Baziriyo Lubega, 40, is one of the tobacco farmers in Ntwetwe.
Clad in a dark blue, long-sleeved shirt, a brown rosary and a dirty torn pair of trousers, Lubega seems unbothered walking about barefoot. He looks tired and frail yet it is just 10am.
Lubega has been growing tobacco for the past six years and cannot stop praising the profitability of the crop. He says prices offered by tobacco giants BAT are attractive compared to what they would earn from growing other crops. Tobacco is a major breadwinner for many residents in Ntwetwe.
They spend the first part of the year looking after their plantations to make sure they are not attacked by pests. Harvest starts in May through June and that is when they go through a dangerous and hectic process of drying the leaves before they sell them off. Then the process starts again in November with the clearance of the garden and sowing of the seeds.
Tobacco demands a lot of care and time. To ensure that farmers provide them with the perfect quality of tobacco leaves, BAT gives them loans to establish and keep the gardens healthy. The loan caters for sprays and fertilizers, usually supplied by BAT itself. Ntwetwe is one of the sub counties that make up Kyankwanzi district, which until 2007, was part of Kiboga district.
According to a UNDP-funded study by Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development CEHURD in 2013, there were 523 registered tobacco farmers in the sub county. Given the nature of the Ntwetwe community, Lubega says when the farmers are paid, many spend it on booze and women, as a result, many are also living with HIV.
With the kind of workforce tobacco plantations demand, cultivation pauses a major threat to these people. But it is not just the hard labour there are also dangers of being too exposed. According to livescience.com, natural tobacco contains those heart-stopping qualities responsible for cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and higher risks of artery clotting and stroke.
Handling fresh tobacco leaves, especially the wet ones, can cause green tobacco sickness, a nicotine poisoning especially to farmers in Ntwetwe where wearing gloves and masks is still a luxury.
“We have a problem with the chemicals we are given to spray the farms… They are very g yet they have been reluctant to give us the protective wear,” Lubega says.
The health effects of exposure to tobacco during the long hours of farm work have already intensified among farmers, especially those living with HIV, since they don’t even have enough time to grow food crops. In the past few years, at least six farmers have died of HIV and Aids-related illnesses with their death likely to have been hastened by the hard labour and toxins.
“A sick farmer can hardly go through a tobacco season without going down or even dying,” Lubega notes.
However, even with the rigorous life-threatening procedure, farmers like Lubega don’t earn much from their annual produce. For instance last year, he planted more than one and a half hectares of tobacco, which amounted to 400 kilos of dried tobacco leaves. After settling his loan, Lubega was paid Shs 1.7m.
This time round, after doubling his efforts, he expects the dry leaves to weigh about 700kg and expects between Shs2.5 – 3m. He wants to use this year’s income to buy a TV and generator. To make sure his dream is valid, Lubega protects his dried tobacco more than his life he has since turned one of the two rooms he calls home into a store, worsening his health risks.
With the way dry tobacco leaves choke while in an outside shed, one wonders what it is like inside the house at night. According to David Mayengo, the in-charge Ntwetwe Health Centre IV, these people are prone to many health dangers like chest pain and lung cancer.
“The biggest numbers of people that come these days have chest pain,” he says. The pain is due to the heavy load involved in cultivating the crop.
When it comes to an HIVAids patient, it is even worse because they don’t feed right, opportunistic diseases finish them off in the shortest time, because many opt to go to witch doctors before seeking the medic’s help. According to CEHURD’s Thurayya Mpanga, tobacco growing without established measures of protection by the law is a big threat especially to farmers living with HIVAids.
Source : The Observer