In tobacco production, curing the crop once it is harvested is an essential step towards making the harvested commodity ready for the market.
The most common methods for curing tobacco are by air, flue, sun and fire. In Malawi however, small-scale tobacco farmers commonly use fire, where open wood fires are kindled on the floor of a curing barn, and the curing process can either be continuous or intermittent, extending three to ten weeks before the leaf can be cured to the desired finish and be ready for the market.
But with wood fire curing of tobacco having the potential to increase deforestation levels and contribute to environmental degradation and consequently climate change, the tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) says it is working with small-scale tobacco farmers in Malawi, Argentina, China and Mozambique among other countries, in an integrated production system that ensures the wood used to cure the tobacco after harvesting is from sustainably managed forests.
For a long time, environmental organisations not only in Malawi but across the world have contended that the growing of tobacco has many serious environmental consequences which include loss of biodiversity, increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and soil erosion among other effects, because cutting down trees for curing the crop after harvest directly causes deforestation.
PMI Sustainability, Activation and Support Director Miguel Coleta says forest sustainability is indeed paramount and the production of tobacco should not be allowed to cause degradation.
He says the company is working with local farmers in six countries including Malawi, where it offers both technical and financial support so that farmers use the forests where they get the wood to cure tobacco sustainably.
“As part of this relationship, we can have farm-by-farm monitoring of the tobacco production to ensure it is sustainably produced and the forests where wood to cure it comes from are sustainably managed. Today, we know where the wood is coming from on each farm, from among the farmers we are working with. We also do monitoring to ensure that the investments we have made over the years, in this sustainability push is bearing the intended results,” he said.
Mr. Coleta says in 2022 alone, PMI invested 6.6 million United States dollars in six countries including Malawi, on projects aimed at reforestation through awareness programs with farmers, which he says are key towards ensuring sustainability in environmental conservation. In the case of Malawi, Universal Leaf is the local partner in these activities.
“So we take a landscape approach. When we think about the environment, we think about the intersection between the impact of tobacco growing on the individual, the farmer, the community and the environment itself, and these impacts are addressed through this integrated production system,” Mr Coleta said.
Mr Coleta explained that engaging directly with the farmer in this integrated production system is fundamental so that small-scale farmers can have predictability in terms of not only having a buyer for their produce or having a favourable price for their crop, but also having access to best practices that will improve their production capacity by taking care of the environment where they grow their crops.
“Sustainability is not just about managing the negatives but also looking for ways to create positives by using technology and innovation to drive value for society. In that sense, when it comes to tobacco growing, what is underpinning everything we are doing is the integrated production system,” he explained.
In Malawi, Tobacco is considered green gold and the most profitable crop which can have over 20 times export value compared to tea, which is also an export from the country.
Mr. Coleta says through the integrated production system and to ensure sustainability in terms of the quality of tobacco, farmers have standard guidelines to follow which also include not using child labour, apart from using wood from sustainably managed forests in the curing of the harvested crop.
Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change on the farmer have also been an issue of concern, with tobacco production especially in Malawi being dependent on the rainy season, making access to water a subject that needs to be addressed so that farmers do not just rely on tobacco growing, but can grow other crops during the long dry season.
“Water is important for health, safety and hygiene, and having access to water without women having to walk for kilometers before getting the commodity is paramount. There is also a need for the farmer to have the ability to grow other things apart from tobacco since tobacco is one hundred percent rain-fed.
“So that’s why in recent years, we have been working with communities and our business partners in local areas, digging hundreds of boreholes and hand pumps to provide access to water through what we call the wash program,” Mr. Coleta explained.