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Economics of tobacco: replenishing what it depletes

A battle once raged—or could still be raging—against tobacco by health rights activists across the globe. Some countries even reached the point of coming up with statutes that restrict smoking to certain parameters; perhaps, a desperate attempt to frustrate smokers.

For Malawi, tobacco is the green gold; the largest forex earner which cannot be easily thrust into the mists of time. That does not mean that the anti-smoking campaigns have spared us – we are all trapped in the crusade.

But there are reasons tobacco continues dominating cash crop fields in all parts of the country. It still has demand on the global market; hundreds of thousands of Malawians rely on the crop for survival and taxes abound.

Globally, flue-cured tobacco is gaining more ground while burley has a declining demand. The latter constitutes 12 percent of Malawi’s total exports while the former has a share of 52 percent of total exports.

But flue-cured tobacco’s increasing demand is a story of mixed fortunes. Producing the leaf is a tough task, requiring special expertise and huge sums of money. But that is normal with products that fetch a good fortune.

“Producing flue-cured tobacco involves a lot of things but what is important is that the environment must be conserved,” says Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Climate Change, Werani Chilenga.

Such sentiments might seem a bit restrained, falling short of Chilenga’s usual firm and stubborn stand against environment destruction whose consequences are apparently being felt through persistent droughts and floods —emanating from arbitrarily shifting weather patterns.

Recently, Chilenga’s committee toured some forest reserves which a tobacco company, Alliance One, has been nurturing for the past three years in Kasungu and Dowa following its introduction of a reforestation programme four years ago.

Alliance One uses wood—tonnes and tonnes of wood—for its flue-cured tobacco. It currently orders the wood from different individuals and companies but the sustainability of such an arrangement is quite unrealistic.

Of course, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) paints an affirmative picture on the rate of net global deforestation which it says has somehow slowed down. That is not a consensus reality though.

FAO Director-General Jose Graziano says the net loss of natural forests declined from 8.5 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2000 to 6.6 million hectares per year between 2010 and 2015.

“These results have contributed to reducing total carbon emissions from forests by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2015… The fall in deforestation comes at a time when more wood than ever before is being used, as the global human population is more than one-third larger now than it was in 1990.

“This shows that sustainable forest management works and that political will and concrete action can make a difference. Today, forest management plans cover more than half of the global forest area,” Graziano says.

Such positive news would obviously compel Malawians to rest on their laurels had the world been one giant country with every average assumption meaning the same thing to every human being.

But, fortunately or unfortunately, that is unnatural. For instance, while there is an average global decline in deforestation, Malawi continues suffering from the aftermaths of persistent environment depletion which has not spared reserves which were once treated as sanctuaries of hope.

Giant forests like the Viphya Plantations—commonly known as Chikangawa—and Dzalanyama Forest Reserve are under siege. They are in dire need of redemption.

Alliance One Leaf Production Director Ronald Ngwira is optimistic that the trees that the company is planting will soon be big enough to be used in processing flue-cured tobacco which can hardly be optimally produced by smallholder farmers due to complexities which require not only significant investments but also special care.

The trees are being planted on Alliance One’s own land and government land while some are given to farmers so that they can take part in preserving the environment.

“Based on these three operations, we ensure that whatever tobacco we buy as a company, we are socially responsible and ensure that the environment is being kept intact.

“We have a target of 2019 to be self-sufficient in firewood and 2020 is the target that all tobacco sold by Alliance One is self-sufficient and sustainably produced,” says Ngwira.

He adds that the company is creating over 1,000 hectares of trees per year and that so far, around 5,300 hectares have been created. That, says Ngwira, is a testament of sustainable hope.

An initiative of this magnitude could tremendously dress back Malawi’s bare land which was once a marvel to behold if it were being undertaken by thousands other companies that contribute to environmental degradation, according to Chilenga.

Of course, there is a government campaign that everyone, literally every person in this country, should be involved in tree planting exercises even if it means just one tree.

Stories of this and that company planting trees in this and that area might have just reached saturation point. But sustaining the initiatives has always been a huge challenge.

Chilenga says the reforestation project by Alliance One “is very real”. At least, there is some hope that someone cares about protecting and preserving the environment, he adds.

“They appeared before my committee some weeks ago and told us that they are engaged in a reforestation project and invited us to come and see it ourselves. We are impressed with what they are doing because, just as [Ngwira] has said, they are using a lot of wood and it can only make sense if they contribute to replacing the wood,” says Chilenga.

Experts have been warning that if environmental conservation in the country is not taken to considerable levels by every player, the threat to biodiversity will continue. And a threat to biodiversity is apparently a real threat.

And Chilenga also lays the blame on authorities who apparently ransack the very same environment they were supposed to conserve. He describes the acts as being very backward, immoral and patriotic.

“We have raised concerns that different places which were not supposed to be occupied by anyone should be retained. This is a problem almost everywhere in the country where government officials sell protected land to some people against our laws,” bemoans Chilenga.

He adds: “This is a battle we all have to be involved in, not Parliament alone. We need to start doing things in their right order so that we should save our rivers and forests. The dangers are there for all of us to see.”

The Natural Resources Committee chairperson then expresses optimism that all anomalies that have been there before which have resulted in the destruction of the environment will be rectified.

“With good laws that Parliament has passed, there is support in conserving the environment. And for Alliance One, we expect that their reforestation project will continue because they heavily rely on wood for their flue-cured tobacco,” says Chilenga.

Perhaps, as long as the company continues trading in flue-cured tobacco, it now has no choice when it comes to planting trees. Six of the biggest global tobacco buyers have a way of ensuring Alliance One continues with the project.

“They got together and formed what they call Sustainable Tobacco Production Programme. Under that, they have nominated a company called AB Sustain to audit us on their behalf. So the six companies send AB Sustain on an annual basis to do an audit.

“Imperial Tobacco, more specifically, also sends out SGS International, a second auditor, to do a plant count, survival count as well as the acreage planted. So on an annual basis, we have two audits,” says Ngwira.

Maybe, having such a firm model of reforestation could make forests – dense and humid ones – one of the greatest comeback stories of the country. What more if the touted tobacco levy really meant what it was supposed to mean

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