FRANCOIS VAN DER MERWE, global president for the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA), was in Malawi recently for the Tobacco Coalition for Eastern and Southern Africa—also known as the T5. Our reporter FATSANI GUNYA engaged him to find out more about the meeting. Excerpts:
You are in Malawi for the T5 workshop. How significant is the coalition and the workshop itself?
I think it would be important to brief members on the background to the formation of the T5. First, the idea to form a coalition was hatched out of the realisation that tobacco, a major cash crop for some African countries, is facing so many challenges including the exclusion from international trade agreements, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), plain packaging, heavy taxes and prohibition of production due to health concerns raised by the developed countries. It has to be noted that these issues are reducing the global demand for tobacco and thereby negatively affecting the economies of developing countries such as Malawi, which has no capacity to diversify away from tobacco in the short term. As a corollary to the foregoing, a number of countries with economies that are heavily dependent on tobacco met in Cape Town in May 2005 to discuss the establishment of a coordinated regional mechanism and body for the enhanced sustainability of tobacco in the Sadc and Comesa region. The Cape Town meeting, which involved Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, agreed on several key points.
Why was the coalition conceived?
The objectives of the coalition was to build a platform to address regional and international tobacco trade issues with a unified voice; promote a regional supply chain focusing on trade issues of all sectors of the value chain; address key policy issues that negatively affect regional and international trade and also to advocate and lobby for the best interests of coalition members.
Can you explain the current threats the crop faces?
Malawi hosted the second meeting [here] in Lilongwe in July last year following the Cape Town one. I remember there was a communiqué released on the principle that leaders of the tobacco growing countries had noted the moves by some international organisations to undermine their sovereign right to decide on their development agenda and stop the production and processing of a legal crop that supplies markets according to demand. It is noted that there is a concerted plan to eliminate the industry through increasingly regulatory proposal based on exclusion, de-normalisation and prohibition. It is refreshing to note that countries like Tanzania have adopted the declaration.
Is your organisation just trying to be stubborn amid the anti-smoking lobby?
Not really. ITGA for one, and governments at large acknowledge the complexity of tobacco and always want to have a broad consultative approach to deal with it. Like so many others, I believe Malawian farmers, too, would like to benefit from it as a legal commodity while at the same time, protect public health. However, I understand that governments will also be promoting tobacco production and protecting it from the negative effects of imbalanced and poorly informed tobacco control legislation adopted by countries that import the leaf.
What is your take on diversification calls off the leaf?
It has to be on the record that the ITGA supports those diversification calls. Actually, it was one of the key issues tackled during the last CoP meeting. We have no problems with the principle of crop diversification, with complementary crops alongside tobacco to ensure food security. But what we are saying is that we need an approach to diversification which must be holistic, sustainable, based on research and best practice and proposes robust pilot studies to be conducted in countries such as Indonesia, Malawi, India, Philippines. etc.
In practice, the real difficulties to find alternatives should be considered, i.e., suitable crops for soil type and weather, suitable markets and supply chains, distances from markets, similar revenues on small land, financing models of other crops. I am saying this because ignoring some issues may be at our own peril. We neglect the farmer, we plan for our downfall. The thing is we do not have to push the farmers out of business but at the same time we do not want to hurt our farmers. Famers should be treated and respected as business people. n