The growing cultivation of tobacco in the hill tract district of Bandarban has emerged as a major contributing factor for deforestation in the region as farmers rely on firewood for “curing” tobacco and packaging and rolling cigarettes, affecting forest resources.
Tobacco as a cash crop is also replacing cereal crops like rice in a vast area of land as farmers find it relatively easy to produce, cost-effective and has “guaranteed returns” at the end of the season.
Dependence on wood to cure tobacco – in the absence of petroleum, coal and natural gas to do the curing – is taking its toll on the forests in Lama and Ali Kodom upazilas, including those that are declared “protected” by the forest department.
Studies show on average, it requires about 20 cubic metres of firewood, which means wiping a forest on a hectare of land, to produce a tonne of flue-cured tobacco. Amid widespread cutting of indigenous trees to cure tobacco, Zimbabwe looks to encourage other varieties of tobacco like burley which require less wood to process.
Enamul Haq Khan, Lama Upazila Agriculture Officer, said around 1,076 hectares of land are being used for tobacco farming in Lama, producing approximately 75,320 bales of tobacco. One bale is equal to 84 kilograms.
The burners, commonly known as “tandul”, burn around 100 maunds (1 maund equal to 40kg) of firewood annually to cure 70 bales of tobacco. 107,600 maunds of firewood are needed to burn the 75,320 bales of tobacco.
“All this firewood comes from nearby forests including protected forests,” said Ziaur Rahman, owner of a tandul at the Lama Sadar Union.
Muhammad Sayed Ali, the divisional forest officer of Lama, told the Dhaka Tribune that the district has witnessed a decrease in its forest cover in recent times for the increasing demand of wood in tobacco farming.
He also confirmed that a major supply of the required wood comes from trees in the forests under the district authorities, including those that are legally protected from any kind of depletion and encroachment.
The British-American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB), Dhaka Tobacco and Akij Tobacco are the major growers of tobacco leaf in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Of them, BATB is the largest grower and has been reportedly paying “huge subsidies” to the farmers for cultivating tobacco.
Meanwhile, BATB has also launched a tree plantation programme, distributing saplings among local people with an aim “to improve the forest coverage of the region”.
This correspondent tried on several occasions to elicit a comment on the plantation programme from BAT authorities, but despite repeated requests they made no reply.
Anowarul Amin, communication manager of BAT, has also refrained from making a comment though initially he had said he would send a formal reply over email.
However, Muhamamd Sayed Ali thinks this kind of plantation is not enough to make up for the losses caused by the tobacco companies. “Deforestation is taking place at a rate that no attempt to afforest can make the situation revert to normal.”
It has been alleged that a group of illegal traders are active in the region supplying firewood to the burners operated by tobacco traders, right under the nose of the forest department.
“Everything they do including chopping trees, carrying and bringing them to the tanduls, they do with the knowledge of the authorities concerned,” said a forest guard of the Alikodom forest beat of Matamuhuri Range, seeking anonymity.
Sirajul Islam, a farmer at the Ali Kodom upazila of Bandarban, said tobacco companies pay the cost of production in advance, with the guarantee that their produces would be sold as soon as they are done with cultivation.
Experts say this kind of strategy helps boost the morale of farmers who usually have difficulty producing cereal crops such as rice and have little chances that their production would bring hefty returns.
According to the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a UK-based organisation, BAT is the second largest tobacco company in the world and is dominant in the Sub-Saharan African region.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world and tobacco growing is said to be one of the contributory factors. Although BAT has a re-afforestation programme, many of the replacement trees are not indigenous and adversely affect biodiversity.
According to the BATB website, the British American Tobacco Group holds 65.91% of the shares in BATB. Other shareholders are the Investment Corporation of Bangladesh, Shadharan Bima Corporation, Bangladesh Shilpa Rin Shangstha, the Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Sena Kalyan Shangstha and other members of the public.