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Tobacco farmers empowered to make positive change

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This year’s World No Tobacco Day theme was “Grow food, not tobacco”. The campaign raises awareness about alternative crop production for tobacco farmers and encourage them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops. It also exposes the tobacco industry’s efforts to interfere with attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops, thereby contributing to the global food crisis.

Tobacco industry damage

In 2021, total tobacco production came to approximately 5.89 million metric tons. Tobacco growing harms our health, the health of farmers and the planet’s health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), across the globe around 3.5 million hectares of land are converted for tobacco growing each year. Growing tobacco also contributes to deforestation of 200,000 hectares a year. Tobacco growing is resource intensive and requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers, which contribute to soil degradation. Land used for growing tobacco then has a lower capacity for growing other crops, such as food, since tobacco depletes soil fertility. Indonesia is one of the world's biggest producers and consumers of tobacco. Approximately 236,900 metric tons of tobacco were produced in Indonesia.

Dr Tara Singh Bam, Director of The Union Asia Pacific, said: “There is an urgent need to take legal measures to reduce tobacco growing and help farmers to move into the production of alternative food crops.”

The intensive handling of insecticides and toxic chemicals during the cultivation of tobacco contributes to many farmers and their families suffering from ill health. Research shows that tobacco growing is neither safe – it can result in green tobacco sickness – nor lucrative, with the World Bank noting that most Indonesian farmers rely only partially on tobacco income. Further, unfair contractual arrangements with tobacco companies keep farmers impoverished, and the child labour that is often woven into tobacco cultivation interferes with the right to education and is a violation of human rights.

The Union empowering farmers

Magelang Regency, Central Java is a major producer of tobacco. The Union together with Muhammadiyah Tobacco Control Centre, The University of Muhammadiyah Magelang (MTCC UMM) are working with farmers in the region to create mitigation solutions for tobacco farmers and counter industry messages about farming.

In 2018, The Union helped the MTCC UMM to create the Indonesian Multicultural Farmers Forum. The forum consisted of 237 farmers, with the aim to serve as a vital platform to facilitate the exchange of experiences and skills among farmers aspiring to transition from tobacco farming to more sustainable alternatives, like coffee, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. Recognising the potential benefits of switching to food crops, the forum  improves farmer welfare while contributing to the nation's food security.

This led to the establishment of the Muhammadiyah School for Farmers to support farmers to move away from tobacco farming. The school was borne out of the realisation that many farmers would like to move away from tobacco farming but lack the skills and knowledge to do so. The first of its kind in Indonesia, the school was created in consultation with current and former tobacco farmers from the Indonesian Multicultural Farmers Forum who had diversified or were interested to other crops.

Farming field trip

In addition to emphasising the importance of crop diversification, the school focuses on improving farmer welfare and skills; increasing Indonesia’s food security; and inspiring a new generation of farmers.

Istanto, a farmer from Candisari Village in the Windusari Sub-District of Magelang Regency, is the founder of the Indonesian Multicultural Farmers Forum and plays a pivotal role in driving the program. Sharing his personal success story with fellow farmers, he highlights the significant benefits he experienced when he shifted from tobacco to sweet potato cultivation in 2013. He also realised that unlike tobacco, which requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers and contributes to soil degradation, sweet potatoes don’t need chemical fertilisers at all and the farming cost was really cheap.

Istanto and Tara

Moreover, the practice of crop diversification not only ensures local food security but also proves to be consistently profitable for farmers as his profits grow four-fold.  As a result, the concept of a single "harvest" is no longer applicable, as every day presents an opportunity to harvest, depending on the developmental stage of each plant.

Following his example and with the aid of the school, tobacco farmers from 12 out of 20 villages in the Windusari Sub-District have started growing sweet potatoes in addition or instead of tobacco. Currently, they export sweet potatoes to Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Japan as well as local distribution, and prepare them in various forms – raw, baked or as snacks. Processing is done locally, which not only empowers but also creates job opportunities in the local community, leading to positively impact the economic well-being of the community and improve the quality of education for children.

As part of the 8th Indonesian Conference on Tobacco or Health on 1 June 2023, a field trip was organised to Candisari Village. The participants had the opportunity to observe the entire process, from the selection of harvests to the processing of sweet potatoes into snacks and the subsequent packaging. During the field trip, Retno Rusdjijati, the Chairperson of MTCC UMM, stated that transition from tobacco farming has a positive contribution to people's lives. This impact is evidenced by the higher profits that farmers have achieved compared to tobacco farming. The shift to alternative crops and agricultural practices has proven to be financially advantageous for the farmers, further highlighting the benefits of moving away from a sole reliance on tobacco cultivation.

The positive impact

Overall, The Union in collaboration with the farmers school, Indonesia Multicultural Farmers Forum and MTCC UMM, has helped approximately 2,500 farmers in Central Java shift or diversify their crops to include produce such as sweet potatoes, coffee and chili.

The program has also engaged over 400 young farmers to shift attitudes towards tobacco farming. The Magelang Regency has reduced the area of tobacco plantation from 7,573 hectares in 2012 to 5,265 hectares in 2022.

In recognition of these efforts, the World Health Organization presented the Indonesia Multicultural Farmers Forum with a World No Tobacco Day Award 2023.

WNTD Award 2023