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Tajikistan: Tobacco Farmers Suffer From Poor Health, Dwindling Market

Farmers in Tajikistan's Zarafshon Valley this year will reduce tobacco crops by one-third. The decision has nothing to do with the worldwide anti-tobacco campaign or worries about smokers' health. For these farmers, the issue is purely economic. For the past two years, they have watched the market dwindle and have been left with almost no income -- and in poor health.

Prague, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Shukrulloh Rahimnazarov, a department head at Tajikistan's Ministry of Agriculture, announced that this season, a 2,000 hectare tobacco plantation in the country's Zarafshon Valley will instead be used for growing wheat, potatoes, and sunflowers.

"Last year, tobacco production was reduced dramatically," he said. "We used to produce up to 13,000 tons of tobacco leaves, but it has dropped to 7,000 and the number is still going down."

Tobacco is the only source of income for thousands of farmers in Zarafshon Valley. For many years, families in the region have rented plots on the tobacco plantation from local authorities. They grow the plant, gather their leaves, and sell them to the state-run Food Corporation for export abroad.

But now farmers say that for the past two years they have been unable to find a customer for their products.

Russia is Tajikistan's main tobacco importer. But many Russian companies have canceled their contracts with Tajikistan, saying the quality of the tobacco is not sufficiently high.

As a result, all seven of the private Tajik companies involved in tobacco production have gone bankrupt, leaving only one -- the state-run Panjakent Tobacco Factory -- to handle what remains of the country's tobacco business.

Nuriddin Mahmudov, the deputy head of the Tajik Food Corporation, tells RFE/RL that last season, Tajikistan was able to sell only 220 tons of tobacco leaves.

"There are some 5,000 tons of tobacco leaves that have been stored in farmers' homes in the Ainie and Panjakent districts for years. We don't have the funds to buy the product from people. We received a credit from the government worth 300,000 somonis (around $100,000). We spent the money for purchasing tobacco from farmers, and sent the goods to Russia," Mahmudov says.

Under Soviet-era centralized planning, farmers in two regions of Tajikistan -- Badakhshon and Zarafshon -- were forced to grow tobacco. Thousands of hectares of orchards, vineyards, and wheat and potato plantations were turned into tobacco fields.

Farmers say they have routinely had to use large amounts of chemical fertilizer to grow the tobacco plants. Moreover, the country lacks the advanced equipment used elsewhere in the world to grow and harvest the plant. Most of the work is performed manually.

Sohibdavlat Shohismatova, a resident of the remote village of Porshnev in the Badakhshon region, tells RFE/RL that she and her family spent years growing tobacco.

"Tobacco is a useful product for the state, but not for us. Tobacco production is such difficult work. We, along with our children and elderly, would gather tobacco leaves on the plantations during the daytime. Then until the late evening we would work at home with needle and strings to string the leaves up to dry. We wouldn't receive a penny until we had completed the process. We had to produce tobacco, whether we wanted to or not," Shohismatova says.

But after numerous complaints that the practice was doing lasting damage to both the environment and the farmers' health, the Tajik government ordered a halt to tobacco production in Badakhshon.

Ziyovuddin Afghonov, Tajikistan's deputy health minister, confirms that tobacco production can have a negative impact on farmers' health, especially in places like Tajikistan where most of the work is done manually.

"People who are involved in tobacco production here have direct contact with tobacco, and it can have serious consequences for their health. Our farmers are not in a position to follow all [safety] rules. That's why these days a lot of attention is being paid to the damage not only to the health of smokers, but to the health of tobacco producers," Afghonov says.

Reports in the Tajik press suggest that many tobacco farmers suffer from cancer -- even those who don't smoke. But Jumaboi Sanginov, a senior Tajik lawmaker and an oncologist by profession, says he has doubts that working on tobacco farms can lead to developing cancer.

"If the work at all stages [of tobacco production] is performed manually, it would cause skin diseases such as eczema and dermatitis. But it would not cause cancer," he said. "It can also damage the normal processes of pregnancy."

Otif Davronov, a resident of Badakhshon, says his family stopped growing tobacco years ago but still suffers from lung disease.

"We benefited from the tobacco production financially, but it damaged our health. It especially damaged the lungs and the rest of the respiratory system," Davronov says.

Still, many farmers in Zarafshon say they will continue to grow tobacco if they have a guarantee the Food Corporation will buy it.

With unemployment widespread in the country, residents of Zarafshon, especially women, have few alternatives. Many farmers are dependent on tobacco crops in more ways than one. They also use parts of the plant to feed their livestock, stoke their ovens and heat their homes during the winter. Gas stoves are no longer available in rural areas, and many families can no longer afford coal or wood.

(Mirzojalol Shohjamolov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.