All for a smoke

Cultivation and production of tobacco is consuming forests in southern Brazil

By Beauty Lupiya
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

while environmentalists worry about Brazilian rainforests, thousands of acres of lush forests are being cleared away in southern Brazil to make way for tobacco cultivation and production.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of tobacco, with exports touching 282,500 tonnes in 1996, and the world's fourth largest producer after China, the us and India. Increasing demand for farmland, including tobacco farms, has meant that less than 10 per cent of virgin forests now remain in southern Brazil, with destruction still continuing. Environmental organisations blame tobacco farmers, but there is little information on unregulated farming and small farmers. The world's major importers of tobacco are the us , Germany, Britain, the Russian Federation, Japan and The Netherlands.

"Tobacco farmers are replanting nothing. They have no conscience about the damage they are doing. They have no regard for the future," says Wigold Bertoldo Schaffer, spokesperson for Brazil's national environmental foundation.

Tobacco affects forests in two ways: first, trees have to be felled to create tobacco farms. Second, fuelwood is needed to cure -- or dry out -- the harvested tobacco crop from its natural green to the brownish colour seen in cigarettes. While natural gas or oil is often used in some tobacco-growing countries, wood fuel is prevalent in Brazil, much of Africa, India, Thailand and the Philippines. The problem is that the industry rarely plants enough trees to replace those cut for curing.

The Brazilian tobacco growers' association, afurba , denies the environmentalists' charges, saying it has helped plant some 300 million trees in the past 20 years. But they cannot say how many of these trees have survived. When the London-based Panos Institute asked the government's environmental control institute ( ibama ), it was unable to come up with a figure.

But it is certain that Brazilian tobacco growers -- concentrated in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana -- use up an average of about five million cubic metres of wood every year for use in curing stoves every year. Of Brazil's 160,000 tobacco farmers, only 56,000 dry their products naturally in the sun and wind. The rest use stoves.

There are divergent views on the extent of the global tobacco industry's use of fuelwood. One claim, repeated by the World Health Organisation, is that one tree is needed for every 300 cigarettes produced globally. Some environmentalists say that to cure tobacco grown on 200,000 hectares of land, farmers need another 200,000 hectares of forest for wood. And a 1986 industry-commissioned report estimated that, on average, 7.8 kg of wood was needed to cure one kg of tobacco.

While the industry does not see any problem in 'sustainable exploitation of the forests', environmentalists view the problem as more urgent. Says Schaffer: "We must not wait to act at the last minute when the south (of Brazil) becomes a desert."

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