DHAKA, 26 January 2011 (IRIN) - Large groups of farmers in Bangladesh are switching from rice cultivation to tobacco farming, creating concerns about possible food shortages, according to the government and anti-tobacco lobbyists.
“Last year, I sold [US$1,969 worth of] tobacco, which is impossible if I grow food items,” said Shofi Mia, a tobacco farmer in Gorpara village, Manikgong District, 70km northwest of the capital, Dhaka.
For years, farmers have lamented the low prices they get for their crops. Cut off from markets because of poor infrastructure, they say they have become increasingly vulnerable to price-gouging from middlemen.
Falling profits have been blamed for farmers’ conversion to tobacco cultivation, according to Syed Mahbubul Alam, secretary of local NGO Bangladesh Anti-Tobacco Alliance (BATA).
Tobacco companies are recruiting farmers with free seeds, fertilizers, insecticides and “whatever we need for cultivation”, said farmer Mia from Gorpara.
Anti-tobacco activists said tobacco companies win over contractors with promises of profits which often do not materialize.
“Many farmers later understand that it is not [a] profitable business but they cannot leave it as they cannot repay the loans they have taken from the companies,” said BATA’s Alam.
Tobacco companies buy the crop, guaranteeing a steady demand and prices. “We do not have to be worried about the [sale] of the products as companies take this from our [farms],” said tobacco farmer Bablu Mia, from the same village.
Tobacco has been cultivated in Bangladesh since the 1970s.
Though researchers have little official data, they say tobacco cultivation has significantly expanded in recent years, with one local study estimating the growth at 68 percent from 2007 to 2009, with the current trend pointing even higher.
“As some parts of the world…ban tobacco cultivation, Bangladesh might be an attractive destination of international tobacco companies,” said Farida Akhter the executive director of Ubinig, a local NGO also fighting tobacco cultivation.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the total land used for tobacco cultivation in 2007-2008 was almost 30,000 hectares (ha), which yielded 40,248 tons.
While steadily growing, such production uses only a fraction of the country’s cultivable land (eight million ha), and is still minor compared to the 32 million tons of rice produced in the same year.
But official figures may not accurately capture the growing interest in tobacco farming, Aminul Islam Sujon, project coordinator of local NGO Work for Better Bangladesh, warned.
“The original figure is five times higher than the government figure,” he said.
Walking through Manikgong District, it was not hard to find recent converts. Habibur Rahman abandoned rice farming for tobacco two years ago, while it has been four years since Madar Mia made the switch.
Activists and the government say the trend could worsen food insecurity and shortages, given limited cultivable land.
“If a large group of farmers [switch] to tobacco cultivation, it might affect food grain production in Bangladesh,” C. Q. Mustaq Ahmed, secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN.
“The country will face a severe food crisis in the near future, if tobacco cultivation cannot be stopped immediately,” said Akhter, executive director of Ubinig.
“It is a simple equation. When farmers cultivate tobacco [December to March] this is the time for paddy and winter crop cultivation. So expanding tobacco cultivation… will certainly cause food insecurity problem[s],” she added.
“Arable land is on [the] decrease in Bangladesh. It will be a threat if the land is used for tobacco cultivation rather than the food cultivation,” said BATA’s Alam.
Bangladesh is losing 1 percent of arable land every year, in part due to erratic rains and land degradation, according to the UN World Food Programme.
The agency estimates 28 million people - 20 percent of the total population - are “ultra-poor” and face chronic food insecurity.
Switching back to rice
Akhter said Ubinig has helped 1,000 farmers nationwide switch from tobacco cultivation back to rice cultivation by giving seeds and other technical assistance.
“The government can have a similar programme. But, first, it should formulate a law to prohibit tobacco cultivation on farmland,” she said.
“We are trying to discourage farmers from cultivating tobacco. We are not supplying the fertilizer at a subsidized price for tobacco cultivation,” said the Agriculture Ministry’s Ahmed.
“If the situation becomes alarming, we will take measures,” he added.
There is still time to stave off further encroachment, as some farmers are still immune to the lure of tobacco, said Ubinig’s Akhter.
“Ultimately, it [tobacco farming] is not profitable as when we grow paddy and other crops, we do not have to buy food from markets. Though tobacco farmers earn a lot, they have to spend a lot buying food,” said rice farmer Boshir Ahmed.
By IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.