Uganda’s tobacco industry is spawning an environmental disaster, as farmers turn to fruit trees for wood fuel to cure the tobacco leaves.
Driving through tobacco growing areas, outside the Murchison Falls National Park one barely encounters natural forests.
The native trees have been cut down and no efforts have been made to replace them.
Occasionally, one sees smaller manmade forests of eucalyptus trees that belong to a few individuals who, after growing food crops still have land to spare.
Larger manmade forests belong to the leading tobacco company British American Tobacco Uganda Ltd. The company sells the wood to the tobacco farmers.
Caught between the short term need for revenue and employment opportunities that the tobacco industry presents, the government has turned a blind eye to the unfolding environmental impact of the plant.
In 2009, the country exported 32,000 tonnes of tobacco leaves that fetched $57 million in revenue.
The previous year, the industry exported 29,042 tonnes fetching $66 million.
Also, over 90 per cent of Uganda households rely on wood fuel as a source of energy, which adds to the challenge of redeeming the forest cover.
In addition, there is increased demand for timber for the construction and furniture making industries.
A 1992 Panos study on deforestation in developing countries revealed that 69 per cent of wood consumed by tobacco companies goes to fuel used in curing tobacco, and 15 per cent to poles and sticks for constructing barns.
The most affected countries include Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Brazil and Uganda. Zimbabwe is the only country in Africa that uses the flue method — which makes use of coal, petrol or oil — to cure tobacco leaves.
Despite tobacco being an industrial crop with a considerable number of farmers producing it, the National Agricultural Research Organisation, Uganda’s lead research body, cannot regulate the crop as it is outside its mandate.
This leaves the sector in the hands of private multi billion dollar companies.
Julius Mukalazi, director of research at the Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in West Nile, said the effect is disastrous as these companies have exhausted the natural forest trees and are now cutting down mango trees.
“In future we may not have fruits,” said Dr Mukalazi. “Batu and other companies need to come up with mitigating programmes such as agroforestry, growing woodland for firewood and fodder for livestock, which should be integrated under Naro.”
However, when asked about their plan for reforestation, Batu was unresponsive.
The British American Tobacco Company introduced tobacco to the farmers in West Nile in 1927 as a cash crop.
As supply grew, the British built a factory in Jinja in the east in 1928.
The region is also suitable for growing fruits like mangoes, avocados, citrus and passion fruits, which also have industrial uses.
Cereals, cassava, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes and pumpkins can also be grown in the area to boost food security.
The surplus can be sold in ready markets in DR Congo and Southern Sudan.
The region is also suitable for apiary and cash crops like coffee and cotton, but the farmers prefer growing tobacco because of the incentives that the tobacco companies provide.
Yet regulating the tobacco industry continues to present a unique challenge.
Unlike other environmental control efforts, the problem in this case is a multibillion dollar industry.
For example, while Uganda’s activists fight tobacco advertisements in the mass media, tobacco companies are offering scholarships, contracts to farmers who are assured of payment after harvest, besides taking part in corporate social responsibility projects that portrays them favourably in the public eye.
According to the Forestry Policy of 2001, Uganda’s natural forest cover stands at 4.9 million hectares which is 24 per cent of the total land area, out of which government owns 1.9 million hectares either under the Forestry Department or in national parks that fall under the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
Incidentally, only 740,000 hectares of forests stands today.
It is estimated that 800,000 cubic metres of logs are cut each year.