A vast tobacco field at Shilchhari at Kaptai in Rangamati. Photo: STAR
Tobacco cultivation is posing a threat to the public health and the environment in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).
Although tobacco cultivation is strictly prohibited, the tobacco companies are doing brisk business, violating the rules. Besides, they motivate the farmers openly by offering incentives in cash and kind to cultivate tobacco.
At least 60 to 70 thousand metric tones of firewood are being burnt in 2,000 tobacco processing kilns every year, causing depletion of reserve and natural forests, threatening environment and ecology in the hills, environmentalists said.
They said tobacco cultivation leaves bad impact on the soil fertility and once tobacco is cultivated its difficult to grow other crops on the same land.
Some 7000 farmers are involved with the tobacco farming in the CHT, sources at Agriculture Extension Department (AED) said.
Most of the farmers in Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari have been losing their interests in cultivating indigenous crops like paddy, banana, maize, sesame, cotton, potato, pumpkin etc as they became defaulters of loans provided by tobacco companies, they said.
Farmers and labourers said staffs of tobacco companies offer lucrative amount of money as loans to trap them. Sometimes the companies provide them with bank loans for agriculture along with tobacco seeds, fertiliser, polythene bags and high-powered pesticides like Diaconal, fertilisers of BSP, BAP, FMC and SOB and DDT powder.
British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) sources said farmers receive bank loans as per the rules of Bangladesh Bank and each farmer gets Tk 6000 for an acre of cultivable land.
They said farmers get money by selling dried leaves and the company purchases leaves from them and adjust the loans that they provide.
Bindu Bikash Chakma, a tobacco cultivator at Mynee under Dighinala in Khagrachhari, said he has been cultivating tobacco for the last ten years but hardly got any benefit.
Farmers Abani Kumar Chakma, Aunglahpru Marma and Sarafat Ali in Khagrachhari also echoed the same.
Zahirul Islam Jewel, manager of BATB in Bandarban, said tobacco is not a banned item and if it's banned then how the companies produce tobacco. It's a cash crop, he said, adding that the government is earning huge amount of revenues from it.
He said tobacco cultivation does not create any negative impact on environment. He said they have been cultivating tobacco on 1200 acres of land in Bandarban without any impact on environment.
Dhaka Tobacco, Abul Khair Tobacco, Nasir Tobacco, KB Group Tobacco, RB Group Tobacco and Rangunia Samity also cultivate tobacco in the hills, sources said.
Chowdhury Harun, secretary of Rangamati Paribesh Sangrakhan Unnayan Sangstha, said tobacco cultivation should be banned as it seriously hampers the usual growing of other crops.
Abu Daud, member of Bangladesh Paribesh Ainbid Samity, in Khagrachhari said Government should take legal action against the tobacco companies to save our invaluable agricultural lands from decay and infertility.
Md Lise Uddin, deputy director of AED in Rangamati, said they discourage the farmers to grow tobacco since it requires large quantity of fertiliser than cultivation of other crops.
AED sources said the root of tobacco tree usually penetrate nine inches deep into the soil whereas it's only four inches in case of other crops. As a result, the tobacco root badly affects fertility of soil.
A group of journalists during a recent visit found massive tobacco farming in Kaptai, Barkal, Rajasthali, Baghaichhari, Jurachhari, Longudu and Bilaichhari areas in Rangamati. Tobacco is also largely produced at Ruma, Lama, Alikadam, Thanchi, Nikhyangchhari, Rowangchhari and Sadar upazilas in Bandarban and at Dighinala, Mainee valley, Panchhari and Ramgarh in Khagrachhari.
Sources said about 5000 farmers have cultivated tobacco this year in Bandarban alone.
Besides, 2626 hectares of lands were brought under tobacco cultivation in Bandarban (2312 hectares), Khagrachhari (209 hectares) and Rangamati (105 hectares) last year.
Last year, the total production was 5758 metric tones (MT) worth about Tk 100 crore. Of this, 5440MT were produced in Bandarban, 209MT in Khagrachhari and 109MT in Rangamati.