Sometimes back, the Sunday Standard carried the story whose headline was, ‘Farmers Petition State on Tobacco Legislation.’ This was a story that detailed on how farmers had raised a red flag over the future of the crop.
It was reported that in a memorandum to the Ministry of agriculture, the farmers claimed that the anti-tobacco activities threatened to disrupt a viable and profitable cash crop that supports the live hoods of thousands of Kenyans.
They further questioned Anti-Smoking regulations which ban smoking in cities and public places. The regulation is enacted by World Health Organization (WHO) and locally strengthened by the Kenya Tobacco Control Act 2007.
According to the story, farmers said the fight against the crop by WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) will have a negative impact on regions that traditionally relied on the crop.
The story was not clear on how tobacco farmers arrived at such a decision given that not long ago, the country witnessed running battles between tobacco farmers and the police. They were protesting over poor pay by tobacco manufacturing companies and working under deplorable conditions.
According to tobacco farmers in Western Kenya, ‘slave trade’ is slowly creeping back in Africa.
Some times late last year, few of them interviewed by Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (KETCA) complained of being exposed to harsh chemicals like orthene, feredon, lack of equipment and protective clothes. They complained of bad eyesight, chest pains during watering, weeding and curing of the crop.
Farmers complained that they are intimidated by the industry to accept any amount of money paid to them. Tobacco companies pay sh.100 per Kg, for the finest tobacco while they make between 3,000 -4, 500 from cigarettes made per Kg.
Women complained of miscarriages during harvesting and curing period. Use of child labor has derailed academic performance in tobacco growing areas. Children abscond school to help in weeding, harvesting and curing of tobacco while others miss due to ailments caused by tobacco.
Farmers handle tobacco crops bare handed and carry the harvest on their heads, use carts and bicycles to transport oblivious of the dangers it pose.
Efforts by trade unionists and journalists to highlight the plight of farmers have been frustrated by the tobacco agents, some who are on record, having assaulted some trade unionists and some journalists destroying their cameras and other equipment.
The environmental and health consequences of tobacco production and consumption are well documented. Use of stronger pesticides has caused fast soil declining in soils which were once very fertile. Currently, the epidemic is now shifting to low and middle-income countries like Kenya hence affecting a larger population.
The entire world continues to understand the socio-economic impacts of tobacco and tobacco products and appreciate the need to strengthen tobacco control measures. Kenya on the other hand is struggling with the global economic crisis and hard hit by tobacco related ailments and environmental degradation. This has been attributed to tobacco growing.
It is no longer news that women and children from tobacco growing areas continue to suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), damaged lungs, amputated legs and other diseases caused by growing and home processing of tobacco.
Tobacco growing areas in Western, Nyanza and Eastern provinces are the poorest of the poor. Malawi and Bangladesh, the leading tobacco growing countries are among the poorest in the world. Tobacco itself is never planted in Europe because of health effects.
Not even the wild animals move closer to the leafy crop.
A year ago, parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco control met in Durban South Africa for the 3rd Conference of the Parties (COP3), to update one another on progress made so far and to plan ahead to ensure that deaths related to tobacco and tobacco products are reduced.
That tobacco production exposes peasant farmers to some of the worst game of exploitation on labour, income and other resources is no secret.
Mayanja Kibuke, in Bumula District of Western Province has been growing tobacco for over three decades. The area is trapped in abject poverty. Three quarters of the population grow tobacco, and today they are still languishing in poverty. Here, tobacco farmers can barely afford three meals in a day, decent shelter, or send their children to school. No visible basic infrastructure and other social amenities like hospitals, schools, proper roads, water, social halls etc.
Chiefs in this area decry of the fast declining soil fertility and the environmental degradation caused by tobacco curing. They complain of persistent drought, lack of water, famine and death of animals which share the same water source for watering tobacco.
Ten years ago, Mayanja was very fertile and green, had big trees and forests, enough food for her population. This has changed over the years, because they are cut down everyday and used as fuel for curing tobacco. Farmers no longer plant other food crops.
Residents of this area no longer value time, energies and intellectual in put invested in the crop that has low returns.
The industry gives them exotic trees to plant, which are unfavorable to the soil yet tobacco farmers destroy more indigenous trees compared to exotic.
It is time the Government should take measures in eradicating tobacco and find alternative beneficiary crops like soya, passion fruits, sun flowers and others which will ensure a clean and healthy environment which everyone is entitled to.