Trees go up in smoke, all for tobacco

All these years, cigarette packs came with the statutory warning which said, ‘Tobacco is injurious to health.’

This was later changed to ‘Tobacco kills.’ There is an additional message that says, ‘Tobacco causes cancer.’ But, this doesn’t seem to have made any impact on consumption of tobacco by way of cigarettes.

In fact, not only is tobacco injurious to health, it also has a detrimental effect on the environment.

You only need to visit areas where tobacco is grown most in the State such as Mysore district’s Hunsur, H D Kote, Piriyapatna, and Hassan district’s Ramanathapura, to understand that tobacco cultivation can be cancerous to the environment too.

A whopping 80 per cent of farmers in the region are heavily dependent on tobacco, which is a commercial crop. Intoxicated by the commercial success that tobacco brings, these farmers have stopped caring for tomorrow, and as a consequence, tree after tree is being axed. One can’t find a single shade-giving tree on the fields belonging to tobacco cultivators here. Be it tamarind, honge, neem, jack fruit or any other tree, all of them have been chopped and used as fuel to cure tobacco.

Farmers in the region are laughing all the way to the bank, but at what price? To cure one kilogram of tobacco, at least 4.5 kg of fuel is required, an admission made by tobacco firms themselves. But, farmers point out that at least seven to nine kgs of fire wood are required to cure tobacco. The process itself needs high temperatures, close to 170 degree Celsius, and a lot of fuel is consumed. In the Mysore sub-division alone, a total of 127.85 million kg of tobacco has been grown. One can then calculate the number of trees chopped to cure the same.

Counting the number of barns needed to cure tobacco will send your head spinning. A single barn needs eight tonnes of fuel. Mysore district has 57,364 barns, including both single and double barns. Single barns alone need 4,58,912 tonnes of fuel for a year. What is the amount of carbon spewed by burning all this fuel? A tonne of carbon is generated upon burning five tonnes of fuel.

So, where’s all the fuel coming from? From the forests of Nagarhole and Bandipur. Hunsur, Piriyapatna and H D Kote taluks share boundaries with these forests, and farmers who reside in these villages have chopped many a tree in their vicinity.

Though coffee husk and other organic material is used to cure tobacco, it is wood that is largely used. Every year, in the beginning of June, you can spot hundreds of lorries laden with wood at the entrance to Hunsur. A similar sight will greet you in HD Kote and Piriyapatna taluks too. Wood is transported even from Shimoga, Kolar, KR Pet, Madikeri, Chamarajanagar and Mysore.

Tobacco curing usually begins towards the end of July. This continues till the first week of September. You can spot many agents on the Mysore-Hunsur, Mysore-HD Kote roads, waiting to take into possession or claim ownership of any tree that falls along these roads, and then supply wood to tobacco farmers. These agents also keep an eye on trees that fall on Mysore’s streets.

Trees are constantly being felled to make space for new extensions that come up in Mysore every day. Agents keep an eye on real estate developers who are all set to fell a tree that comes in the way of their projects, so they can buy the wood and supply it to farmers.

Not only is tobacco cultivation eating into forest areas; it is also making an impact on the water table of the region. Tobacco cultivation has meant that farmers don’t allow water logging on their fields. Chemical fertilisers used on the crops are also robbing soil of its fertility, and is turning land barren, and of no use for any other crops.

Last year, a kilogram of tobacco fetched Rs 110. Though it has dropped to Rs 92 this year, it is still enough to keep farmers happy and rich.  The impact this makes on future generations is the least of their concerns, for the time being.

Tobacco cultivation was started in Mysore in the Sixties. A survey on how much forest land has been lost to tobacco over the intervening decades would be interesting. Meanwhile, there is talk of a ban on tobacco cultivation by 2020. It needs to be seen if that will eventually happen, and what the consequences would be.

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