Malawi forests going up in smoke from tobacco

Tobacco farmers are depleting forests to cure tobacco, a key source of income and Malawi’s economic mainstay.

Tobacco being marketed during an auction in Limbe, Malawi [Lameck Masina/Al Jazeera]

Blantyre, Malawi – Jolam Muheziwa, a subsistence maize farmer in Malawi’s southern district of Chiradzulu, has been pursuing his dream of “living a comfortable life” by selling his maize harvests to middle men who export the crop to other countries.

But after 20 years working in the maize field, the 65-year-old father of three says his dreams suffered a terrible blow when the government imposed a ban on maize exports to prevent food shortages.

“This greatly affected my business as the traders stopped buying maize in huge quantities… Instead, I started growing tobacco,” he told Al Jazeera.

And the results were instant.

“My life has been transformed. I have now bought a car. As I am talking to you now, the construction of my four-bedroom house is above the foundation level in my home district of Chiradzulu,” he said.

Muheziwa is among many Malawians who are joining the tobacco industry to boost their incomes and standards of living. 

Besides transforming people’s lives, tobacco has also helped boost the country’s economy. Malawi derives its foreign exchange earnings from tobacco, and statistics show that the crop currently contributes about 70 percent to export earnings with a 13 percent contribution to the country’s GDP.

Malawi ranks among the top 10 producers out of 120 tobacco-growing countries, accounting for 5 percent of the world’s total exports.

Damage to environment 

But the success story has come at a cost. Environmental lobby groups are blaming tobacco production for the ever-increasing depletion of forest cover.

About 15 percent of Malawian tobacco is flue-cured, a process that burns a large amount of wood.

Farmers who grow the air-cured burley tobacco also cut down a lot of trees for poles to construct tobacco shades, and use trees for sticks on which they hang the leaves to dry.

Estimates from the forestry department show that it takes at least three hectares of trees to cure one hectare of tobacco.

Jervas Thamala, the executive director of Wild Life Society of Malawi, an environment lobby group, told Al Jazeera that in addition to the risks that the depletion of forest brings to wild animals, it also contributes to soil erosion which has disadvantaged other crops.

Go to Kasungu and Lilongwe and Mangochi districts, you will find that most of the trees were cut in areas where tobacco is being grown.

by - Jervas Thamala, the executive director of Wild Life Society of Malawi

“You go to Kasungu and Lilongwe and Mangochi districts, you will find that most of the trees were cut in areas where tobacco is being grown,” Thamala told Al Jazeera.

“And the unfortunate thing is that the protected areas that are near these tobacco-growing areas have no trees as the tobacco growers have encroached onto protected areas to cut poles for constructing their tobacco shades and for hanging their tobacco.”

Thamala says his organisation has long been asking owners of tobacco estates to have a woodlot of one hectare for every two hectares of tobacco field but his advice has been ignored.

“Most of the tobacco farmers prefer indigenous trees because they last more hours when curing tobacco than exotic trees. Sadly these natural trees take about 50 to 60 years to mature,” he said.

Unless something is done to reverse the trend, said Thamala, the country is likely to turn into a desert in 20 or 30 years.

Custom Nyirenda, the principal forest officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, acknowledged the impact of tobacco farming on the environment.

“The impact of the tobacco industry on natural resources is visible in tobacco-growing districts. This is evident in the reduction of trees which have been cut … either for tobacco curing or construction of tobacco barn”, reducing forest cover in the country, he told Al Jazeera.

Nyirenda, however, said the government has yet to establish the cost of the damage tobacco has inflicted on the environment because “no assessment has been done to date”.

The government’s Land Act passed in 2013, has a section which stipulates that 10 percent of tobacco estate land should be grown with trees.

But Nyirenda said that “it has been difficult to enforce the law because it is not in the Forestry Legislation”.


Nyirenda said that apart from legislation, the ministry is implementing a number of projects geared towards afforestation as strategies to improve the forest cover in the country.

“One of them is an annual national tree planting exercise in which tobacco farmers and the general public are encouraged to plant fast growing tree species like eucalyptus so as to reduce pressure on the existing indigenous trees,” Nyirenda said.

Approximately 60 million trees are planted every year (about 24,000ha) during the exercise which lasts three months, Nyirenda said.

But Thamala said the national tree planting programme has not changed anything because over 90 percent of the seedlings do not survive.

“The tree planting exercise doesn’t make any sense because people have been planting trees for the past 30 or 40 years.  Some [are] claiming to have planted 100,000 trees, but if you go out and ask them how many trees have survived, you will discover that out of the 100,000 trees they have planted only 20 or 30 of them have survived,” Thamala said.

He said that it would be helpful if the government took punitive measures against farmers who deplete the natural forests rather than relying on policy documents that “are just gathering dust on the shelves”.  

But industry veterans have argued that the Malawian government can do little to prevent damage done to the environment through tobacco growing because it is among nations that have stood in the way of a World Health Organisation-led anti-tobacco campaign.

Graham Kunimba, the head of the Tobacco Association of Malawi, which brings together tobacco farmers, told Al Jazeera the association is doing what it can to minimise tobacco-related deforestation.

Kunimba said the association is working hand in hand with the Ministry of Agriculture to advise farmers on methods of conserving the environment.

“The tobacco farmers are being advised to rotate their crop production every four years. They are also advised to make ridges across the slope to avoid soil erosion and are encouraged to practise inter-cropping to maintain some nutrients in the soil,” he said.

Farmers, he added, are being sensitised on the government policy of allocating 10 percent of productive land towards tree growing. They have also been urged to stop cutting down trees in protected areas like national parks, games reserves and government-owned forests – a message which tobacco farmers, like Muheziwa, who do not own woodlots are not taking seriously. 

Source: Al Jazeera