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Part 3: Romancing storms, worms and leaves; growing tobacco in the shadow of environmental perils in the Philippines
Misamis Oriental

Part 3: Romancing storms, worms and leaves; growing tobacco in the shadow of environmental perils in the Philippines

As prices for native batek tobacco have increased, more farmers in the southern Philippines have begun growing the controversial crop. Part 3 of a three-part series on the commodity's environmental impact.

ALUBIJID, Misamis Oriental — While tobacco farmers already use organic fertilizer, they continue to use commercial agrochemicals to contain pests.

Worse, the farmers are unaware of the higher vulnerability of women like them who are exposed to these pesticides to health risks. Most are not sensitive to their impact on the ecology, particularly to pollinators like bees and aquatic life.

“We know malathion and Lannate (a brand of methomyl) are poisonous because we have known several farmers who kill themselves using these,” said farmer Maurecia Mana.

Yet she does not ascribe ill-health among farmers as associated with long-term exposure to pesticides. Other farmers say they take safety measures, like using protective gear, while spraying.

Furthermore, according to the women farmers interviewed for this report, none of them are smokers themselves, and they deny that green disease, a common illness among cultivators in other parts of the Philippines, afflicts them. 

The farmers continue to use insecticides whose active ingredients, Gold Star Daily has learned, are listed as hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International.

PAN uses the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) definition of hazardous pesticides as “those linked with a high incidence of severe or irreversible adverse effects on human health or the environment.”

Active ingredients include chlorothalonil, methomyl, cypermethrin, lambda-cyhaloperin, malathion and chlorantraniliprole.

Called euphemistically “crop protection agents,” all but the first chemical are highly toxic to bees and are classified as possible endocrine disruptors. According to WHO, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have been suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in males and females; increased incidences of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, as well as changes in immune function.

Except for chloratraniliprole, the rest of the insecticides commonly used by farmers here are not endorsed by the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) in its online production manual.

Even so, the active ingredients in insecticides that NTA does endorse, such as acephate, pyridalyl and indoxacarb, are among PAN’s list of Highly Hazardous Pesticides.

According to PAN, chlorantraniliprole is classified as a persistent organic pollutant under the Stockholm Convention, as it is highly toxic to aquatic life and highly persistent in soil, sediments and water. Its use should be a concern in villages like Calatcat that use deep wells as a source of water since the insecticide’s residue can leach into groundwater and contaminate the wells.

While the town’s comprehensive development plan 2010-2018 acknowledges the impact of pesticides on soil fertility, it fails to factor in their effects on human health and ecology.

According to the Barry Balacuit, municipal environmental and natural resources officer, the reservoir and other water resources in town are not tested for chemical residue from pesticides, only for E. coli or fecal coliform, and lately for arsenic and lead.

In response to questions, Balacuit said that he will discuss this matter with the agricultural services officer and would then orient farmers on risk-reduction measures during village assemblies.

Farmer Pedra Villaestique had found a proactive way to protect her crops without using pesticides yet before the economic threshold level is reached, particularly for buros.

Buros is a Bisayan word meaning pregnant, and in the village argot it means an infestation of larvae that causes the stem to swell. Villaestique “performs surgery” by slitting the stem on the bump with a fingernail and removing the worm nested inside.

“It often works,” she says. “Instead of dying, the plant grows shoots and later the stalk wears a scar where the incision was.’’

Sometimes, farm technicians suggest safer and more effective methods of using agrochemicals, say farmers.

“But most of the time, we ignore them as we are more experienced,” they explained.

Farmer Judith Bacadon thinks it is much better to cull the infected plants to prevent the spread of the disease, while Esterlita Dadang still relies on spraying methomyl for various diseases like budloron as she finds it tedious to monitor 1,800 plants and manually pluck the worms.

Most of the farmers spray the same insecticide every week for 14 weeks, beginning at the seedling stage, a week after transplanting and ending and a week or two before the last harvest.  

According to farm technicians, the practice increases the possibility of pests developing resistance to the chemical, and thus the need to increase the amount of chemicals sprayed in the next cropping. In contrast, the NTA manual recommends spraying at most eight times only during the entire season.

Environmental impacts considered, Mayor Giovanni Albin Labis said, “If the smoking trend among the youth keeps on increasing, if there are still smokers around, then we are pretty sure that tobacco plants will still find a market.  As long as tobacco is not classified as an illegal drug, it will remain a saleable commodity and be part of the budget for some or majority of the households.” he speculated.

This, even as the Philippines as a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) has committed to measures to reduce the supply of tobacco, in particular by finding alternatives for growers and sellers and addressing the environmental destruction and ill-health attributed to tobacco production and smoking.

In its latest implementation data submitted to the WHO FCTC in April 2018, the Philippines reported that it had already drafted a National Action Plan for viable alternatives after government officials went on a learning trip to Brazil in 2016. Brazil, the world’s largest tobacco exporter and second-largest tobacco producer, developed a diversification program to wean farmers from tobacco agriculture that is considered exemplary.

In Alubijid, Gold Star Daily noted that the local government unit (LGU) works hand in hand with NTA in providing incentives instead of curbing tobacco production.

According to Labis, the LGU had distributed 12,000 G.I sheets for curing sheds, sacks of organic and inorganic fertilizers and stainless sprayers to tobacco farmers. All these free goods were bought with the LGU’s pre-2010 incremental share of tobacco excise taxes worth P60 million.

“With the LGU receiving a share of the excise tax, so we follow the common saying: ‘do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg’. Our share of the excise tax is the golden egg and the tobacco farmers the geese.” Labis said.

Further, he said, “because we cannot provide them a viable alternative source of income they (farmers) can rely on, we can only regulate tobacco use and its production, but we cannot abolish (them).”

In the shared household of Ubalda Roxas and Arlene Django, bales of the prized leaves occupy the space behind the wooden sofa in the living room across from the television. As Django opens the frayed cotton blanket that covers the bales, the dried leaves’ lush scent wafts into the air.

Holding a large mano, a sheaf of 100 batek leaves strung together by buri twine, each leaf so long and large she could easily sling one over her shoulders like a wrinkly scarf, Django speaks about the labor of caring for tobacco plants.

“Imagine how many times our hands touch the leaves. From the time we transplant the seedling, to the time we pluck the suckers to harvesting the leaves, then we string a hundred leaves together, ready them for air-drying, then we touch them again when we store them by bales.”

Then, she goes wisecracking, “I might find that acceptable after all, that probably a time will come when people won’t grow tobacco anymore. But not soon, not while I am still alive. By then, our generation of tobacco planters will all be gone.”

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