Albion Monitor /News

Tobacco Farming Latest Brazilian Forest Threat

by Beauty Lupiya

"We have no more trees here. Tobacco farmers are replanting nothing"
(PANOS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- While environmentalists worry about the fate of Brazilian rainforests, thousands of acres of lush forests are being cleared away in another corner of the country in the south to make way for tobacco cultivation and production.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of tobacco, and its exports have steadily risen from 241,000 tons in 1992 to 282,500 tons in 1996. It is the fourth largest producer of tobacco after China, the United States and India.

Increasing demand for farmland, including tobacco farms, has meant that less than 10 percent of virgin forests now remain in Southern Brazil, with destruction still continuing. Environmental organizations say tobacco farmers are mainly to blame.

"We have no more trees here. Tobacco farmers are replanting nothing. They have no conscience about the damage they are doing. They have no regard for the future," says Wigold Bertoldo Schaffer, spokesperson for the National Environmental Foundation.

There are widely divergent views on the extent of the global tobacco industry's use of fuelwood, but some estimate that one tree is needed for every 300 cigarettes produced globally
Tobacco affects forests in two ways: first, trees have to be felled to create tobacco farms. Second, fuel wood is needed to cure -- or dry out -- the harvested tobacco crop from its natural green to the brownish color seen in cigarettes.

While natural gas or oil is often used in some tobacco-growing developed countries, wood fuel is prevalent in Brazil, much of Africa, India, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The problem is that the industry rarely plants enough trees to replace those cut for curing.

Brazil's income from tobacco exports is the second highest in the developing world after China, but this needs to be kept in perspective: tobacco plays only a minor role in the economies of developing countries.

For instance, although Brazil earned $804 million from tobacco in 1992, this was a mere 2.2 percent of its total foreign exchange earnings.

The Brazilian tobacco growers' association, AFUBRA, denies the environmentalists' charges, saying it has helped plant some three hundred million trees in the past 20 years to make up for the deforestation. But they cannot say how many of these trees have survived. Nor can the government's Environmental Control Institute come up with a figure.

Some other things are not that foggy: Brazilian tobacco growers, concentrated in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Parana, use an average of about five million cubic meters of wood every year their curing stoves every year.

Of Brazil's 160,000 tobacco farmers, only 56,000 dry their products naturally in the sun and wind during the hot Brazilian tropical summer. The rest use stoves.

There are widely divergent views on the extent of the global tobacco industry's use of fuelwood. One claim, repeated by the World Health Organization, is that one tree is needed for every 300 cigarettes produced globally.

Some environmentalists say that to cure tobacco grown on 200,000 hectares of land, farmers need another 200,000 hectares of forest for wood. And a 1986 industry-commissioned report estimated that an average of 7.8 kilos of wood was needed to cure one kilo of tobacco.

The report concludes: "Although the tobacco industry's use of wood is very small in comparison with total consumption in the tobacco growing countries, the consequences of deforestation, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas, are so serious that all wood users must take steps to conserve the existing resource and create new plantation supplies for the future.

"So long as wood is regarded as a 'free good' and its price does not reflect its replacement cost, the destruction of the forest will continue."

The largest tobacco company in southern Brazil, Souza Cruz, claims that it has distributed ten million seedlings of eucalyptus trees over the past ten years, but it too cannot say how many of these grew to produce firewood. The non-governmental organization SOS-Mata Atlantica claims only one million trees have survived.

Jorge Antonio de Farias, a forest engineer with AFUBRA, says: "The forest is without doubt a sustainable resource if well managed. In the case of tobacco growers, I don't see any problems that could compromise the viability of sustainable exploitation of the forests."

The reforestation efforts of the tobacco growers has the support of the government's Environmental Control Institute, which signed an agreement with the industry in 1992 requiring it to plant 500 eucalyptus trees for each curing stove owned by tobacco growers.

But a report by Wigold Schaffer and Mirriam Prochnow, president of the Association for the Preservation of the Environment in the South, says the agreement has not been honored by tobacco companies and growers. AFUBRA denies the charge.

In June of this year, Souza Cruz was one of the unhappy recipients of the Santa Catarina Federation of Ecologists' ten "Filthy Prizes," awarded to Brazil's worst environmental abusers. The company was cited for doing "damage to the health of both smokers and non-smokers" and for "inducing constant devastation on extensive vegetation."

"We must not wait until the last minute when the south (of Brazil) becomes a desert"
In their defense, Brazilian tobacco growers point to new designs in curing stoves which have reduced the amount of wood needed for curing. AFUBRA figures show that whereas a stove needed 72 cubic meters of wood annually in 1970, it needs only 42 cubic meters today.

However, the number of stoves has nearly doubled over the same period, from 65,000 in 1975 to 122,170 today, which could nullify benefits from improved technology.

AFUBRA's de Farias maintains that the tobacco industry in Brazil is taking all necessary measures to preserve the environment: "It has never been necessary to look for other alternatives. Forests are a natural renewable resource."

Environmentalists view the problem as rather more urgent. Wigold Bertolodo Schaffer says: "If they (tobacco growers) say there is no deforestation, they are telling lies. We must not wait until the last minute when the south (of Brazil) becomes a desert to act."

The government's "Environmental Master Plan," published in 1995, confirms the worst fears of environmentalists. The report says that the use of wood from newly-planted trees rose from about 2.5 million cubic meres in 1975 to 24.4 million cubic meters in 1990.

But the amount of native forest wood used for various purposes, including tobacco curing, doubled between 1975 and 1990, rising from 25 million cubic meters to 49.8 million cubic meters. There is, however, little information on unregulated and small farmers.

The world's main importers of tobacco are the U.S., Germany, Britain, the Russian Federation, Japan, and the Netherlands.

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Albion Monitor August 13, 1997 (

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