Unfolding disaster: Arua heads to food insecurity as tobacco growing takes toll

A farmer in his Tobacco garden in Logiri in Arua district where he is expecting to earn a living.  PHOTOS | FELIX WAROM OKELLO

What you need to know:

  • While tobacco growing brings in huge revenues in countries where there is no law governing the practice, it comes at a cost to the environment and ecosystems. In Arua district, farmers are being lured from traditional crops to tobacco growing with a promise of huge returns as Felix Warom Okello & Clement Aluma report.

As the sun rises over the cold, dew-kissed fields of Lazebu Parish in Logiri sub-county, Grace Ayikoru, 52, is already hard at work in her maize garden.

For nearly three decades, Ayikoru has relied on cultivating maize, cassava, and beans, to feed and send her four children to school. She has also built a semi-permanent house. However, her life is changing as her husband pushes for tobacco farming, a shift she deeply opposes.

“I told my husband that we shall die of hunger if he takes up tobacco growing. Besides, tobacco growing is time-consuming and destructive to the soil nutrients. Last year, his tobacco venture yielded only Shs500,000, which is a loss, compared to the sustainable income from food crops,” Ayikoru told Sunday Monitor.

Ayikoru worries about the impact on their fertile land and the looming threat of hunger if men continue to reclaim land for tobacco.

“In a season, I earn about Shs2.6 million from maize, beans and cassava. The challenge now is that if we get deprived of the land by our men, we will have opened the door to starvation,” she adds.

Logiri Sub-county, known as the food basket of the West Nile region, is facing a dire situation as more farmers switch from food crops to tobacco. Speculators have also invaded Logiri, buying huge chunks of land from the indigenes for commercial farming. Many of them are engaged in food and tree production.

The poor are now being duped into turning their arable areas to tobacco farms, yet tobacco is synonymous with killing soil nutrients due to its acidic stems. Tobacco growing is time consuming and fetching little money.

The different grades of tobacco in Terego District. 

Women in West Nile play a crucial role in maintaining food security and conserving the environment. They are often the primary caretakers of household farms, ensuring a steady supply of food crops like maize, beans, and cassava. Their involvement in farming extends beyond planting and harvesting; they are also pivotal in soil conservation, water management, and forest preservation. In many households, women like Ayikoru are resisting the push towards tobacco cultivation due to its long-term environmental and health impacts. 
 
Impact on the environment 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) tobacco farming is a threat to food security as it takes up arable land that could be used to grow food. Tobacco is also harmful to the environment, causing deforestation, water contamination and soil degradation.

Last year, during the World No Tobacco Day, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, said governments across the world “spend millions supporting tobacco farms,” and that choosing to grow food instead of tobacco would allow the world to “prioritise health, preserve ecosystems, and strengthen food security for all.”

A 2017 WHO report, Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview, stated that tobacco is often grown without rotation with other crops, leaving the tobacco plants and soil vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases. This means that tobacco plants require large quantitate of chemicals and growth regulators to control pest and disease outbreaks.   

Tobacco plants also require intensive use of fertilisers because they absorb more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major food and cash crops, meaning tobacco depletes soil fertility more rapidly. 

In West Nile, for one to successfully grow tobacco in a half-acre farm, one has to buy the seeds, fertilisers, firewood, and chemicals for spraying. This roughly amounts to about Shs2.5 million. In a bad season, one gets only Shs1.5 million from the half acre.

The report also blames tobacco growing for deforestation in the areas where it is grown, saying, “An estimated 1.5 billion hectares of forests have been lost worldwide since the 1970s, contributing to up to 20 percent of annual greenhouse gas increases. Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change … it is also associated with land degradation or desertification in the form of soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and productivity, and the disruption of water cycles.” 
 
Magnitude of tobacco growing

In the West Nile region, tobacco has been predominantly grown in Arua, Maracha, Terego and Koboko districts. By 2009, Leaf Tobacco and Commodities (U) Limited had about 13,000 farmers actively engaged in tobacco farming while British American Tobacco Uganda (BATU) had about 10,000 farmers. 

These were the two chief companies promoting tobacco growing and buying from the farmers. But due to an intensive campaign against tobacco, BATU was pushed out of West Nile a couple of years ago.

Alfred Okuonzi, the chairperson of Arua district, says migrants in the sub-counties of Logiri, Arivu and Ajia are the ones carrying out tobacco growing. According to him, these migrants come from areas that previously grew tobacco. 

“We are not in support of tobacco production and more so with the issue of environmental degradation and destruction of trees for curing. We have sensitized the community through barazas and on radio, but some farmers are taking up tobacco because of the influence of the migrants. These people (migrants), who have bought a lot of land, make huge promises of lucrative money. Our people want that big money,” he says.

Okuonzi adds that tobacco is not a cost effective cash crop since it is labour intensive and lures people into poverty. He encourages locals to grow crops and raise animals that can bring in money much faster than tobacco can.

Maurice Mungufeni, the head of agronomy at Meridian Tobacco Company (MTC), says the company has a compulsory tree-planting program in which all their farmers engage.

“Before we register them as our farmers, we first encourage them to establish woodlots for fuel and to plant fruit trees to supplement their income. Our target is that each farmer should plant at least 300,000 trees to avoid deforestation,” he says. 

Magufeni says the company has given out three million tree seedlings in the last ten years. “We also encourage our farmer to plant food crops as well. However, the biggest challenge to the environment in the region remains poor agronomic practices. Some of the overgrown trees that are ready for harvesting are burnt due to the practice of bush burning and end up destroying indigenous trees.”  

MTC has 10,000 farmers in West Nile up from 4,591 in 2016. It employs 66,000 people on both temporary and permanent basis. Magufeni says MTC invested Shs44 billion in the last financial year, but he could not quantify how much of this went into greening the environment. 

President Yoweri Museveni has severally opposed the growing of tobacco since it yields little income yet is labour intensive.

“How can you continue growing tobacco when in a year you earn about Shs500,000? Can this income help you out of poverty?” he wondered in an address at a rally in Arua in 2008.

He added that tobacco farmers in the district should shift focus to growing crops that fetch higher prices to improve household incomes. Museveni also argued that tobacco cultivation involves expensive multiple application of pesticides and fertilisers which are toxic to humans and the environment.  
 
The pricing

Fifteen years ago, about 75,000 farmers were growing tobacco in Uganda and in 2011, the government earned at least Shs87.5 billion in taxes from the crop. 

However, with declining prices and farmers being persuaded to abandon the practice, by 2020, less than 10,000 tonnes of tobacco leaf were produced across the country, and annual revenue from exports had fallen from $120 million in 2013 to $49.8 million 

There are three commercially grown tobacco types, including flue-cured Virginia, burley (air-cured), and dark fire–cured tobacco.

In 2021, the Parliament passed a tax requiring Ugandan traders dealing in exportation of unprocessed tobacco leaf to pay a tax of Shs3,000 per kilogram in order to boost the currently undervalued business.

This tax comes with the passing of the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The Vice Chairperson of Parliament’s Committee on Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Jane Avur Pacuto (Woman Member of Parliament for Pakwach district) said that since 2015, firms have been exporting unprocessed tobacco leaf without paying an export levy causing financial loss to the government.

Pacuto added that traders were also registering losses following a decline in the value of unprocessed tobacco leaf on the world market.

At the current buying price (2024), the highest grade (top grade) of tobacco leaf is goes for Shs7,500 a kilogram, middle grade costs Shs5,500 and bottom grade goes for Shs3,700.

Harriet Leticia, a private buyer, says, “We struggle to get the highest grade from farmers because of the way they store the leaf in high temperature conditions. Growing tobacco is not bad and farmers could earn highly if they observe the agronomics, curing methods and storage.”

She adds, “My father educated me with money from tobacco and so, as I buy tobacco from farmers now, I tell them that it is good business once everything is done in the right way.”
 
Health impacts

Dr Paul Onzubo, the Maracha district health officer, explained to Sunday Monitor that tobacco consumption can cause diseases such as, heart attacks, high blood pressure, chronic bronchitis, chronic cough, asthma, cancers of the lungs, throat, mouth, stomach and kidney.

“Smoking affects the breathing system where you can have chronic obstructive airway disease. Somebody who does not have asthma can develop it due to excessive consumption of tobacco. It also reduces the lumen in the blood vessels.

He said one long-term effect is that it causes blockage of veins in the toes and the fingers. “Banning smoking is a challenge because the nicotine component in tobacco is addictive. Cigarettes are cheap and readily available to an extent that even if you do not have money, you can still get it from friends,” he.
 
Research and statistics

According to a 2003 survey done by Uganda Parliamentary Research Services, smoking prevalence in Arua district stood at 33.1 percent followed by Kampala at 17.5 percent. 

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS, 2014), 1.3 million Ugandans aged 15 and above used tobacco in 2013. In addition to smoking, a considerable number were secondarily exposed to tobacco in nightclubs, indoors and at home.

While Uganda signed and ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2004 and 2007 respectively, the comprehensive national legal basis for regulating tobacco use was gazetted in November 2015.

The law, which came into force on 19th May 2016, introduces the formation of a Tobacco Control Committee, abolition of smoking in public areas, display of stop smoking signage, bans on adverts and promotion of tobacco, prohibits use of electronic cigarettes and outlaws the sale of tobacco products to youth and minors below 21 years. 

However, its implementation remains dire.

Most of the population in West Nile is still dependent on rain-fed subsistence farming. As Arua district grapples with the consequences of tobacco farming, the need for sustainable agricultural practices and food security becomes ever more pressing.