Tobacco companies are jeopardizing the health of Third World tobacco farmers who are required to use dangerous pesticides under exclusive contracts that hook them to company credits, according to a report released Monday by a major development group.
Based on a two-year investigation of Souza Cruz, the Brazilian subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), the report by London-based Christian Aid concludes that the company controls the livelihoods of some 45,000 small-scale farmers through contracts which force them into farming methods relying on the use of highly-toxic pesticides.
The report, 'Hooked on Tobacco,' found that acute sickness, chronic illness, and suicide are common among Brazil's tobacco farmers and coincide with key moments in the tobacco-growing calendar when they suffer greater exposure to pesticides, especially organophosphates, which are prescribed in their contracts.
Their stories and symptoms echo those of Gulf War veterans and British sheep dippers who have also been exposed to organophosphates, according to the report. Some reports have recorded suicide rates as high as seven times the national average in tobacco-growing regions.
One farmer who contemplated suicide, Jose Wanderlei da Silva, 32, has instead decided to launch a legal lawsuit against the company in a bid to win compensation for an illness which left him severely debilitated in his joints and limbs, unable to sleep well, and prone to severe bouts of depression.
If he wins his case, "hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Brazilian tobacco farmers may follow suit," according to the report.
The report comes amid heightened international controversy over tobacco due to ongoing efforts by the Geneva-based World Health Organisation to draft a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) by next year.
Anti-tobacco activists hope the FCTC, when completed, will include a global ban on the advertising and promotion of cigarettes backed up with tough sanctions against tobacco companies which violate it.
The world's three largest tobacco companies--BAT, Philip Morris, and Japan Tobacco--oppose such a ban and have tried to gain allies among tobacco-producing countries like Brazil by arguing that their economies could be hard hit by a tough Convention.
In recent years, as smoking's popularity in the U.S and other developed countries has declined, the companies have spent billions of dollars in expanding leaf cultivation and building new factories in developing countries, especially China, India, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, and Brazil, according to a separate report released in December by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a U.S. anti-smoking group.
Brazil's biggest leaf-buying companies include Souza Cruz, in which BAT holds a 74 percent interest, and the local subsidiaries of two U.S.-based leaf companies, Universal Corporation and DIMON, Inc.
The three use similar practices in Brazil, according to the Campaign's report, 'Golden Leaf, Barren Harvest.' They sign contracts with thousands of small-scale farmers who agree to buy all their seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides from the company, administer them in the way prescribed by the company, and sell their harvest exclusively to the company which then uses its own discretion to set leaf grade and price.
The contracts are essentially rigged against the farmers, according to the Christian Aid study of Souza Cruz operations.
"Farmers are locked into producing tobacco for Souza Cruz by their contract with the company and by a system of debt which is accrued annually and paid off with the tobacco they grow," according to the report.
Moreover, the company's ability to set prices means that farmers get substantially less than their counterparts in markets, like the United States, where tobacco is sold in open auctions. Thus, Brazilian farmers, who produce a flue-cured tobacco, very close to that produced in the U.S., are paid only about one-quarter of the domestic U.S. price for the same amount of tobacco, the report found.
"Family farmers are operating on such tight margins that frequently they must use their children as free laborers, especially during the harvest from November to February," according to the report. As a result, children as young as six-years-old are also exposed to the toxic pesticides.
Despite claims by BAT that it looks after the health and safety of some 250,000 contract-farmers worldwide, the report found that Souza Cruz fails to provide sufficient training and safety to small-scale farmers in Brazil. Farmers, for example, are sold inadequate protective clothing which, in many cases, is unsuitable for the climate and hilly terrain.
Christian Aid, along with a local research group, DESER, which helped prepare the report, is calling on Brazilian authorities to open up the contract system to give farmers greater flexibility in choosing farming methods and in obtaining credit; phase out the use of highly toxic pesticides on small farms; and subject the companies' classification of tobacco quality to independent review.
To view the full report go to Christian Aid.
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