State Of Denial: Malawi's Tobacco Farming Addiction

Not many people in the southeast African nation smoke tobacco. They can't afford it. But the country is hooked on growing it and turns a blind eye to the associated risks, especially for child laborers.

Preparing tobacco in Lilongwe, Malawi
Preparing tobacco in Lilongwe, Malawi
Tobias Zick

MALAWI â€" The home of James Mwale smells like a freshly opened pack of cigarettes. It's not much bigger than one either: It has about 5 square meters of floor space, half of which is covered with brown, pungent tobacco.

James* is shoeless. His feet are calloused and he wears a dirty shirt that hangs over his trousers. He keeps looking through the open door, afraid that his neighbors will see us.

"As you can see, I've made this with my own hands," James says, pointing at the tobacco in front of him. By that he means that he planted it, harvested the leaves, and then dried and bundled them. In return, he gets food, soap and a salary that fluctuates according to how generous his boss feels. Last season, James earned 95,000 Malawian kwacha (about 130 euros) for the entire season's work. Market prices are bad and getting worse every year, his boss explains.

James owns practically nothing. His wife left him 16 years ago, shortly after the birth of their son, whom he hasn't seen since. "She didn't want to be with a man who can’t take care of her and the baby," he says. "Fortunately, I still have healthy hands and feet so I can work."

After a long day, though, his bones often hurt. Sometimes his employer gives him pain killers, or cough syrup when his chest stings. That way James can return to the field and work the next morning.

"It hurts more"

James is one of countless tobacco farmers in Malawi, a small, hilly nation in southeastern Africa that is reliant on the crop like no other country in the world, deriving more than two thirds of its foreign exchange proceeds from the dried, nicotine-laced plant. The dependence dates back to the 1970s, when the government responded to enormous world demand for the product by actively encouraging tobacco cultivation.

Dalitso Batison, 11, also knows about the physical toll the activity takes. "The cough you get from tobacco is different from a cold," he explains. "It hurts more. There's a stinging pain in the chest."

The boy lives in Malanda, a village in the heart of Malawi. He says he likes going to school and wants to be a teacher himself one day, "to make sure the citizens of Malawi get a better education." But right now he can't focus on studying: After school, he helps his parents with planting, harvesting and drying the tobacco. "It’s hard work," he explains.

Dalitso's father, Charles, says he'd like to take the boy out of the fields. "Now rather than in the future," he says. "But my hands are tied. Prices are ridiculously low right now."

Four pairs of gloves

A study carried out by the international children's aid organization Plan International concluded that some 80,000 minors participate each year in the harvest and processing of raw tobacco in Malawi. Like Dalitso, many suffer from painful coughs, headaches and stomach pains: typical symptoms of nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).

On its website, British American Tobacco notes that research into GTS is still immature. But the company does acknowledge a certain health risk, advising plantation workers to wear protective clothing and avoid processing any wet leafs.

What is this protective clothing? "Yes, they get them from Alliance One," says Charles Batison, holding up a pair of disposable latex gloves.

Alliance One, an international tobacco merchant, explains that Burley, the tobacco variety planted in Malawi, has a comparatively low nicotine content. The company says it makes sure, nevertheless, to recommend basic safety precautions: Farmers are told to wear long-sleeved shirts and, at the end of the day, to properly wash body parts that have been in direct contact with the leaves. Each farmer is provided with two pieces of soap per year, along with four pairs of latex gloves and four masks.

"Never heard of it"

A call to the health ministry reveals much about how the government handles the risks associated with tobacco harvesting. "Green … what? Tobacco sickness? Never heard of it," Charles Mwansambo, a top health official and trained pediatrician, says. "Send me an email so I can Google it."

John Chrisi, a professor of medicine the University of Malawi and head of the Malawian Medical Chamber, is equally elusive. "Green Tobacco Sickness, you say? In order to be taken serious by scientists, you need proof," he says. "How do you go on diagnosing this Green ... whatever? Antibodies in the blood?"

I point out that even the World Health Organisation sees Green Tobacco Sickness as a threat to children who harvest tobacco. "Well, it's the WHO ... ," says the doctor. "You know, each organization has its own agenda."

Chrisi does acknowledge the health risks of smoking. "That's a fact," he says. "But people in Malawi don’t smoke, because they simply don’t have the money for it." He also admits that besides being a doctor, he's also a politician. "I need to be careful with what I’m saying," he says. Chrisi made an unsuccessful run for presidency in 2014 but plans to try again next time. He's optimistic about his chances.

Addicted to the revenue

There's little doubt that tobacco has Malawi's political landscape firmly in its grasp. On the bright side, the government has started encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops â€" soy and peanuts â€" so as to be less dependent on monocultures and price fluctuations.

A tobacco warehouse in Malawi â€" Photo: hiroo yamagata

Felix Jumbe, a member of the Malawi parliament, has enough land to plant his own tobacco but chooses not to. "I don't want to bow to this system," he says. The politician doesn’t smoke either. "It’s not in our culture. As children, we learn that it’s something you shouldn’t do."

But he has nothing good to say about the "the global non-smokers lobby," which is costing the country dearly, he claims. "If fewer and fewer people buy cigarettes in Europe, then who will pay the tobacco farmers?"

Malawi earns roughly $400 million a year from tobacco exports, a habit it's unwilling to kick. Jumbe takes the opportunity, for that reason, to make a plea for solidarity. His message to the people of Europe? "Smoke!" he says. "It’s cold in your countries. It will warm you. Do it for Malawi."

*not his real name

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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