Tobacco cultivation in Bandarban hill district raises hackles again as some companies are managing to manoeuvre a web of incentives in cash and kind to attract marginal farmers.
The companies have aggressively been expanding their businesses even on government lands due to absence of anti-tobacco farming drives by the local administration over the last two-three years.
Bandarban has a reputation for growing diverse crops like paddy, maize, potato, eggplant, long gourd, bean, radish, cauliflower and cabbage, but now acres after acres of lands are being used to cultivate tobacco.
The extent of the cash crop's farming in the district has crossed the limit of 1,000 hectares set by Bandarban District Judge Md Kawser in 2010.
“Tobacco companies are providing cash loans and fertilisers in advance, and there is conformation they buy the harvested leafs. This is the reason the farmers are bent on tobacco cultivation,” Mobarak Hossain, a tobacco farmer from Chhagalkhaia village in Lama, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Nazir Ahmed, another tobacco farmer from Morakhola area of Lama, said that the company officials frequently visited the growers and gave them necessary advice, whereas “the government’s agriculture officials do not show up even when the farmers are in dire straits to save the vegetables farms.”
Shah Alam, a farmer of Dordori Gonomaster Para under Ruposhi Para union, said that tobacco farming was gaining the momentum as it is more profitable.
The farmers explained that they could find no alternative when the companies approach them in times of need, and provide them with seeds for free-of-cost as well as cash loans and fertiliser in advance on easy conditions.
Apart from the arable lands, school grounds, lands owned by the administration, protected forests, sandbars in the Matamuhuri River are not spared.
Local sources say tobacco cultivation is taking place on the premises of Shiler Toa Marma Para Primary School, Nunar Beel Government Primary School, former Beelchhari Government Primary School, Lainjhiri Government Primary School, Chhagalkhaia Government Primary School and Mewla Char Govt Primary School in Lama.
In Alikadam Upazila, tobacco farms are visible on the lands government and non-government schools including Nayapara Government Primary School, Mangtai Headman Para Government Primary School, Mang Ching Headman Para Primary School.
Tobacco leaf purchasing centres and store houses have been built in the area by Dhaka Tobacco, Abul Khair Tobacco, Akij Tobacco and British American Tobacco Bangladesh.
The companies are also operating a number of specialised burners for curing the tobacco leaves in the area.
The burners, commonly known as “tandur,” are burning around 100,000 tonnes of firewood annually to process some 1.75 million bales (1 bale is equal to 7217.724kg) of tobacco now being grown in the district.
Lama Upazila Agriculture Officer Nur-e-Alam claimed that the Department of Agricultural Extension of the government had been discouraging tobacco farming, but the farmers wanted more profits.