CHINKHOMA, Malawi – Everyone knows that smoking is bad for one’s health. Fortunately, smoking rates have dropped globally by a few percentage points in the last ten years, perhaps because the World Health Organization has identified smoking as the biggest preventable public health threat in the world. However, for countries like Malawi, this drop in demand could have some unfortunate consequences.
Malawi is, according to the World Bank, currently the poorest country in the world, the average person subsisting on about $260 per year. Tobacco makes up about 70 percent of their export earnings.
Bales of tobacco weighing 160 kilograms sell for about $200 a piece, making tobacco growing one of the most lucrative commodities in the agricultural sector in Malawi. Farmers like Jolam Muheziwa, who used to grow maize, switched to tobacco in hopes of making enough money to live a decently comfortable life.
“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,” Muheziwa said.
However, declining smoking rates and higher taxes on tobacco in many countries threaten to diminish the economic viability of the crop for Malawians. Policymakers in the country are acutely aware of the fragility of the economy and its dependence on tobacco as a cash crop. The Malawian Minister of Agriculture Allan Chiyembekeza admitted that tobacco is harmful to people’s health, but pointed out that this is also true of other agricultural products such as sugar and butter. He said at an international tobacco convention in Lilongwe, the nation’s capital, that “we cannot accept the discrimination and we need to stand united and resist it,” referring to international campaigns to curb smoking rates.
Not only does the tobacco industry benefit the farmers who grow it, but also the people who process and package it. In Malawi, it is the second highest employer, providing 350,000 farmers with jobs, in addition to another 70,000 people whom the farmers hire seasonally as laborers, and another 10,000 involved in processing. Graham Kunimba, head of the Tobacco Association of Malawi, said that “in the end, the people who suffer most from this situation are the tobacco farmers, who support a very large part of Malawi’s agricultural production.”
However, there are also some very serious environmental and economic costs to growing tobacco in Malawi.
Deforestation is a huge issue, one officially recognized by the government. While only 5 percent of farming in Malawi is for tobacco, this is the highest percentage in the world, also contributing to Malawi’s deforestation rate, which is the fourth fastest globally. Tobacco growing is a very wood-intensive process, as not only must forest be cleared for fields, but also a lot of wood is used in the flue-curing process. The forestry department estimates that it takes about three hectares of forest to grow one hectare of tobacco.
Kunimba has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture to advise farmers on how they might reduce their environmental impact. “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,” Kunimba said. In addition to these measures, the government also advises them to only cut certain non-indigenous trees and maintain forests on their estates. However, official efforts to encourage tobacco farmers to be more environmentally-friendly have largely fallen flat.
Needless to say, a global drop in demand for tobacco is not a recipe for success for Malawi’s already fragile economy. To improve their economic outcomes, they would need to diversify their agricultural sector, but doing so is no easy task. Global agricultural policies have been a major point of contention during successive rounds of negotiations of the World Trade Organization.
The conflict centers around agricultural subsidies; wealthy nations such as the United States like to subsidize the price of food crops such as wheat. However, this means that the offerings of small commercial farmers in the developing world simply cannot compete. Thus, in some of the poorest places such as Malawi, there is little incentive to grow food crops, and thus the agricultural sector remains somewhat one-dimensional.
For Malawi to deal with a perhaps inevitable drop in demand for tobacco, they will need the help of developed nations to diversify their economy and enjoy global trade policies which allow them to do so.