HARARE, Zimbabwe – At least 52,400 hectares (129,483 acres) of forests in the southern African country of Zimbabwe are destroyed every year due to tobacco curing, leaving tobacco farmers in a dilemma to either save forests or harvest tobacco.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the eve of Forest Week observed from March 21 to 26, Violet Makoto, information and communications manager for the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe, said the country was losing 262,000 hectares (647,416 acres) annually due to different reasons.
“Out of which 20% is lost through tobacco curing. Again, during land clearing for tobacco growing, we also lose forests,” he said.
Curing is the process of drying tobacco leaves after harvesting from the field. The process involves burning woods continuously or intermittently at low flame for weeks to dry tobacco leaves. Fire curing produces a tobacco low in sugar and high in nicotine. Pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff are fire-cured.
“I am still cutting down trees in the forest to cure my tobacco. I am aware that the more I cut down trees, the more I contribute to massive deforestation. But I have no choice,” said Benson Chinobva, a tobacco farmer in Goromonzi, 55 kilometers (34 miles) east of the capital Harare.
He has gathered firewood for the tobacco curing of indigenous Msasa trees, also known as Zebrawood, which takes 30 to 50 years to mature.
“If the government had made it easy and cheap for small-scale farmers to buy coal, I would stop cutting down trees,” he added.
Another farmer in the same area, Cephas Mhete, said he is cutting down close to five tons of Msasa trees each year to cure his tobacco.
“It’s cheaper and easier for me to use Msasa trees as they burn well and longer than the gumtrees which they are recommending,” said Cephas, while showing some vast patches of open land which no longer has any trees.
As tobacco is the country’s second-largest foreign currency earner after gold, environmentalists said there is no pressure on farmers to reduce carbon emissions.
Relying on firewood
According to Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB), a regulatory body, at least 80% of all tobacco growers are small-scale farmers and these rely on firewood.
“The TIMB is working with various afforestation organizations to help establish eucalyptus plantations whose eventual use would be for curing tobacco. For the 2021 and 2022 seasons, 225 hectares (555 acres) of wood loads of eucalyptus trees have been established, and this should go a long way to reduce deforestation,” Chelesani Moyo, TIMB’s public affairs officer, told Anadolu Agency.
Farmers like Benson Chinobva said the TIMB is asking them to plant gum trees, but these trees kill the soil.
Benson said planting gum trees on such a small piece of land will take away most of his productive land too. The farmers said the TIMB, which taxes them for afforestation, should help in the transportation of coal closer to the fields, so farmers can use it for tobacco processing.
“One thing we have noticed is that there is very little land for communal farmers to set aside for their loads. They usually own less than a hectare where they plant their crop,” Violet Makoto said.
She said farmers couldn’t set aside another piece of land for afforestation as, besides cash crops like tobacco, they have to grow food crops like maize as well.
Zimbabwe pays tobacco farmers in the US currency, a move that has attracted many farmers into tobacco growing.
For the 2021-2022 tobacco season, 109,000 small-scale tobacco farmers were registered with the TIMB while 13, 000 were commercial farmers.
In 2020, the country produced 211 million kilograms of tobacco, compared to 184 million kilograms in the previous year.
According to TIMB, the growth is attributed to the increased participation of small-scale farmers.
As the world marks Forest Week, the Forestry Commission in Zimbabwe has increased awareness against deforestation.
“Forests are an indispensable resource and an integral part to the natural capital that is central to the wealth of the environmental systems,” Makoto said.