Going up in smoke: the environmental costs of Zimbabwe’s tobacco boom

The growth of smallholder tobacco production has been an undoubted success story in recent years. In the last season there were around 90,000 registered producers, with 75,000 odd delivering to the auction floors, producing nearly 170m tonnes and around US$630m in revenue. This has been made possible in large part through the land reform. In addition to tobacco profits providing much needed export earnings for the exchequer, the ability to sell a profitable crop has transformed the lives and livelihoods of many farmers in the tobacco growing areas.

But all this success has come at a cost, particularly to the environment. Most of this tobacco is flue-cured on farm. Across the farm landscapes of Marondera, Mazowe, Guruve, Hurungwe and beyond, there are literally hundreds of tobacco barns, all erected in the past few years. These are where tobacco is dried and cured ready for market. The farmers have learned the process quickly and reports suggest that quality is high and increasing. However the technologies used are basic and inefficient, and rely primarily on woodfuel.

One kg of tobacco requires about 9 kg of wood to cure it under traditional curing systems. As new farmers settled on former large-scale farms there was plenty of surplus wood to use as land was cleared. These were often huge properties with only a portion of the area cultivated. From an agronomic viewpoint they were grossly underutilised, but they retained a large reserve of forested land. This was largely not used, although it provided a range of ecosystem services. Now with the land cleared and the farms populated, there are fewer and fewer patches of woodland left. To get fuelwood for tobacco curing, hillsides are being cut, with all sorts of consequences for soil conservation, watershed hydrology and so on.

Because of the growing demand and shrinking supply there has emerged a whole industry of wood supply. In small towns such as Mvurwi in Mazowe where we have been doing some work, there are chainsaw contractors who move around the area cutting wood in large quantities. They seek out wood resources wherever they can be found, often on A2 farms with larger plots. But the resources are unquestionably dwindling. The Forestry Commission estimates that each year 330,000 ha is deforested nationally, with 15% of this due to tobacco production.

At the end of each year there are ritual tree planting ceremonies at schools, council plots and so on. This year in the tobacco areas the officials beseeched people to start planting fast growing trees. They will have to do so in vast numbers. Already farmers have started to establish small eucalyptus woodlots, and many are talking about alternative sources of fuel (coal is more efficient, with 2.5kg curing a kg of tobacco), and improving the efficiencies of their flue-curing system (‘rocket barns’ for example are being proposed by the Tobacco Board). Innovation is of course the classic response to resource scarcity. The projections of the Forestry Commission suggest that there will be no trees left at all before the end of the decade. But of course this doomsday scenario won’t happen. As resources dwindle, alternatives have to be found, especially for a highly profitable enterprise like tobacco farming.

What is being experienced now is of course a repeat of what happened in the white commercial farming areas in the 1950s. The post Second World War boom in tobacco production was driven by the new settler farmers, often war veterans from the UK. They mostly used very similar technologies to those being used by resettlement farmers today. Even though their land areas were somewhat larger, they soon ran out of woodfuel (or it became too expensive to collect) and they switched to alternative fuels (notably coal and gas fired flue systems), planted woodlots and improved the curing technology; later to highly sophisticated and capital intensive systems.

This will certainly happen again. But in the meantime efforts to encourage fuel switching, tree planting and trees on watersheds must intensify. The commercial tobacco farmers of the 1950s and 1960s were encouraged to establish Intensive Conservation Areas (ICAs) across a network of farms, supported by the Natural Resources Board. This was largely a voluntary association, but with significant subsidies for a range of environmental improvements. This provided a bottom-up set of incentives for environmental management. The alternative approach is to impose regulations and try and police them. This was of course the NRB’s approach in the African reserves, and was widely hated and resisted, and so largely didn’t work.

As the Environmental Management Authority and the Forestry Commission contemplate how to respond to the environmental challenges of tobacco production, these two contrasting experiences are worth reflecting upon.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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10 responses to “Going up in smoke: the environmental costs of Zimbabwe’s tobacco boom

  1. am

    It is good that people are responding to the exhortations to establish their own wood plots.
    In Western Kenya amongst a people called the Kisii each person has his own woodplot growing blue gum and an indigenous tree beside his tea bushes. I cannot recall the name of the latter indigenous tree. Aswell as for domestic use the trees are sold to cutters at an agreed price as they stand in the ground. The cutter cuts it down with chainsaws and then into planks. It is then transported to his lumber yard.
    There he sells the planks to local furniture makers. They make a wide range of furniture of good quality from the planks from chairs to beds. In fact the whole range of furniture you can think of in the house.
    The furniture maker gets cushions etc where necessary from local cushion makers. They get the foam from somewhere and also make attractive cushion covers.
    The furniture is sold locally but also outwith the area. Buyers come from Nairobi on a regular basis to purchase and sell on in the capital and other places.
    The scale of this industry is large and the beneficial effects widespread throughout the community.
    The farms adjacent to this communal area are still heavily wooded but to see mahagonay and teak being burnt as fire wood is tragic. It is easily turned into added value of economic benefit to the community and individuals. There is a great need for the people to develop artisanal and business skills so that they can catch up with other more skilled communities. Comparisons are often odious but if taken in good heart they are useful. A mission that was established there some years ago bought its entire furniture requirements from the local artisans but that could not be done here.
    It would seem commenting directly on the deforestation and soil degradation that is identified in the blog due to wood clearing that urgent action is required. The land if not returned to wood needs full stumping, ridging, planting as permanent pasture for livestock or crop farmed under sound conservation principles. If not the soil will soon wash ruining it for future use. A long term recovery program would recover the situation but it is better to prevent a problem than have to fix a problem.. The soil will go into the nearest river and end up causing siltation with all the usual problems downstream.

  2. MrK

    This could be remedied with a tree planting campaign, of which Malawi had several.


    Not only can fast growing trees be planted for firewood, however extremely valuable trees can be planted as well.

    For instance, teak trees take 15 years to mature, but can sell at $20,000 each. Which is a very nice long term investment.

    And considering that trees contain and sink (through their root system) a lot of carbon, perhaps funds can be made available from that quarter.

  3. Paul Berman

    Sean Christie goes into this disaster in far greater detail here, drawing attention to merchant and TIMB smoke and mirrors:

    • Yes, a great article (as are his other ones in that series). It’s the first link in the blog.

    • MrK

      Paul Berman,

      “Sean Christie goes into this disaster in far greater detail here, drawing attention to merchant and TIMB smoke and mirrors:”

      What ‘disaster’? Why does everything have to be ‘a disaster’?

      Sean Christie writes:

      ” The collapse of commercial agriculture drove the Zimbabwean dollar into a state of hyperinflation between 2004 and 2009. ”

      Commercial agriculture collapsed between 2004 and 2009? Because of the 2004 farm invasions?

      Actually, tobacco exports took a dive in 2002, when the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 came into effect. The economic sanctions severed the lines of credit at international financial institutions, forcing the government to operate on a cash only basis from 2002 onwards.

      Tobacco Exports:

      2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
      548.8 594.1 434.6 321.3 226.7 203.8

      My source: Special Report, FAO/WFP Crop And Food Supply Assessment Mission To Zimbabwe, 5 June 2007
      Table 1: Zimbabwe – Key economic indicators, 2000–2007

      Zimbabwe Dollar vs Us Dollar

      Source: Economist Intelligence Unit

      • William Doctor

        @ Mr K

        Do you have data on maize exports, beef exports, horticultural exports and tourist income pre- and post- the land invasions please? I’ll plot those as a multiple regression plot and that will very likely indicate something different to what you imply regards tobacco.

        And the sanctions were put into place because Zimbabwean civilians were murdered for having the audacity to express their democratic rights.

  4. Pingback: Simbabwe: Landreform und Tabakanbau | Miss Ubuntu

  5. MrK


    ” And the sanctions were put into place because Zimbabwean civilians were murdered for having the audacity to express their democratic rights. ”


    I take it that ‘lack of democratic rights’ is the reason the United States has economic sanctions against it’s allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, the Congo DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Israel, and of course Greece, which is now run by the ECB’s VP.

    What makes you think that the United States or the UK give a damn about democracy?

    Zimbabwe has 20% of the world’s known diamond reserves, and De Beers wants to get it’s hands on them. That is why the MDC wanted to nationalize the diamond fields, and privatise everything else. They wanted a ZIMDEB or DEBZIM, like they have DEBSWANA and NAMDEB.

    That is also why ZDERA wanted the Zimbabwean troops out of the DRC, because they were interfering with the looting of Coltan by Rwanda/Uganda. Remember that Zimbabwe was in the DRC as part of SADC, and on the request of the legitimate government of Laurent Kabila. The US and UK were supporting the invading Rwandese/Ugandan rebels at the time.

    But hey, if you have proof that ZDERA was put on the Zimbabwean Government because of lack of democracy and no other reason, feel free to provide that evidence.


    (a) FINDINGS.—Congress makes the following findings:
    (1) Through economic mismanagement, undemocratic practices,
    and the costly deployment of troops to the Democratic
    Republic of the Congo, the Government of Zimbabwe has rendered
    itself ineligible to participate in International Bank for
    Reconstruction and Development and International Monetary
    Fund programs, which would otherwise be providing substantial
    resources to assist in the recovery and modernization of
    Zimbabwe’s economy. The people of Zimbabwe have thus been
    denied the economic and democratic benefits envisioned by
    the donors to such programs, including the United States.

  6. missubuntu

    What about solar power in Zimbabwe, not just for curing tobacco, but more generally as more sustainable way to provide electricity and warm water and to cut dependency on oil?
    After all, prices for solar and PV panels have massively dropped, so it should be possible.
    When you think about it: There are hundreds of NGOs (such as NED, USAID etc. etc.) in Zimbabwe that have nothing better to do than working on all sorts of “democracy promotion” and “good governance” programmes and similar patronising nonsense. In reality they are working to advance the interests of the US financial and corporate elites. It’s well documented that the founder of the National Endowment on Democracy said that the NED was founded (in the 1980s) to carry out the work overtly that used to be done mainly by the CIA covertly. Regime change through social and economic warfare.
    My point is that millions of dollars are spent on these programmes. What a huge and insane waste of resources! Money that could easily be available for concrete and simple solutions that would make a much more valuable difference to local people. Is it not?
    It would be interesting to know what is being done about renewable energy. Also, there are some really promising permaculture/water harvesting projects in Zimbabwe (e.g. Phiri pits). Do you know if that is being promoted on a wider scale?
    This example from South Africa is quite inspiring:

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