“They work tirelessly daily and even conscript their children into tobacco farming”.
A coalition of tobacco-control advocates have accused the British American Tobacco Nigeria, BATN, of slave practices towards tobacco farmers in the country.
The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, ERA/FoEN; Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC; National Tobacco Control Alliance, NTCA; and the Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, PIN; also claimed, Tuesday, that the tobacco company inflates the prices of the fertilizers it sells to the farmers.
E-mail enquiries to Dayo George, of BATN’s Nigeria Press Office, to respond to the claims have not been replied as at press time.
“The NPK fertilizer which the Ministry of Agriculture sells for N5,600 per bag is being re-bagged and sold to farmers in the tobacco growing communities for N7,100 and above,” Akinbode Oluwafemi, Director, Corporate Accountability, ERA/FoEN, told journalists in a press briefing in Lagos on Industry Monitoring Visits to Tobacco farms in Oyo State.
‘Slave trade era’
Periodically, tobacco companies in Nigeria engage in a public display of some tobacco growers whom they say have earned millions by cultivating the plant.
Last March, BATN stated that its farmers’ sales value has increased from about N224 million to N680 million, with tobacco farming supporting more than 20,000 livelihoods.
But the tobacco-control advocates, who visited some BATN tobacco farms in Oyo State recently, described such claims as a “sham.”
The groups likened BATN’s treatment of tobacco farmers to the slave trade era in which the victims remain in a “cycle of penury and unending servitude.”
“Not a single millionaire was found in Iseyin, Otu, Okaka, or Igbo Ijaiye communities,” the groups said in a joint statement.
“In fact, the farmers laughed off the millionaire farmers’ articles as hoax because most of them told us they want to quit tobacco farming but find it hard to because of the loans hanging on their necks which they must repay in form of tobacco leaves.
“Because of this, they work tirelessly daily and even conscript their children into tobacco farming because the labour-intensive tobacco growing makes it practically impossible to delve into growing cassava, maize and other crops that can serve as alternatives to growing tobacco,” the advocates said.
The groups also accused BATN of using the face of local farmers to hold on to the Nigerian market while importing most of its tobacco leaves from outside Nigeria,
“We have long suspected that leaves sourced from Nigeria are negligible compared with the hype that BATN is involved in,” said Mr. Oluwafemi.
“To ensure its engagement with farmers remains hidden from public scrutiny, BATN has engaged instructors who are more like task masters whose role is to ensure the local farmers do not talk to journalists or anyone who comes to ask any question except on the instruction of the so-called instructor.
“The situation in farms is like the slave trade era when task farmers ensure the farmers only do the bidding of the colonial masters,” Mr. Oluwafemi added.
Seun Hunge, a tobacco-control advocate, said that tobacco farmers are gradually moving towards the hinterlands as very few tobacco farms were seen in the communities they visited.
“But what struck me is that those that plant the tobacco say that they don’t have problems with the cattle-rearers because their cattle don’t eat tobacco leaves,” said Mr. Hunge of PIN.
“It got to me that something is wrong somewhere,” he added.
The groups demanded that the Nigerian government should investigate BATN’s “slave practices” towards the farmers as well as the alleged re-bagging and inflation of the prices of fertilizers sold to the farmers.
“The federal government should as a matter of urgency commission an enquiry into the volume of tobacco leaves utilized by BATN for cigarette production in its Ibadan plant, and the total quantity produced from farms in the country, with a view to ascertaining how much leaves the company imports.
“This is necessary to establish the true facts in order to check any undue waivers that BATN enjoys under the federal government import waiver schemes.”
The advocates also demanded that the Nigerian government should create a conducive environment for farmers in tobacco growing areas to explore alternatives to tobacco farming.
“This position stems from testimonies from the farmers that if government comes to their aid to help them repay their loans, they will gladly dump the tobacco business for food crops and other meaningful business.”
The groups also urged the quick passage of the National Tobacco Control Bill to safeguard the health of Nigerians and save Nigerian farmers from the cycle of poverty.