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Breaking the addiction to growing tobacco

Fuli Khatun cultivates wheat on land surrounded by tobacco crops (UBINIG)
Fuli Khatun cultivates wheat on land surrounded by tobacco crops

While the addictiveness of tobacco is widely recognised, production of the crop could also be seen as fuelled by a kind of addiction, particularly in the developing world. In countries such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Kenya, companies offer tobacco farmers loans for fertiliser and pesticides, cash payments for harvests and a seemingly assured market. However, in many cases these companies are the only buyer and grader of the tobacco crops, which can place farmers at risk. Critics of the industry have argued that, despite the apparent advantages of tobacco growing, in reality many farmers face unpredictable prices, uneven cash flow and depleted soil fertility.

Human and environmental health impacts from tobacco growing are another object of criticism; exposure to agro-chemicals, whether during application or in handling of harvested leaves, has been reported to cause illness and birth defects. In addition, the process of curing the leaves, which is the farmer's responsibility, increases the pressure on forest resources, with single families consuming as much as 10 tonnes of firewood each year for their curing operation. In some cases, tobacco companies have responded with reforestation programmes, but less responsible operators have been known to simply move to new, forested areas, leaving families deprived of their livelihood behind.

Replacement therapy?

While the economics of tobacco growing can make it a hard habit to break, replacement crops are being promoted in Bangladesh, Malawi, and Kenya. Through its Research for International Tobacco Control programme, the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supports projects to spur effective tobacco control policies and reduce production. In Bangladesh and Malawi, the focus is on diversifying food and cash crop production. In Kenya, activities include replacing tobacco with giant bamboo.


In Bangladesh, IDRC supports a policy research organisation - UBINIG - and a grassroots farming movement, Nayakrishi Andolon (NA), which promotes the use of locally-adapted crops and readily available organic input. To compete with the tobacco companies' strong institutional support, NA offers crop marketing services and community seed huts, which provide a means for farmers to access local seeds and save seed each year. NA also educates farmers about composting methods to counter the soil nutrient depletion caused by raising tobacco.

Ahammad Ali is producing garlic in what was once a tobacco field (UBINIG)
Ahammad Ali is producing garlic in what was once a tobacco field

According to UBINIG's Executive Director, Farida Akhter, farmers in two regions have been provided with seeds of food and cash crops, including radish, red leaf amaranth, rice, sweet gourds and coriander. Around 128 farmers in the Kushtia, Cox's Bazar and Bandarban areas of Bangladesh completely replaced their tobacco crop with alternatives in 2006. "The farmers got good yield from these crops, and the soil was also improved due to the compatible crop rotation," reports Akhter.

Farmers are being introduced to composting in steps, using materials such as azolla water fern, animal dung, oil cake, water hyacinth, and Sesbania sesban. Beyond compost use, farmers are also using dead and living mulch and cover crops to restore and retain soil fertility. Cover and mulch crops include beans and pulses, such as lentil, mung bean, chickpea, groundnut and velvetbean/mucuna. According to Akhter, "They are doing mixed cropping, crop rotation and relay crops to develop their soil nutrients and income." She adds "Our NA farmers are networking in the farming communities through monthly group discussions, meetings, biodiversity festivals, rallies and other cultural programmes. These kinds of advocacy programmes are very helpful for sharing knowledge among the rural communities."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: May 2007


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