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Next Generation of Indonesian Farmers Forsakes Tobacco

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In its fight against lifesaving tobacco control policies—increased taxes, larger pictorial health warnings, and advertising bans—the tobacco industry frequently argues that such measures will cripple the livelihoods of tobacco farming households. This couldn’t be further from the truth: farmers who move away from tobacco farming or choose to diversify their crops are typically more prosperous; they are also far less vulnerable to green tobacco sickness.

To date, convincing Indonesian farmers to stop growing tobacco has been a formidable challenge. In many parts of the country, there has been a long history of growing this toxic crop, with younger generations continuing to sow the same plants as their forefathers. Limited skills and insufficient knowledge to grow other crops and blatant misperceptions about tobacco’s profitability also deter farmers from shifting to new crops.

There are encouraging signs that this may change. In a recent talk show organised by Muhammadiyah Tobacco Control Centre, University of Magelang, (MTCC, UMM), over 300 students and youth (ages 13-21) from tobacco-growing families and regions in Central Java condemned the crop. The students are part of a new initiative aimed to combat tobacco industry lies and denormalise tobacco farming.

"Our generation wants to be healthy,” sang a choir of children from tobacco farming families from Pakis, Mageland, Central Java Province. “We reject cigarettes and smoking. We care about health.”

High-level officials from the Ministry of Finance and the Coordinating Ministry of Human Development and Culture tuned in to the talk show. The Mayor of Magelang cautioned youth against tobacco. “Smoking is clearly detrimental; it causes lung cancer and is addictive. Especially for the younger generation—if you have never smoked, don't try it.”

The event gave the next generation of farmers a platform to discuss their experiences. Millennial farmer Muhaimin explained how he broke family tradition and started growing sweet potatoes. “My parents were tobacco farmers, and I worked the fields, too. I saw how tobacco farmers suffered and switched to growing sweet potato, which has really improved my life.” Muhaimin called on his peers to disrupt the system. “The next generation of farmers must dare to make changes.”

“Growing other crops will strengthen Indonesia’s food security as well as individual farm family livelihoods,” commented The Union’s Fauzi Noor. “This is especially critical right now because the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly damaged Indonesia’s economy.”

MTCC UMM’s research shows that pervasive advertising and insufficient tobacco control policies encourage many farm children to smoke despite their parents’ wishes. Tobacco farming itself is also dangerous. “Some of the children we interviewed reported symptoms of respiratory problems, skin irritation and eye irritation while working in the fields,” said the University’s Retno Rusdjijati.

The Union and its partners MTCC, UMM and the Multicultural Farmers Forum are fighting false tobacco industry rhetoric that farmers’ livelihoods are hurt by strong tobacco control policies. The recently created  Muhammadiyah School for Farmers supports tobacco growers, helping them transition from tobacco farming.