Don't poison Matamuhuri River by Tobacco Cultivation
Chakoria 24 March: Food and water crisis is going to be severe in areas where tobacco cultivation is expanding. Tobacco companies are facing resistance from the farming communities in old plantation areas and are moving to fertile lands such as the rich envivironmnet and ecology of the Matamuhuri complex. Unlike other rivers of Bangladesh, Matamuhuri is unique; it has originated within the political boundary of Bangladesh and created a fabulous environmental and ecological complex to support life forms that obviously includes farmers, fishers and diverse ethnic communities. Matamuhuri is the lifeblood for all. But these have already changed and situation is rapidly turning into a disaster.
Tobacco cultivation depleted forests, aggravated food crisis in Chakaria upazila of Cox'sbazar and in Lama and Ali Kodom upazilas of Bandarban. The British American Tobacco Company and other national companies allured the local farmers to cultivate tobacco in their farm-fields, which were fertile and ensured food for the people. Tobacco farmers responded to the allurements and cultivated tobacco extensively in all the fields including the fertile river bank of Matamuhuri. But now, farmers have already been disappointed by the attitude of the tobacco company. Company allured the farmers to tobacco cultivation with money, but now they are saying they are not going to pay what they used to do before. Company is announcing lower price for the leaves, violating their own promises of giving higher prices.
The hills are denuded. Curing of the tobacco leaves requires huge amount of fuelwood. If leaves are not properly cured, farmers can not sell them to the company. Curing demands intensive and uninterrupted labour. The picture is from Manikpur, Chakoria. Note the wood from the forest in front of a kiln.
Compared to the year 1998-99 tobacco cultivation has increased almost 540% in 2009 in Bandarban district in the year 2004-05(Statistical Year Book of Bangladesh 2007). It has increased in recent years, although no official statistics is available. Tobacco is cultivated in 15,210 acres of land in Lama and Alikodom Upazilla of Bandarban districts. There are 6500 kilns to cure tobacco causing severe destruction of trees only in these two upazillas. In each kiln 10 tons of firewood per season is required for curing tobacco leaves. It means over 65,000 tons of firewood are used in each season for tobacco curing only in Lama and Ali Kodom area. It is imossible to keep any trace of trees in these areas with such heavy demand of fuelwood. Forest is gone, so is also the rest of the green, which are chopped down to use as fuel wood.
In Chakoria upazilla under Cox's Bazar District 4283 acres of land went to the cultivation of tobacco in the year 2009. During this period Chakoria upazilla had 1995 kilns.
Tobacco cultivation is leading to soil infertility, scarcity of food and fodder, destruction of fish and other biodiversity and extreme hard work for labour. The children and women are engaged as labour for over 16 hours a day which is against the labour laws. But Companies can bypass this situation since curing is not being done in company's factory, but by the farming household, exploiting the family labour. At the time of curing of the leaves women have to work 60 to 72 hours at stretch sitting in front of the kiln. Cultivations cost is huge for fertilizer, pesticide, labour, etc. Finally at the time of marketing the farmers have to depend on the companies to fix the price.
In one calculation done by UBINIG, it was found that the cost of production is Tk. 49,635 (in 40 decimal of land), and the income received after selling cured tobacco leaves is Tk. 60,000. The net return is only Tk. 10,635. On the other hand, in the same amount of land, farmers cultivating a mix crop of potato and french bean (in Nayakrishi method without using any chemical fertilizer and pesticide) the cost of production is Tk. 16,000 and the selling price is Tk. 42,000. The net return is Tk. 26,000. Many farmers are showing interest to shift out of tobacco.
The upstream of the river bank of Matamuhuri is entirely taken away by the tobacco companies to grow tobacco. The excessive use of the pesticide is flowing into the water of the river and leading to the deaths of the fish and other aquatic lives. Matamuhuri runs 80km before it reaches to chiringa point; afterwards the downstream starts constituting the basin of the river. It is 40 km. The whole of the banks on two sides of the upstream (80km) is now taken over by the tobacco cultivation. causing serious hazard to the life and ecology of the river. The basin is rich in fishery, food production and also for salt production. Tobacco cultivation in the upstream is polluting not only the river but destroying the environment, ecology and biodiversity of the basin. Farmers, fishers and salt producers are being seriously affected by tobacco production.
Nayakrishi Farmers are demonstrating how they can grow food and at the same time ensure the economic prosperity of the family and the community. Farmer's are innovative, full of ideas and determined to stop tobacco cultivation in fertile fields.
In this context, UBINIG organised a meeting with the tobacco farmers, local representatives, school teachers, Upazila Nirbahi Officers (administrators) and the forest department on 24th March, 2010 in Chakaria upazila. The theme was "Threats of Tobacco Cultivation to Food production, Environment and Health". The venue was Lakkharchar Union, Chakaria Upazila, Cox'sbazar The Deputy Commissioner of the Cox'sbazar district Mr. Giasuddin Ahmed was the Chief Guest of the meeting. The meeting was presided over by Farida Akhter, Executive Director of UBINIG and conducted by Shima Das Shimu, Director of UBINIG.
The Chief Guest assured that the lower stream of Matamuhuri will not be allowed to grow tobacco and there will not be any Kiln with 500 yards of any educational institution.
The building of the Lakkarchar Union Parishad as the venue of the meeting was very significant. It was a building constructed over pillars in the middle of paddy field. However, the three sides of the building are now filled with tobacco crops except in the front having some paddy crops. This showed how tobacco is taking away the land from food production.
Tobacco cultivation demands use of large quantities of hazardous herbicides, pesticide and other chemicals. Use of these hazardous chemicals not only destroy the soils, ecology and biodiversity of the area, but pollutes the Matamuhuri river. Note the way such hazardous chemicals are being handled by a farmer. He is using Cupravit and Asatap manufactured by Bayer.
Tobacco requires huge amount of fertiliser. Poor farmers receive the fertilisers from the company, as credit. While the company charge them higher than the market prices for the inputs, farmer remain depedent on the company in determining the price of the tobacco leaves they are producing. Pauperisation is inevitable in this economic bondage.
Rafiqul Haque Titu, Regional Coordinator of UBINIG made a presentation with a power point explaining the hazards caused by tobacco cultivation leading to food deficit, environmental disasters and health hazards. He mentioned about the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and the Bangladesh National Law against usage of tobacco products passed in 2005. Under this law, government is supposed to help farmers to produce alternate crops. But so far, no such support has been given to farmers. UBINIG has been conducting a research with International Development Research Centre, (IDRC) since 2006 and have been able to identify constraints and strategies to shift out of tobacco to food crops. Haque also shared some of the research findings he is now doing for UBINIG.
Farmers Basu Rani of Manikpur said that the cultivation of tobacco has many negative impacts. There is less food production, the lease price of the land has increased, fish are dying and children are not able to go to school. If we stop tobacco cultivation we can at least send our children to school, can feed fish and other food crops such as potato, rice and other vegetables to our children. She is one of those farmers who have stopped tobacco cultivation for last two years.
Sadrul Islam of Lama Union has grown sweet gourd, potato and a combination of crops which he has already harvested. He said, "I am happy. I can live with my friends. I can share the food crops with neighbours, relatives and friends. Tobacco is not a crop that can be shared. So socially it isolates people. Tobacco cultivation requires extensive physical labour. A tired tobacco farmer says, I do not need money, I need a doctor. So I request every one not to grow tobacco anymore and keep the future of your children safe. "
Muzaffar Ahmed of Bomo Bilchari is a farmer researcher working with UBINIG. He referred to the reserved forest being destroyed by tobacco cultivation. All the big trees are cut to use as fuel for curing tobacco. The participatory forestry project is given to the tobacco farmers who are exploiting the opportunity to destroy forest even more. The diesel subsidy which is supposed to be given to other farmers is going to the tobacco farmers. This is very unfair.
Md. Mustafa of Lama, Bandarban pointed out that although many farmers have cultivated tobacco this time the pest infestation in tobacco has caused lots of damage. These pests have become resistant. So the farmers have been picking the pests from every leaf by carry a lantern in their hands at night. The other concern is that the landowners have increased the lease price of the land because they have heard the promise of high price for the tobacco leaves.
Zahirul Alam, a journalist of national daily Jugantar expressed concern that tobacco has become a great threat to the people of this region. Tobacco is being cultivated on the two sides of Matamuhuri river. During the rainy season all the chemicals, particularly pesticides, flow down the river and pollute the water. We used to see different varieties of fish in this river but those varieties are lost. The trees are all lost, now even they dig the roots of the trees to burn in the kilns.
Journalist Shahed of Prothom Alo informed that this year vegetables were grown in only 5% land of Chakaria. He wanted to know where the fertilizer allocated to the vegetable farmers went. The dealers have actually sold it to the tobacco farmers, thus depriving the agricultural producers of the necessary inputs for cultivation. Also the Reserved forests are used by the tobacco growers where they use the trees to cure the tobacco leaves.
The Principal of the college, Abdullah Maswood raised the issue how the students are severely affected by tobacco cultivation. There are kilns near the schools. The students cannot concentrate in the class because of the smell from the burned leaves of tobacco. There is bad smell at night. This poses a health threat to the young children. He demanded that there should not be any kiln within the 500 yards of any school, madrasha or college. The food deficit is caused by tobacco farming. Who will guarantee food for the 140 million people of this country?
The local representatives of Union Parishad were very much vocal in talking about the negative impact of tobacco cultivation. However, it is related to the question of land ownership. Most of the Union Parishad Chairmen and the Upazila chairmen are the owners of land which are given as lease for tobacco cultivation. For example a Chairman owning 13 acres of land uses almost 12 acres for tobacco cultivation. At the same time the decision makers for social forestry are also involved in tobacco cultivation. To stop tobacco cultivation all these factors have to be taken into account. If tobacco cultivation continues in this way, there will be much less land left for food production. The land owners must ensure that food producing land must not be allowed for tobacco cultivation. Also NGOs must give support for food production rather than tobacco cultivation.
The Women members of the Union Parishad said they will launch a movement against tobacco cultivation and urged all to join the movement as it is has become a threat to the survival of the farmers.
The issue of problems related to alternative crops was also raised. For example, the potato and tomato farmers need support for preservation of the crops; otherwise they have to get very minimal price for their produce. This becomes a disincentive for continuing the cultivation of food crops. The tobacco companies are very clever. They give assurance for buying all the leaves but can also cheat them with the price. The farmers have no alternative but to sell to them.
Zakir Hussain of Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) referred to their actions taken on the occasion of World Water Day (22 March) in which they demanded that the lower stream of Matamuhuri belongs to the government. Therefore the government must take decision to ban tobacco cultivation on the lower stream and on the banks of the river. He also demanded that tobacco cultivation should also be banned in the homestead land. There should be a big rally against tobacco cultivation.
Jahangir Alam, Upazila Vice Chairman of Chakaria said that there should be more awareness raising meetings against tobacco cultivation. The administration as well as the local government representatives must work together to stop the menace. The local company such Akiz biri has invested a lot of money in tobacco cultivation so they will not let it stop. He declared that he will not allow any tobacco farmer to get the subsidized fertilizer and also the kilns near the schools must be broken immediately. No agricultural subsidy should be provided to the tobacco farmer as they are not producing any food crop.
Masud Rana, Assistant Forest Officer in Chakaria talked about reserved forest where tobacco cultivation is going on. However, the government laws are very weak to take strong actions against those who are destroying the forest for tobacco curing. He urged upon the participants to demand for an independent law against tobacco cultivation. The text books refer to tobacco as an agricultural cash crop which is misleading. So this must be corrected.
The Chief Guest of the meeting, Giasuddin Ahmed, Deputy Commissioner of Cox'sbazar district expressed his deep concern over the extensive tobacco cultivation in this district. The national level banks are giving loans to tobacco cultivation as they think the recovery rate is better for tobacco cultivation. He declared that next season no land on the bank of Matamuhuri will be allowed for tobacco cultivation. We must try to stop tobacco cultivation before it starts. There should be discussion at the educational institutions against tobacco cultivation. He agreed with the demand for stopping kilns near the schools or madrashas. The agricultural subsidy must go to the food producing farmers. Even the food crops produced by the farmers should be purchased at a rate that the farmers can meet their cost of production. Government should take efforts market the agricultural products, so that the farmers are not allured by the tobacco farmers.
Chief guest inspired the local community and the attending journalists by expressing his concerns and his commitment to look after the issue. It is important that government works more closely with the people in order to undertake appropriate policy and strategy to make a shift from tobacco cultivation to food production.
He said, Cox'sbazar as a district still has the time to recover the damage caused by tobacco farming. So without wasting anymore time, tobacco cultivation must be stopped.
Farida Akhter, chairperson of the meeting summarized the discussion and demands made by the participants. She said, big rallies and meetings will be organised on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day on May 31st, World Environment Day on June 5 so that people can be mobilised on these issues. There should be efforts to develop an independent law regulating tobacco cultivation. There should be ban of tobacco cultivation on the banks of Matamuhuri rive. No kilns near the schools and madrashas. No subsidy of fertilizer is given to tobacco farmers.
She appreciated the role of Deputy Commissioner and his sincere efforts to support the food producing farmers and his concern to stop tobacco cultivation. The journalists have been working hard to report on the harmful effects of tobacco cultivation. Nayakrishi farmers have taken initiatives to produce alternative food crops and have shown success in shifting out of tobacco. Women are worst affected by tobacco cultivation by having adverse health effects, particularly in relation to their reproductive health. Women are facing miscarriage and gynecological problems.