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Grim Prospects For Nigerian Farmers Between Killer-tobacco And Food Cultivation

As smokers often face a life-long battle to stop tobacco addiction, farmers planting the leaf used in producing the deadly sticks also find it difficult to see a future outside tobacco cultivation. “Many of us in this community inherited tobacco farming from our fathers and it has become our major source of livelihood,” a 45-year-old tobacco farmer, who gave his name as Adeoye Gbenro said.

For farmers like Gbenro in Iseyin — a hinterland of Oyo state, Southwest Nigeria, life revolves around tobacco cultivation solely as he recalled how he started going to tobacco farm with his late father at the age of five and missed out the opportunity to be enrolled for primary education or learn any trades other than the business of tobacco.

Armed with all the tobacco leaf growing techniques and know-hows passed down through generations, Gbenro spurned the idea of growing other crops asides tobacco despite the business itself facing some headwinds in the area as big tobacco corporations in Nigeria are reportedly evolving a new operational model that has seen them limit their direct engagement with the farmers. “Nowadays, the tobacco leaves we cultivate often go to the independent tobacco buyers, who come to buy from us and then supply the tobacco companies themselves.

Tobacco leaves stacked in a curing barn in Ago-Are, Nigeria

“But things are not like before when we used to have direct engagement with BAT (British American Tobacco).” He said, bemoaning the dwindling support like the provision of loans, seedlings, farming equipment and pesticides by tobacco companies to farmers, incentives that BAT, which has a production factory in Ibadan, Oyo state capital, have used to keep farmers in a perpetual contract system that exploits buyer’s monopoly and keep farmers in a debt trap as findings reveal tobacco farmers are also victims and not beneficiaries of the trade, far from the claims often touted by big tobacco.

According to Gbenro, the dilemma currently agitating his mind is “whether to stick with this (tobacco) business with the hope that we get more support or learn how to plant other crops” on his inherited seven hectares of land in Iseyin, where tobacco giant–BAT has its agronomy and leaf collection center. The expanse land, he said, had only been deployed to the cultivation of tobacco leaves dating back to almost a century “when they were used to marrying many wives with the sole aim of having more children to work on tobacco farms just like the cocoa plantation of those days in western Nigeria.” Gbenro said, as his nearly 10-year-old son looked on, paying rapt attention with wet tobacco leaf clutched to his hands, oblivious of its health hazards.

Iseyin and many other tobacco planting communities — Oke-Ogun, Tede, Irawo, Ofifi, enroute Shaki, a border town with Benin Republic, Nigeria’s western neighbour — have produced several generations of tobacco farmers since BAT, a product of the then colonial establishment in Nigeria berthed in 1912, decades before the country’s independence. Thus, regrettably walked millions of Nigerians into an early grave either through the smoked cigarettes or by producing the tobacco leaves, of which those cigarette sticks derived from.

While tobacco companies are said to be divesting their operations in parts of Nigeria, farmers who have had historical ties with the business in some of the tobacco growing communities in Oyo state are currently manifesting sundry withdrawal symptoms ranging from despair to the challenge of adjusting to growing other crops.

70-year-old Fasasi Ramonu owns a sprawling tobacco farm in Oke-ogun, said to be the biggest hub for tobacco farming in Nigeria. Like Gbenro, he is among farmers that are currently faced with the struggle to sustain tobacco cultivation amid calls targeted at weaning farmers out of growing tobacco leaf.

“In recent years, the tobacco business has faced quite a downturn. Tobacco corporations around here shut down their operations about four years ago, mainly due to the government’s heavy taxes as they told us. They only compensated us tobacco farmers with sums from N600,000 to N1,000,000.” Ramonu continued: “The situation made us reconsider our options and prompted us to grow other crops like cassava and corn alongside tobacco. These days, we mostly deal with independent buyers, mostly Igbo people, who purchase our tobacco leaves. They even offer loans for tobacco cultivation. Despite the dwindling business, tobacco farming isn’t completely dead though.”

Africa’s increasing tobacco hectarage jeopardises food security.

World Health Organisation listed 15 African countries including Nigeria among top 50 tobacco growing economies in the world, taking up land that could be used to grow crops that feed millions of African currently facing dire food insecurity.

WHO African Region, while commemorating the 2023 ‘World No Tobacco Day’ themed: ‘Grow food, Not Tobacco,’ had lamented the rising number of arable lands devoted to the planting of tobacco leaf on the continent.

According to WHO Africa Regional Director, Dr. Matshidisho Moeti, “while the area under tobacco cultivation decreased by 15.7% globally, in Africa it increased by 3.4% from 2012 to 2018.”

Also, during the period under review, tobacco leaf production globally reduced by 13.9%. However, Africa was left behind as the continent witnessed a spike in the production of the deadly leaf racing to 10.6% increase as per WHO data. Meanwhile, every hectare of land used to plant tobacco leaf reduces the quantity of land that should have been gainfully used to cultivate nutritional crops that are beneficial to health and the environment, helping to feed the mass of the people as against the killer-tobacco leaf.

“Nearly 828 million people are facing hunger globally. Of these, 278 million (20%) are in Africa. In addition, 57.9% of people in Africa suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity,” Moeti added.

For instance, checks indicate that, with a score of 28.3, Nigeria ranks 109th out of 125 countries in the 2023 Global Hunger Index (GHI). Yet in stark contrast, a total of 9150 hectares (WHO data) of arable land are still being used to cultivate tobacco leaf. More striking is the possibility that tobacco hectarage might go up astronomically in the future if farmers like Gbenro who has up to seven hectares of tobacco farmland in Iseyin-Nigeria continue to acquire more land to grow tobacco as against switching to alternative crops to improve food security and reduce serious hunger in a country currently hit by a record cost-of-living crisis never seen in decades.

‘Kids not spared: key to continuity’

Kids join tobacco farmers to sort leaves in Ago-Are, Oyo state, Nigeria’

Similar to the ‘catch-them-young’ master plan deployed by big tobacco around the world to lure minors and make them smoke the sticks for life, thereby sustaining cigarette patronage, it is almost cast in stone that most tobacco farmers are likely to pass the trade to their children.

Whereas, for minors working on tobacco, hours spent means time outside the classroom attending to leaves that have dire environmental and health consequences: from pesticides exposure on farms to nicotine poisoning while handling the leaves and even the toxic carbon monoxide emitted while curing the leaves after stacking them in curing barns.

“This tobacco work can make farmers with their wives, children and hired labour sleep on farms for days,” Ms. Folake Ogundina said as she attends to the sorting of wet tobacco leaves. She has been working on tobacco fields for close 25 to years, helping farmers during the harvest season. “Curing tobacco leaves is like going to hell because of the intense heat that must be generated to get the required, yellow-coloured leaves” sold to the tobacco cartels after the exhaustive cultivation and curing process.

Although operators in tobacco industry had in the past denied engaging the service of minors on tobacco fields, Ogundina revealed that children are still involved in every stage of tobacco cultivation: from the planting process to the harvesting of the leaves, sorting and curing them in barns. “They also join adults to feed hardwoods into the fire chamber with the heat transferred through heat exchangers inside the curing barns,” in abeyance to the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Act 2015 which outlawed the involvement of under-aged children in all aspects of tobacco — including production, marketing, advertising, sales and consumption.

Speaking on the severe implications of working on tobacco fields, Dr Eniola Cadmus, a consultant community physician, University College Hospital, Ibadan, said the age of the individual and part of the process involved also determine the extent of the severity.

“All handlers of tobacco leaf, especially those who handle the green leaf, suffer from a sickness called green leaf sickness because of the physical contact and absorption of nicotine from the leaves. It presents the symptoms of nicotine poisoning and manifests as vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness.” She explained that due to heavy use of pesticides during cultivation, many people also suffer from symptoms suggestive of pesticide poisoning such as respiratory problems (difficulty breathing) which may trigger asthmatic attacks in those who are susceptible as well as neurological problems. “In the long term, pesticide poisoning may lead to cancers, reproductive health problems and depression. Lastly, because of long hours spent in the sun, individuals may suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. By and large, these symptoms are worse for children,” Cadmus, who is a member of the Nigerian Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG) stated, urging farmers to quit tobacco cultivation which produces deadly wares that kill more than 8 million people each year, including an estimated 1.3 million non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke, according to WHO.

‘Nigeria still foot-dragging on weaning farmers out of tobacco production’

As countries continue to pay attention to efforts targeted at weaning tobacco growers out of the trade, articles 17 and 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) aim to promote economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers. Following the ratification of the treaty by Nigeria in 2005, the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 and Tobacco Control Regulations gazeted in 2019 took after the instruments contained in the WHO-FCTC.

Section 2(1) of the NTC Act empowers the Minister of Health to set up the National Tobacco Control Committee (NATOCC), which comprises members drawn from various ministries including Health, Environment and Agriculture among others, as well as civil societies under the aegis of National Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA). NATOCC carries a national mandate to fight tobacco use in the country, including diverting farmers’ attention away from growing tobacco to other beneficial crops.

In a chat, Chibuike Nwokorie, Programmes Officer, NTCA said despite the constitution of NATOCC, he has not seen action on the part of government “to organize the farmers let alone train them on planting alternative crops.  And what’s the number of farmers we’re talking about? As we speak government cannot give the figure of tobacco farmers in Nigeria. Does that show any readiness to support them?” He asked.

Reacting to claims that tobacco companies might be divesting their operations in Nigeria, given the much secrecy that surrounds the activities of the tobacco industry globally, Nwokorie differs, saying: “we have always suspect that the tobacco companies don’t get all their raw materials in Nigeria. But in terms of divesting, I think they’re even bringing more products into Nigeria now. If they leave Nigeria, where would they go to? They’re doing everything to flood the market (with their products) targeting replacement smokers.”

However, a top official at the Federal Ministry of Health who could only speak in confidence because he has not been authorised to grant an official interview on the matter said a “recommendation was made to the ministry of agriculture to see how we can start working towards helping the tobacco farmers and to also get their data,” adding that the ministry of health is currently partnering with the ministry of Agriculture to support the farmers to develop alternative crops and dump tobacco leaf cultivation – years after the NTC Act was signed by the Nigerian government in 2015.

Source: New Diplomat

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