Part 1: Romancing storms, worms and leaves; growing tobacco in the shadow of environmental perils in the Philippines

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Mindanao Gold Star Daily, Misamis Oriental

As prices for native batek tobacco have increased, more farmers in the southern Philippines have begun growing the controversial crop, despite evidence that tobacco farming contributes to climate change. Part 1 of a three-part series on the commodity's environmental impact.

ALUBIJID, Misamis Oriental — As soon as tropical typhoon “Amang” (international name, Mekkhala) hit Mindanao in the third week of January, the Philippines’ weather bureau issued the “Orange Rainfall Alert” for seven provinces, including Misamis Oriental.

The alert meant intense rains in these areas for two hours or more, with about 15-30 millimeters of rainfall in an hour, and flooding could have been an imminent threat.

Instead of alarm, the information heard over the radio brought a celebratory mood among tobacco farmers in the uphill village of Calatcat, some 35 kilometers west of Cagayan de Oro City.

Ruthela Mabalo, 73, a trader, examines a sheaf of 100 batek leaves before she decides to buy them from a farmer at the local trading center in Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental / Credit: Lina Sagaral Reyes

“Do not mistake us for becoming mad just because we are happy when a storm comes. The fact is, we have only learned how to dance with the weather,’’ said Pedra Villaestique, 59, who had planted a second cropping of the native batek tobacco on a half-hectare field in December last year.

Villaestique is among the 2,330 farmers in the province who planted the controversial cash crop in 2018. Because of batek’s profitability, more farmers have begun growing it in the past three years. They’ve done so despite having to bear the brunt of unpredictable weather conditions; costlier agrochemicals, which carry long-term health and ecological impacts; diminished soil fertility; as well as the clamor from tobacco control advocates to shift to other crops deemed more sustainable and healthier for humans and ecology.

There are more than 90 women farmers like Villaestique, but they make up just over 15 per cent of the town’s 608 tobacco farmers, records for the year 2016 from the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) gender-disaggregated database show.

Because these women farmers lead cooperatives and other organizations, however, the town administration looks up to them as a potent force. Worldwide, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that at least 60 percent of farmers in tobacco agriculture are females.

The province’s native batek-growing region comprises seven towns west of Cagayan de Oro City, where about 1,233 hectares of farmland were devoted to growing the native variety in 2018. This area was twice that of the 2015 figure of 619.85 hectares.

Since the 16th century, when Augustinian friars who established settlements here brought tobacco seeds to the Philippine islands, the shrub has been grown in Northwestern Mindanao as far as Zamboanga, when this large swath of Mindanao was still a component of the Cebu province under Spanish colonial rule.

The traditional batek-growing season begins in May and ends in August. Harvesting and air-curing the leaves occurs in September and October. Some farmers grow a second cropping from December to March, but most plant corn or legumes instead for their own consumption.

Misamis Oriental’s batek tobacco is not processed into cigarettes, and thus, is not part of the corporate tobacco industry supply chain. Instead, the leaves are sold to smokers in Mindanao and in the Visayan islands. Viajeros and compradors — wholesale traders and middlemen– purchase bales of the dried leaves at the bagsakan (trading center) in Laguindingan or directly from farmers.  The long-time batek clientele also includes indigenous peoples who chew, instead of smoke, the leaves.

In 2013, Republic Act 10351, dubbed the Sin Tax Reform Law, amended sections in the country’s Internal Revenue Code thus increasing excise taxes for alcoholic drinks and cigarettes and tobacco products like native batek.

The RA 10351 amended RA 8424 (Internal Revenue Code) to increase the taxes on tobacco products like the native tobacco that Villaestique has cultivated for almost three decades now.

The amendment also provided guidelines that specified that local government’s shares of the taxes must be used exclusively to provide, among others, support to farmers shifting to the production of agricultural products other than tobacco, and other agricultural livelihood projects, such as livestock and fisheries.

The law fulfilled the country’s commitment to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), particularly Article 6 on the reduction of demand for tobacco products. The corresponding Department of Budget and Management guidelines also addressed FCTC’s Article 17, on providing viable alternatives to tobacco growers by giving them support as they switch to other high-value food crops.

The Philippines signed in 2003 and ratified in 2005 the FCTC treaty that had recognized tobacco use as a global epidemic that killed seven million a year, and a risk factor in cancer, and other heart and lung diseases. The FCTC further set out strategies in its implementation among state parties.

In October 2018, at the eighth Conference of Parties (COP8) in Geneva, the WHO FCTC spotlighted Article 18, which commits signatory countries like the Philippines, to address the environmental impacts caused by tobacco agriculture as well as the health of growers. 

On the ground, however, it is easier said than done. While the number of farmers and growing area nationwide has significantly declined in the past seven years, Misamis Oriental has seen an upsurge as farmers turn to tobacco as a major crop once again.

Tobacco farming has also become more lucrative, with the retail price per leaf skyrocketing to P50 from P20. That means a good harvest could be worth at least P200,000 per hectare.

In Alubijid, for example, farmers cultivated more than 336 hectares of native tobacco in 2018, up from 133 hectares in 2014. They did so even while relying solely on rains to water crops that grow on stony clay soil.

“The radio is my friend, I make sure I listen to it often for news on the weather so I can prepare,’’ said Villaestique. Being prepared has become especially important to her in the past decade since she noticed how unpredictable the weather was becoming.

“In the early ’80s, the rains would come certainly in May, and the wet season would last till August. It has been different since the late 1990s,” Villaestique recalled. Long dry spells during El Nino periods contributed to infestations and crop failures, particularly in 1987, 1997-1998, 2004, and 2014-2015.

While El Nino is considered a natural phenomenon, the advent of climate change is seen by scientists to have exacerbated its impacts, breeding extreme typhoons.

Villaestique and other women farmers here are unaware, even as they welcome the extreme weather.

According to a study by Imperial College presented at the COP8 last year, the production of a single ton of dry tobacco is associated with the equivalent of nearly 14 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The study also says that globally, the tobacco sector’s annual contribution to climate change is nearly 84 million metric tons, of which 20.8 per cent is attributed to the cultivation of the crop.

“As long as the winds are mild like Amang with only 65 kilometers per hour, we consider a typhoon a blessing,” said Ubalda Roxas, 78, the village matriarch and treasurer of the women’s cooperative, who had been farming tobacco since she was 13. 

Reporting for this story was supported with funding from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the South East Asia Press Alliance.