A huge body of research demonstrates that tobacco growing is neither safe—it results in green tobacco sickness—nor lucrative, with the World Bank noting that most Indonesian farmers rely only partially on tobacco income. Nonetheless, the industry frequently uses farmers as human shields, trotting out destitute growers to argue that their livelihoods are dependent on the toxic crop. In 2019, for example, the pro-industry group, Tobacco Farmers Association Indonesia (APTI), mobilised hundreds of farmers in the Jakarta streets to protest the increase in excise tax and cigarette retail prices.
In Central Java, a new school at the University of Muhammadiyah Magelang may make it more difficult for the industry to leverage and manipulate farmers. Launched 12 April, The Muhammadiyah School for Farmers was created to support tobacco growers, helping them move away from tobacco farming. In addition to emphasizing the importance of crop diversification, the school will focus on improving farmer welfare and skills; increasing Indonesia’s food security; and inspiring a new generation of farmers that swear off poisonous crops. The first of its kind in Indonesia, the school was created in consultation with former tobacco farmers from the Indonesian Multicultural Farmers Forum (FPMI) who had diversified or shifted to other crops. This group explained that many farmers would like to move away from tobacco farming but lack the skills and knowledge to do so.
“Muhammadiyah University has taken a huge step in offering solutions to tobacco farmers,” said Tara Singh Bam, Director of The Union Asia Pacific Office. “In addition to facilitating access to credit, training, and extension services, the school will strengthen supply and value chains for alternative products. Promoting crop diversification and shifting crops could be a win-win situation, improving farmer welfare and bolstering much needed food production.”
Muhammadiyah has been ringing the alarm on tobacco for several years. In a 2015 study, the University found that tobacco crops are highly susceptible to weather changes and disease and that profits earned by the industry are seldom passed fairly to farmers. The study also polled 500 farmers from Indonesia’s three main tobacco producing provinces: 60% of current tobacco farmers and more than 80% of ex-tobacco farmers supported the government’s adoption of strong tobacco control policies.
Several high-level officials are endorsing the school.
“The Ministry very much welcomes the launch of this school to increase skills and knowledge,” said Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Prof Muhadjir Effendy. “COVID-19 has exacerbated issues like food security, and there is an urgent need to grow essential food crops.”
Regent of Magelang, Zaenal Arifin, said, “The Tobacco Excise Production Sharing Fund (DBHCHT) is one way we can ensure the sustainability of this program. Magelang and other local governments can utilise the subnational allocation of this fund for farmers training, operations, and materials.”
The event received significant coverage in the media.