Up in Smoke

Posted: 30 June 2003

Tobacco kills almost five million people every year, according to the World Health Organisation. The devastating health effects of tobacco consumption have been widely publicised. Less well known is the damage tobacco growing can do to development in poor, southern countries. Up In Smoke, Television Trust for the Environment's (TVE) new programme in its Life series, explores the impact of the industry in the southern African country of Malawi.

tabacco production in MalawiOver 70 per cent of Malawi's export earning comes from tobacco.© TVEBritish colonizers first introduced tobacco as a crop to Malawi over 100 years ago. After independence in 1964, Malawi's President-for-life Dr Hastings Banda took control of the tobacco estates, and made the country even more economically dependent on the crop. Today, over 70 per cent of Malawi's export earning comes from tobacco, and seven million Malawians depend on the industry. But it hasn't made them wealthy. Six out of every 10 Malawians live below the poverty line "When you look at this economy," says John Kapito from the Consumer Association of Malawi, "do you see anywhere that this economy is booming because of tobacco? It's a sick economy."

One reason is that the prices paid for tobacco have fallen by 30 per cent in the last six years, while the costs of inputs like fertilizers have been rising steadily. Tenant farmers on the small farms where much of the country's tobacco is grown now struggle to make end meet. Whole families have to work to bring in the crop. As a result, children like farmer Miriam Mirota's daughter Alice can't go to school. "Alice helps me work in the tobacco field," says Miriam. "She takes care of the baby when I am working. Also, since we are poor, she doesn't have any school clothes. If Alice doesn't get educated, I don't think she'll have a better future."

As Up In Smoke shows, the global tobacco companies are now supporting programmes like the Geneva-based Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT), aimed at halting child labour on tobacco farms. But there's a bigger issue, other critics argue. Why is Malawi still so dependent on tobacco when so many other countries around the world are now growing it too, and prices are stagnating? And has the Malawian government made any serious effort to develop alternatives? Since 1983, the Food and Agriculture Organization has pledged technical support to help countries like Malawi diversify out of tobacco production. But in the last 20 years, says Derek Yach, WHO's Executive Director of Noncommunicable Disease, not one country has applied for this support.

The reason, says John Kapito, is the mythology surrounding the tobacco industry in Malawi. "It starts from every child - you ask a small child: 'Where does the economy of Malawi survive on?' Tobacco. Tobacco is our gold. Now that has gone on in your head for too long. And who is running tobacco? It is not government, it is the tobacco industry. So you worship them. They decide where we should go. They tell us what we should do."

In Up in Smoke TVE looks at the arguments for and against, the impact tobacco growing has on the environment, and explores the alternatives.

All information on this Life programme, as well as other programmes in the three previous series, is available at: www.tve.org/lifeonline. For copies of the programme, contact Dina Junkermann at: