There is a conflict in Malawi. And it’s between the country’s economic and health sectors.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is putting pressure on the Malawian government to sign the Framework Convention Tobacco Control (FCTC) agreement. The contract demands a decrease in tobacco production worldwide in an attempt to increase people’s health and the global environment’s sustainability. Smoking bans in certain areas and mandatory health warnings on tobacco products are also a component of the convention.
Stakeholders gathered with Malawi’s Tobacco Control Commission representatives in Lilongwe on Monday to discuss the likeliness of the country signing the FCTC agreement.
“Most people across the world agree with the health objectives of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” says Tim Hughes, an international research consultant on this matter from the company Read Dillon in South Africa. “But there are contentious issues perplexing Malawians today,” he added.
These issues, having nothing to do with health and everything to do with the economy, are at the heart of why Malawi is one of the six African countries yet to sign the convention. The others are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Firstly, Malawi’s economy is heavily reliant on tobacco sales. Eighty eight per cent of Malawi’s gross domestic product comes from its export revenues. Fifty per cent of those revenues are from tobacco sales.
Malawians fear that the FCTC’s restriction on tobacco production will reduce tobacco sales, and as a result, farming incomes. Farmers will be forced to invest in other crops to compensate for the loss of their tobacco profits.
But there is a deeper level of conflict for Hughes.
What is truly perplexing, says Hughes, is determining who is responsible for assisting the farmers through the transition from tobacco dependency to a specialization in other cash crops. This assistance is in regards to both financial support and providing education on different crop plantation.
For Hughes, WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control committee should bear the responsibility to educate farmers and financially support the crop diversification process.
There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, the FCTC agreement is demanding farmers to decrease tobacco production prematurely, says Hughes. They have not conducted research they promised, he says, or formal consultation with any individual farmers or a specific country.
In addition, the FCTC is failing to acknowledge that the global demand for tobacco is currently increasing, not decreasing. This is controversial and even, irresponsible, he adds.
“The FCTC, health bureaucrats in Europe and stakeholders elsewhere are making recommendations to stop farmers or curtail farmers from growing tobacco without consulting with them,” says Hughes. “And in fact, currently they make no substantial well-researched empirically grounded recommendation as to how tobacco farmers can transition out of tobacco production.”
Until the committee provides substantial research, consultation, and assistance in the transition process, Hughes says countries dependant on tobacco sales like Malawi should refrain from signing the convention.
“This goes against democratic procedure,” says Hughes. “This is highly unfair, irregular, highly undemocratic, high handed and frankly neo-imperialist if not neo-colonialist to impose what is not a solution onto Malawian farmers without at least consulting with them.”
But this isn’t to say there isn’t any benefit for Malawi to diversify its agricultural sector.
Despite the potential binds of the FCTC agreement, there is a national push for crop diversification in the country.
Although it accounts for the majority of the country’s income, a lack of crop diversification and specialization is hindering Malawi’s tobacco industry. Too many farmers are producing tobacco. The quality of the tobacco leaves vary throughout the country. Profits are dispersed amongst multiple people. No one specializes, no one fully benefits.
Felix Jumbe, the president of the Farmer’s Union of Malawi, says crop diversification amongst farmers in the country is essential for that very reason.
But there are more reasons to add to the list.
For instance, there are too many international lobbying groups promoting the prohibition of tobacco’s use and trade. If their movements succeed, Malawi will be left with nothing, says Jumbe. Not to mention, Malawi has the potential to be a leading producer of other cash crops, he adds. Tobacco has just always stolen the limelight. There is no excuse to not make the most of these other markets, says Jumbe.
These crops include tea, sugar, cotton, maize, rice, legumes, ground nuts and fish, Jumbe says.
In some ways Jumbe’s view align with Hughes’. He accepts that Malawi’s current economic budget does not allocate any funds to facilitate farmers in the diversification process.
“We need financial injection,” says Jumbe. “We need a financial donor to transform the farmers from tobacco to other crop producers.”
But on the contrary, he thinks it is the Malawian governments and not the FCTC’s responsibility to initiate the process of diversifying the country’s crop productions. Through policy and legislation, he says, the Malawian government should designate farmers to a specific crop specialization.
“We farmers need to get organized,” says Jumbe. “For instance, some can specialize in tobacco while others in tea.”
This will simplify the transitional process for farmers, says Jumbe. Farmers can hone their production skills in one focused area. Business transitions will be more efficient and farmers will be able to monopolize and maximize their profits in one area, he says.
“That way, we can slowly move away from a tobacco dependency,” he says.
The Malawian government made its first attempt to organize its tobacco industry in April 2011. Farmers now have to become registered tobacco farmers in order to sell their crops. The Tobacco Control Commission monitors the sales of each specific farmer as a result of the new legislation.
A total of 172 countries have signed the FCTC convention to date. The United States is not one of them, says Hughes.