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Tobacco ban: 30m jobs on the line

With the global economy stuck in neutral and world leaders struggling to find the right blend of policies to jumpstart long-term growth, you would think every bureaucrat from Accra to Zurich would be tasked with helping to resolve the crisis.  

Report by Rodney Ambrose

Yet a handful of international regulators in Geneva — working under the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — is doing the exact opposite and threatening more than 30 million jobs worldwide.

This week the FCTC released its latest draft recommendations on tobacco farming and environmental practices defined under Articles 17 and 18. Instead of helping “aid the economic transition of tobacco growers and workers whose livelihoods are seriously affected as a consequence of tobacco control programmes” — as originally intended — the punitive recommendations, if passed into law, will drive tobacco growers out of business without offering economically viable alternative crops.

The four key proposals that the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA) is calling into question relate to regulations governing when tobacco may be grown; limiting the land used for tobacco growing; restricting financial and technical support for tobacco growers; and enforcing a global co-operative move to compel tobacco growers to abandon their crop simultaneously. (The last proposal perhaps reflects best how out of touch the FCTC is with working conditions on the world’s farmlands.)

First, to restrict the periods during which tobacco can and cannot be grown on the assumption that this will protect the environment and ensure food security is as unfounded as it is impractical.

Environmental issues are common to all agricultural production processes, thus replacing tobacco with another crop will not solve the problem. In addition, many traditional tobacco-growing regions do not offer the climate, soil conditions and infrastructure required for food crops: Tobacco is the only crop that guarantees an income for these farmers. Governments should focus on promoting and intensifying good agricultural practices where they do not already exist to reduce the environmental impact of tobacco growing — and for other crops.

Second, limiting and ultimately reducing the land on which tobacco can and cannot be grown will not reduce the demand for tobacco products. In this world economic crisis, artificially reducing tobacco production when there is still a strong global demand is illogical and inconceivable to most tobacco growers.

Third, any moves to “restrict or stop financial and technical support for tobacco growers”, whether from the government or the private sector, would be devastating for the farmers. This is especially true considering that viable, alternative crops or livelihoods to replace tobacco have not been identified or even researched extensively.

Finally, the stipulation that “countries should reduce tobacco production simultaneously” is absurd. For starters, not all tobacco-growing countries (such as ourselves and the US) have signed up to the FCTC. The suggestion that countries should reduce tobacco production in unison is therefore entirely misguided, impractical and unrealistic.

Despite tobacco growers being excluded from the entire debate at which their future will be decided, the ITGA believes there is still a chance to protect farmers and influence the final decision on these unrealistic and punitive recommendations being put to the 175 FCTC countries at the November Conference of the Parties 5 (Cop5) meeting in Seoul, Korea.

You may ask how tobacco growers will make their voices heard above the cacophony of noise from those who understand the least about farming, ie the health advocates and Geneva’s suited and booted bureaucrats. Well, with more than 30 million farmers standing to lose their livelihoods, our strength is in numbers.

Together with other African members, we should oppose the latest draft recommendations by joining ITGA’s global petition that calls for a realistic approach to help tobacco growers adapt — if and when demand for tobacco declines. We are therefore calling on all African governments — especially those who are signatories to the FCTC — to oppose the measures ahead of the Cop5 meeting this November.

As farmers, we have the right to choose what we grow. Until there is a viable, alternative crop, we will continue to grow what we know provides a decent standard of living for our families and dependants. Robbing us of this right not only threatens the countries’ standards of living, but also affects the livelihood of our families.

Articles 17 and 18, if passed, threaten to slash 30 million workers from a global economy that’s already in dire straits. Support the cause and help defend free enterprise by signing the petition online: http://protectfarmers.tobaccoleaf.org/join-our-fight.aspx
Ambrose is the chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, which is a member of ITGA.

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