Tobacco farmers' hopes turn into debt | Daily News

Tobacco farmers' hopes turn into debt

Meegalewa cultivators incur huge losses after being enticed to grow crop:

The drought which has been ongoing for the last six years, has greatly impacted farmers in many areas of the country. It was as if demons had been sent to ravage their crops. Thus farmers have been facing grave economic difficulties with their families plunged into tragic circumstances. With farm labourers not finding enough work on the fields, many left the villages in search of other jobs. However as the farming community faced such difficulties, certain multinational companies have exploited the situation. This is one such story from Meegalewa in the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat.

Last June, a prominent tobacco company arrived in Meegalewa and spoke of the benefits of growing tobacco. They especially highlighted the large profit margins farmers could earn if they switched to tobacco farming. As a result, many did take up the offer and started their own tobacco cultivations. The farmers who were already suffering from economic hardships took on tobacco as a way out, but they simply fell into the trap of the tobacco company.

They thought the company would lend them a helping hand to grow tobacco, but in the end many of the farmers had to pawn their gold to pay back the company.

An offer too good to refuse

“They said, we could harvest tobacco in 65 days and that they would give us everything to start, from tools to prepare the ground to the plants. We had been suffering for so long, so this was welcome music to our ears. But it took three months to harvest the first batch,” said K. D. Devinda Kumara, one of the farmers who agreed to work with the tobacco company.

He explained that the company had also informed them that they could harvest up to three kilogrammes of produce from one plant of tobacco, but during the harvest time, the farmers could barely muster a kilogramme. “It was very difficult to harvest even what we could,” he said.

Farmers who had agreed to enter into a buy-back contract grower scheme with the tobacco company were given the materials to start planting through a loan.

“I had to use the money we got from the tobacco harvest to pay back the loan we owed to the company. I did not earn a profit from it. Only the people who dried the tobacco and the company made a profit of it. We were just exploited.”

W. E. M. Ananda Kulasinghe had cultivated over 3.5 acres with the ‘blessings’ of the company. He had started off with one acre, but later expanded to another 2.5 acres.

“I worked day and night. I spent around Rs. 100,000 from my savings. I am more ashamed about having made this decision than being disappointed about the loss. We got nothing from the cultivation we were expecting so much from,” he said.

The company owes him Rs. 9,800 thus far. They had promised to buy back the tobacco at Rs. 35, but in the end, only bought a kilogramme for Rs. 30. Further, as time went by, they stopped buying the harvest altogether. Several farmers complained that by the time their harvest was ripening, the company stopped buying tobacco from them. “They said they had to stop buying because they had run out of the tobacco balm which is needed for its curing. Earlier they told us that if they did run out of the balm, they would take it to other areas and get the job done, but now they don’t even pay for our harvest,” explained Kulasinghe.

Kulasinghe had managed to pay back the loan he owed to the company, but he is yet to receive the payment that is due to him.

“They are not paying us because they want us to stick with them when the Yala season comes up next.”

E.M. Nimal Ekanayake grew 6,000 tobacco plants with the hope that he would be able to generate considerable revenue from it. But, the company had not bought a single tobacco leaf from him.

“I have a well next to my tobacco cultivation. I harvested 4,000 plants and threw them into that well. This is what was left from that. The company has put me into debt. My family pawned our jewellery and used every valuable thing we had for this cultivation. Who won’t get tempted when they are told that they would get Rs. 100,000 per acre of cultivation? We believed this sweet lie. I will never grow tobacco again.”

When field after field in the Mahaweli areas of Meegalewa started switching to tobacco last year, many opposed it. The media too reported of this phenomenon, but it has to be mentioned that these farmers did not take heed to the warning signs that were visible at the time. The Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat, Galgamuwa Agrarian Services, Police and other government institutions too had opposed the spread of these tobacco cultivations. More importantly, these areas under the Mahaweli Development Project had never been planted with tobacco and were thus the authorities were not in favour of it. However in the end, the opposition resulted in certain parties lodging a case against the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat and other government officers with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission.

Why cultivation of tobacco was discouraged

A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2017 sheds light on why many discourage the cultivation of tobacco, especially on land that is struggling for water and soil fertility.

The report explained that the cultivation of tobacco often grown “without rotation with other crops (i.e., as a mono-crop), leaves the tobacco plants and soil vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases. This means that tobacco plants require large quantities of chemicals (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fumigants) and growth regulators (growth inhibitors and ripening agents) to control pests or disease outbreaks. Many of these chemicals are very harmful to both the environment and farmers’ health that they are banned in some countries.”

Tobacco plants also require intensive use of fertilizers because they absorb more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major food and cash crops, meaning tobacco depletes soil fertility more rapidly. Added to this, other agricultural practices designed to attain high leaf yields and high nicotine levels (including “topping,” where the top part of the crop is removed to prevent seeds forming and scattering on to the soil, and “desuckering,” where lateral buds are removed) also help deplete the soil.

It is also associated with land degradation or desertification in the form of soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and productivity, and the disruption of water cycles. Tobacco growing and curing are both direct causes of deforestation, since forests are cleared for the tobacco plantations, and wood is burned to cure the tobacco leaves (in some countries, air curing is predominantly used to cure tobacco, the report explained further.

More importantly, it also leads to deforestation as several tonnes of wood are required annually for tobacco curing. “After tobacco is produced, more wood is needed to create rolling paper and packaging for the tobacco products. Wood is used less for curing in developed countries, but this is partly because curing activities have been shifted to the low- and middle-income countries. Wood has been used as the fuel for tobacco curing since the mid-19th century, and few alternatives to wood-based energy have emerged since. With production shifting to the low- and middle-income countries, their wood consumption remains high, while the potential to reduce it remains low.”

Government opposition

“We were against the cultivation of tobacco in these areas from the start. The tobacco company has already reaped their profits and these farmers are in trouble now. We even carried out the national campaign against drugs in these areas to discourage these cultivations. The Agriculture Committees unanimously decided to stop the fertilizer subsidy to these farmers. But the company just dragged the farmers into debt and lodged a case against us at the Human Rights Commission for having stopped the fertilizer subsidy to them,” Galgamuwa Divisional Secretary Priyangani Pathiraja said when the Daily News inquired about the issue.

She further explained that the government officers as well as she was simply acting in accordance of the Agrarian Services Act, the National Drug Policy and according to the powers vested in the Agriculture Ministry and the Public Administration Ministry.

“Farmers were already suffering due to the drought and attacks by wild elephants. This company has not even insured their crops against any disaster. And now the farmers are in trouble.”

In 2017, Health and Indigenous Medicine Minister Rajitha Senaratne announced that the government would stop the cultivation of tobacco by 2020. The aim was to slowly phase out tobacco growing and as well as smoking in Sri Lanka. Since then, the government has also actively encouraged farmers to switch to alternative crops. Thus, it is not clear why the tobacco companies are allowed to continuously promote tobacco cultivation among farming communities in the country.

Add new comment