HARARE – Ask a dispossessed white Zimbabwean farmer how many cords of wood you need to cure a hectare of tobacco and he’ll shake his head and look blank.
White farmers for the most part say they didn’t use wood to cure their tobacco because there simply weren’t enough trees or wood close to hand to make it practical.
They used either coal or gas to cure their crop and perhaps some wood to fuel the boilers which produce the steam to condition the tobacco leaves.
Two reports in the Daily News last week gave us both the good news and bad news about Zimbabwe’s tobacco boom.
From one report we learnt that Zimbabwe is expected to export over $1 billion worth of tobacco this year.
Meanwhile, the other report revealed that Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers are causing massive deforestation with over 20 percent of the country’s forests already lost to the furnaces of tobacco curing.
That leads us back to the original question which is how many cords of wood does one need to cure one barn of tobacco.
Related questions are, how many cords of wood there are in one tree and how many barns of tobacco you get from a hectare of tobacco?
A cord of wood is universally quoted as a stack of dry wood, tightly packed with even sized logs which occupy 3,62 cubic metres.
In imperial terms a cord is described as 8x4x4 feet and in metric terms this translates to logs that are each 122 cm long, stacked on top of each other to a height of 122 cm and laid out in a pile that is 244 cm in length.
There are of course numerous variables involved, from the size of the tree to the size of the barn so assumptions are necessary.
Generally, from one hectare of tobacco a farmer can expect to harvest enough leaves in a season to fill two conventional sized barns.
To cure one barn of tobacco, the farmer will need estimated three to five cords of wood.
If we assume that one average indigenous tree yields approximately one cord of wood, the extent of our deforestation crisis becomes immediately clear.
A small scale farmer growing one hectare of tobacco may need to cut down as many as eight trees to cure his crop.
According to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) there are 83 967 growers registered to grow tobacco in the 2013/14 season.
If the majority of them are using indigenous firewood to cure their crop, then Zimbabwe is headed for an environmental crisis of enormous proportions.
Speaking at the opening of a tree nursery in Rusape recently, Forestry Commission general manager, Mr Marufu, said that tobacco was not being grown sustainably.
He estimated that within twenty years, Zimbabwe would have a deficit of timber if something wasn’t done now.
He said he foresaw a time when farmers without woodlots would not be allowed to grow tobacco.
In some countries there is already legislation for this.
Shouldn’t that time be now in Zimbabwe?
Are we going to wait until the crisis is upon us and we are plagued by flooding because there are no forests which act like sponges and absorb heavy rain?
Not only must tobacco farmers be required to plant woodlots, they must be made to identify and prove the source of the fuel they are using for tobacco curing and be levied for cutting down indigenous trees.
The short-term gains of tobacco farming must not be to the long-term detriment of Zimbabwe.
Responsible farming must be ensured by legislation and enforced by EMA, the TIMB and farming unions.