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Up in smoke

A typical tobacco firm in India

If tobacco smoking is injurious to health, its cultivation is causing no less damage to the environment and the exchequer, writes SOMA BASU

QUIT smoking and you will be saving at least one tree from being chopped down. Even though there is a paucity of research to point to a direct correlation between smoking and environmental degradation, fragmented studies point to the fact that 500,000 acres of forests worldwide are lost to tobacco farming each year. It takes one tree to make 300 cigarettes — or the amount the average smoker uses in two weeks.
Each year, one out of every eight trees, or almost 600 million, are cut down to provide the fuel to cure tobacco. This number does not include the trees that are used each year for the 275,000,000, 000 cigarette packages, cigarette paper or advertising. Deforestation is a major reason why carbon dioxide emissions – which are linked to global warming — have increased.
Tobacco does not figure amongst the priorities of the Union ministry for the environment and forests. Its website ( contains no mention of tobacco. Yet the pollution caused by tobacco smoke is an environmental concern, as is the air pollution and deforestation caused by the felling and burning of trees used in the curing of cigarette tobacco.
A scenario exercise conducted by the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, estimated that the historical use of fuel wood between 1962 and 2002, for tobacco curing and the manufacture of cigarettes and other smoking consumables, had destroyed and degraded 680 square km of scrub forests, or nearly 868 million tonnes of wood (220 million tonnes of construction quality wood and 668 million tonnes of fuel wood), through successive extraction. In calorific terms, the wood energy lost is enough to run a thermal power plant to provide Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh electricity for an entire year, according to this study.
A tobacco farmer who stopped growing tobacco due to losses and mounting debts said he used to bring 30 cartloads of wood (which he estimated at about 30 tonnes) from the nearby forests, paying the forest guard Rs 100-150 per cartload to cure his tobacco, grown on three to five acres. He said that in pre-Board days the tobacco companies would provide farmers with coal for the curing process. In addition, deforestation is also an outcome of obtaining certain ingredients such as sandalwood extract and catechu required for the preparation of gutka and paan masala.

Tree chopped for curing tobacco in a village.

According to research – “Tobacco and Poverty: Observations from India and Bangladesh” — carried out by an organisation called Path in Canada, in collaboration with Pryoga-Spandana, an NGO from Shimoga in Karnataka, at least four acres of tobacco cultivation is required to make the business a viable venture for farmers.
Four acres yield about 30-40 quintals, which means the barns have to be operated about 10 times in a season. Two to three cartloads of wood are used for each round of curing. In an annual growing season, a farmer uses about 25 cartloads of wood. Each cartload contains about a tonne of wood. The government depot costs are about Rs 1,200 per tonne, which would cost the farmer Rs 30,000 just for the wood. Clearly this is not a viable proposition. Instead, farmers obtain the wood by bribing forest guards, at an average of Rs 150 per cartload, which works out to about Rs 4,000 for 25 tonnes.
Thus, one farmer with four acres of tobacco cultivation causes a loss of about Rs 25,000 to the government exchequer. Karnataka has about 18,400 registered and more than 16,000 unregistered tobacco cultivators producing about 50,000 kg of tobacco every year. The huge loss of revenue to the government by the pilferage of firewood for tobacco curing can easily be estimated.
A study funded by Karnataka State Department of Science and Technology estimates that 120,000 tonnes of firewood are needed every year to cure tobacco leaves in the state. However, these are very conservative estimates and the actual use would range from about 300,000-350,000 tonnes.
There are no comprehensive figures or data on how much deforestation occurs from tobacco cultivation and industry in India. However, evidence is available to prove that forests were cleared on a large scale in areas where tobacco is grown.
Experts say that one reason for not recording the decline in forests is that forests are part of revenue land which the local administration is entitled to use for local area “development” and conversion of forest land is permitted. In addition, large tracts of private forests have not as yet been enumerated, despite different states having promulgated Private Forest Acts. Another reason is that the relative importance of forestry as a discipline declined while agriculture dominated heavily, especially between the 1930s and 1960s. No department or ministry existed to conserve forests (the Union ministry of the environment and forests came into existence in 1976). Consequently, agriculture departments took full control and diverted forest land for agricultural purposes.
There are few records on how many forests existed in dry land areas and how wood was consumed by the industry. As the forest departments classically did not consider dry and semi-arid areas forests, no authoritative records exist for any area where tobacco was promoted. Some anecdotal evidence of deforestation does exist. Between 1932 and 1946, promotion of tobacco spurred deforestation and scrub removal.
For example, in the Kheda and Anand regions of Gujarat, nearly 64 square km of forests were stripped. However, local communities realised that growing tobacco was not remunerative enough as forests and grass cover were lost, and many in the community depended on milch cattle for their sustenance.

Dendation caused by tobacco firming.

By the mid-1970s, tobacco cultivation declined in Gujarat. In Motihari, Bihar, nearly 60 square km of land was converted from a dry forest area to grow tobacco, after it was promoted in the region by the Pusa Agricultural Research Centre in the 1920s.
A report – “Tobacco Control in India” — jointly supported by Union ministry of health and family welfare, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, and World Health Organisation, stated that the real success to growing quality tobacco was seen in Andhra Pradesh and later in Karnataka. In the early 1900s, cultivation of tobacco picked up rapidly but because the local administration did not offer compensation and relief during natural calamities, it soon lost favour in most districts. The interest was revived only after incentives were institutionalised and farmers knew that there were assured returns from buyers and industries. Nevertheless, from the 1940s to the 1970s, because cultivation periods were long and storage facilities were few, tobacco needed to be “cured” quickly. Firewood and dried biomass were used excessively to desiccate the moisture and destroy the chlorophyll from harvested leaves. All neighbouring areas, especially forests and groves, were stripped of dry wood to fuel the curing process.
In areas where fuel wood supply has decreased, farmers dry the woody stems of the tobacco plant for domestic fuel. This, in turn, has severe health impacts. A survey done in the Godavari delta of Andhra Pradesh found that in one particular village — Vadisaleru — where only tobacco and few subsistence crops were grown, fuel wood shortage was severe. The rates of tuberculosis and cataract were higher than in other villages where tobacco was not grown. Deforestation has been associated with outbreaks of parasitic and other infectious diseases by favouring the spread of malarial mosquitos or freshwater snails that spread schistosomiasis and other diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and bacterial meningitis.
Tobacco growing also affects soil nutrients, depleting these at a much faster rate than many other crops, thus rapidly decreasing the fertility of the soil. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute report of 1962 reviewed the soil erosion status due to cultivation of dry land crops and said tobacco, when grown singly, was the most erosive crop, causing a loss of 45 kg of top soil on every acre per year.

Soma Basu

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