The children pick through mountainous piles of waste tobacco and sweep it up with their bare hands into giant bags in the hope of scraping a living. From behind a veil of dust, they stare back at us with bloodshot eyes.
As the wind gathers in a fading dusk, infant siblings strapped to their mothers’ backs wail amid swirling, noxious clouds of tobacco.
Beyond them, a parched maize plantation stretches into the distance towards the factory buildings of Alliance One, the world’s largest tobacco processor and the source of up to 30% of the premium tobacco enjoyed by Britain’s 13m smokers.
A Sunday Times investigation in the southern African state of Malawi has uncovered an environmental travesty that is being inflicted by the tobacco industry on some of the continent’s poorest people.
Downstream from the tobacco processing plants that dominate the outskirts of Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, rivers run yellow and green from industrial outflow — water used for bathing by villagers who have no other option.
Even more alarming, however, is that in a community already plagued by Aids, cholera, malnutrition and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, toxic tobacco waste is being dumped by contractors in open landfill sites where hundreds of children are picking through the remnants.
The children try to sell the waste for fertiliser or for use in cheap black-market cigarettes bound for Zimbabwe. But they pay a heavy price by risking their health.
British American Tobacco, the UK’s biggest cigarette company, announced an immediate inquiry after being shown our findings. “Inhaling any form of dust can be hazardous to health, and tobacco dust is no exception,” a spokesman said.
Sitting on a mound of tobacco dust, Chipirawachaje wheezes and coughs up a foul sputum. He is 10 years old and has been working at Lilongwe’s Nchezi dump since he was five.
Around him, stooped like old men in the haze, dozens of other children shovel tobacco dust, hacking and coughing as they go. The nicotine-filled residue is everywhere: in their ears, their nostrils, covering every inch of their skin. Like all children, their reaction to the irritation is to rub their eyes harder. With each rub, more tobacco dust enters swollen eye sockets.
At dusk, hundreds of people emerge from villages within walking distance of the site clutching plastic US Aid buckets and flimsy plastic bags. As we walk across the unsecured landfill, a tractor rumbles by, towing a vast trailer piled high with tobacco waste from the Alliance One factory. Within moments it is chased down by an army of children.
“We sell this tobacco dust to Zimbabweans,” says Chipirawachaje. “We take it home and pack it in cardboard boxes and then they come to the village with vans and take it away. I think they smoke it.”
At his side his mother Elisa cradles his younger sister. “My whole family came here to work,” she says. “We use some of the waste tobacco as fertiliser for our small plot but we sell most of it on for a pittance. We’ll be lucky to get a dollar for all of this.”
She adds that the family has no choice but to collect the dust. “The tobacco firms won’t give us jobs,” she says. “They build factories on our land and then dump this here so we have to make what we can from the situation. I know it’s bad for my children but we must eat.”
During a visit to the site earlier this month, at least 20% of the dump was on fire, set ablaze by the contractors. The result was a fog of tobacco smoke and dry tobacco dust choking the horizon.
Because nicotine is regarded as harmful to both humans and the environment, the US Environmental Protection Agency has designated waste tobacco as toxic. Such waste is classified as “toxic and hazardous” by European Union regulations when its nicotine content exceeds 0.05%.
This weekend a spokesman for the American-owned Alliance One said the company would build a wall round the landfill site to keep out children. He said: “We believe that we meet all environmental and other regulatory requirements in Malawi, but we are happy to work further with local authorities to further safeguard children from exposure at the municipal disposal site.”
Few benefits from the tobacco industry filter down to Malawi’s poor tobacco farmers who eke out a hopeless existence on less than 80p a day.
The world’s seventh largest producer of tobacco, Malawi earned just $162m (£97m) from this cash crop in 2007. The tiny nation is the supplier of 10% of all Burley tobacco, the premium leaf used in most of Britain’s leading cigarette brands.
Barely a mile from the Alliance One processing plant, a stinking gorge cuts through Chatata, a village of more than 1,000 people. Its fast-flowing stream runs yellow, dark green and at times red.
Children still splash in the effluent, which their mothers use to wash their clothes. “The water is getting darker,” said Lefiam Chiwombantiti, 22, a villager who lives close to the stream. “We fear the rainy season the most. It overflows into our homes. It may be good for plants but what is it doing to us?”
Tracing the source of the liquid upstream, we followed the water to an outflow pipe adjacent to the main Alliance One factory. Given a tour of the site by a security guard, we saw black tobacco waste from the factory being diverted into narrow channels. So thick is the outflow that workers in chemical suits and breathing aids are employed to force it along the channels.
Alliance One confirmed there were “deficiencies” in the water running from their plant but denied that any effluent ran directly into Chatata.
“In candour, some deficiencies were noted (a fortnight ago) and we were already moving to correct them,” the spokesman said. “We are unaware of any toxicity caused by the accumulation of tobacco dust.”
Little government attention is devoted to the environmental damage caused by tobacco in Malawi. But according to Helmut Geist, a land-use expert who has studied deforestation there, it takes up to an acre of forest to cure (dry) an acre of tobacco. Approximately one tree is felled every fortnight to maintain the habit of an average smoker.
Campaigners claim that landless tenants are forced to rent everything from fertiliser to farm equipment from their landlords. This ensures that they keep working as bonded labourers to pay off their debts to the estate owners.
“In absolute truth tobacco is a curse for the people of Malawi. There is no blessing here. There is no silver lining,” said Kondwani Multhali, acting co-ordinator of the campaign, Tobacco Free Malawi. “The environmental toll caused by this crop is unsustainable.”
He cited a recent report by a UK-based charity, Plan International, which estimated that close to 2.5m women and children are working in conditions of semi-slavery in the tobacco industry and being paid as little as £160 a year.
The report claimed that children forced to work as tobacco pickers in Malawi are exposed to nicotine levels equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Child labourers as young as five, it alleged, are suffering severe health problems from a daily absorption of up to 54 milligrams of nicotine through their skin.
Those interviewed for its report spoke of common symptoms of so-called green tobacco sickness, or nicotine poisoning, including severe headaches, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, coughing and breathlessness.
“Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath, you don’t have enough oxygen,” one child told Plan. “You reach a point where you cannot breathe because of the pain in your chest. Then the blood comes when you vomit. At the end, most of this dies and then you remain with a headache.”
At the Nchezi dump, the trucks arrive at dawn for the start of another day. Dorothy Stonekesi, a mother of five, ignores the cries of an infant daughter strapped to her back, places a huge container of tobacco dust on her head and moves towards her shack on the edge of the landfill.
Behind her, the children follow in an untidy line, struggling under the weight of the tobacco and their own discomfort from the dust.
A sudden gust whips up ashen clouds of burning tobacco and they disappear from sight, lost in the fog. Before long the sound of their coughing has gone, too, replaced by the heavy rumble of more trucks.
November 15, 2009
Dan McDougall in Lilongwe, Sunday Times