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Up in smoke: Bangladeshi farmers abandon tobacco

Church charity helps planters in Chittagong Hill Tracts grow other crops that pose no hazards to health and the environment

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Up in smoke: Bangladeshi farmers abandon tobacco

The Sangu River flows through Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The hilly, forested region has seen a boom in tobacco plantations that pose risks to health and the environment. (Photo: Rock Ronald Rozario/UCA News)

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After 10 years of cultivating tobacco on a piece of his land, Aung Cha Nung Marma realized that what brings quick money may be lucrative but can be equally harmful and disastrous.

Aung, an ethnic Marma Buddhist and father of three sons, owns 1.33 acres (5,400 square meters) of ancestral land that straddles the smoky hills and lush green forests of the Lama area in Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Like most indigenous people on the hills, agriculture is the main source of livelihood for him and his family.

He has been planting tobacco on one quarter of his land over the past decade. He grows crops including potato and peanut on the rest.

“I started planting tobacco as I saw some farmers were doing the same and made good profits. I followed them and planted tobacco on my land with a loan from a moneylender,” Aung, 47, told UCA News.

Once he can pay back 20,000 taka (US$235), his tobacco experiment will come to an end this year, he said.

“Even my youngest son warned me not to plant tobacco as he came to know from his school that tobacco is bad for health and the environment,” Aung added.

Sui Nung Marma, an ethnic Marma Buddhist and mother of four, has grown tobacco on her 0.66 acres for eight years but abandoned it last year.

“I had no idea that tobacco plantations were harmful to health and the environment. While working in the field, I vomited and fainted several times, which I realized was due to my work in the tobacco field,” Sui, 35, also from Lama, told UCA News.

Sui has been growing peanuts and various vegetables since then. She sells the harvest in the market to support her family.

“Tobacco is a poisonous crop and can harm the human body, the land and the environment. I have also advised my neighbors and fellow farmers to abandon tobacco farming even if it is more profitable,” she added.

Cases similar to those of Aung and Sui are becoming more and more frequent on the hills of Bandarban, which has been known as the tobacco plantation hub for years.

Thanks to efforts by the government and non-government agencies such as Catholic charity Caritas, many farmers in the hills are exiting from tobacco.

The tobacco invasion

Despite relatively low production, Bangladesh is one of the highest consumers of tobacco. About 35 percent of adults out of a population of more than 160 million use tobacco in smoke and smokeless forms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A WHO study in 2017 found that prevalence of tobacco consumption is 24 percent among rich people but about 48 percent among people in the lower economic strata.

In 2003, Bangladesh signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and enacted the Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act in 2005.

However, the law mostly addresses the control of the demand side of tobacco by imposing high taxes on tobacco products, but it does little to control the production of tobacco.

Another WHO study in 2007 found that between 1990 and 2003 Bangladesh saw an overall decline in tobacco plantation areas from 93,950 acres to 76,110 acres. But it saw a massive rise in hilly areas of the CHT, particularly in Bandarban.

During this period, tobacco plantation areas in Bandarban jumped from 300 acres to 1,810 acres, a 600 percent increase.

Researchers identified a connection between the poverty of rural farmers and switching to tobacco plantations.

The business is controlled mostly by three global tobacco giants — British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International. They not only fix prices of tobacco collected from farmers but also offer lucrative monetary and non-monetary incentives including easy loans through local agents to encourage farmers to grow tobacco on their land.

“There is little to no monitoring of areas where tobacco is being cultivated despite having a tobacco control law. Tobacco causes damage to health, the environment and agricultural land, but many are not yet aware,” James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong, told UCA News.

Forests have been cleared in many places for wood to be used for tobacco burning, Gomes noted.

Caritas promotes awareness among people regarding the health and environmental hazards posed by tobacco and offers low-interest loans to cultivate various kinds of seasonal crops on the hills, he said.

The agency has 2,200 beneficiaries in agricultural projects in Bandarban and about 50 percent of them are former tobacco planters.

“Abandoning tobacco farming is a precondition to become a Caritas beneficiary. For many poor rural farmers, tobacco planting is a lucrative but unending cycle, yet awareness and support for alternatives can help them overcome it,” he added. 

Anti-tobacco measures

Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari — three hilly forested districts — make up the CHT, the only mountainous region of Bangladesh and one of the top tourist destinations in the country.

Despite breathtaking natural beauty, this predominantly ethnic indigenous region is largely impoverished, making it fertile ground for tobacco invasion.  

However, thanks to some effective measures, the tobacco plantation boom among the hills has stopped in recent times, says Mishuk Chakma, a state agriculture officer in Bandarban.

“Two years ago, about 2,000 hectares of land in Bandarban was used for tobacco plantations, which has dropped to 1,423 hectares. The government has taken initiatives to discourage tobacco and support various crops such as peanuts and maize. Many farmers who switched to tobacco for more profits are coming back,” Chakma told UCA News.

Due to an increase in tourism, farmers are able to get better prices for their crops, which is also encouraging them to return to cultivation of seasonal crops, he noted.

“Tobacco is a big business and the syndicates are very strong, so it is often difficult to get farmers out of it once they get in. Only when they realize that money is not everything and tobacco farming is a slow poison, can they turn around,” Chakma said.

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