the packets will be easy to copy, he said.

“The manufacturers of tobacco products will no longer have an interest in supplying a product which has a brand value. This will inevitably lead to the use of cheaper tobacco and drive down the price of leaf tobacco,” he said.

Malawi devotes more than 5% of its farming land to the crop – the highest percentage globally – but its impact contributes to a deforestation rate that is the fourth fastest in the world. Most trees are cut for fuel and charcoal, but tobacco is also an important factor. In 1990, more than 47% of the country was tree-covered, but by 2010 16.9% had been lost.

The government accepts tobacco is a major driver of deforestation. “The impact of the industry on natural resources is visible in tobacco-growing districts. This is evident in the reduction of trees which have been cut … either for tobacco curing or construction of tobacco barns,” Custom Nyirenda, the principal forest officer in the ministry of natural resources, energy and mining, told Al Jazeera last week.

According to Philip Morris, manufacturer of cigarette brands like Marlboro and Benson & Hedges and one of the largest buyers of Malawian tobacco, it takes 10kg of wood to dry 1kg of tobacco.

In a statement, the company, based in Switzerland, said: “The average amount of wood needed to dry tobacco is currently 10kg of wood/kg of dry tobacco. PMI and [local NGO] Total Land Care have created cooperatives to plant more than 90m trees and bamboo on farms and communal lands, helping to reduce Malawi’s deforestation.

“Together with our suppliers we are actively promoting the introduction of rocket barns that reduce fuel-wood consumption by 40%, to below 6kg of wood/kg of dry tobacco. We aim to convert standard curing barns to improved/rocket barns in both Malawi and Mozambique by 2017, which will result in saving the equivalent of 25m trees by 2018.”

The company said that reforestation was transforming villages. “Chitoola village in the Kasungu District was bare of trees four years ago. It is unrecognisable today with its forest cover of 50,000 trees. Its residents once had to buy wood – now they sell it to others.”


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