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The Roles of Tobacco in the Hill Lives, Bangladesh

Updated on March 3, 2018
Tobacco plants
Tobacco plants | Source

Tobacco and Bangladesh

It is reported by World Health Organization that the global cost of tobacco is undeniable: tobacco cultivation, production and consumption deplete the planet of natural, human and economic resources. Worldwide, tobacco production and consumption represents a net economic loss. To control the tobacco pests, not only are tobacco growers at risk from exposure and storing of the pesticides during the application but also the chemicals that leach into soil and find their way into aquatic bodies and contaminate the food chain. Similarly, a review of 31 studies of health risk associated with tobacco farming found that, seasonal prevalence of green tobacco sickness ranged from 8% to 89%. Incidence was reported to be 1.9 cases per 100 person days.

Geographically, ethnically, and culturally Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is diverse region with hills, ravines and cliffs extending over 13,295 square kilometers constituting 10 percent of Bangladesh's land area. CHT has rich natural and environmental resources with hills, forests, rivers, and lakes, a diverse flora and fauna, and areas of outstanding scenic beauty. It provides important ecosystem services which play a significant role in economic development, environmental protection, ecological sustainability, and human well being, both in CHT itself and its downstream areas. About 40 percent of Bangladesh's forest land is in the CHT with 319,614 ha of reserved forest, close to a quarter of the CHT land area, and
more forest areas in the form of protected forest, sanctuaries, unclassed state forest, and village common forest. However it remains one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable regions in the country due to population pressure and ignorance of utilize natural resources.

There are twelve among thirty five ethnic groups (EGs) comprise the majority of the
population in the area. These people live in forest frontiers, depend heavily on forest resources for their sustenance and well being; most practice agriculture, primarily shifting cultivation (Jhum), as the main source of livelihood. Since last three decades farmers of the EGs experienced expansion of tobacco cultivation.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.) grows natively in North and South America. It has been introduced since mid sixties of the last century into the fields where food crops were grown, and more widely after liberation in 1971 in river Teesta silt of Rangpur District commercially. Afterwards, this cultivation was extended in CHT. It is mentionable that in the same decade Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has conducted research and development activities of tobacco which abandoned in 1995.

With reference of different published articles it can be said that tobacco cultivation itself has a lot of impacts on tobacco growers, caused of crop production and landscape biodiversity. Its cultivation is responsible for biodiversity loss, land water pollution through the use of pesticides, soil degradation and deforestation. Consequences of these are the extinction of faunal and floral species. In addition, plants consume nutrients at a higher rate than most crops. Likewise, experiencing the health impacts of pesticide use, workers can get “green tobacco sickness” which happens when they absorb nicotine from wet tobacco leaves. Typical
symptoms include weakness, nausea, dizziness, headache, cramps vomiting, and trouble breathing.

A great deal is recognized that in Bangladesh, tobacco is mostly grown in the double and triple cropped areas. Therefore in terms of seasons and land areas covered, tobacco plays a substantial role in replacing food and important agricultural crops. Tobacco production raised two and a half times more in the past six years from 40,240 tons to 1, 03, 650 tons. In addition, pulse and spices and condiments cultivation has reduced, while wheat and jute cultivation also has been affected significantly due to tobacco cultivation in tobacco growing area of Bangladesh.

Many of the farmers of CHT have been losing their interests in cultivating indigenous crops like paddy, banana, maize, sesame, cotton, potato, pumpkin etc. as they became defaulters of loans provided by tobacco companies. Tobacco cultivation is posing a threat to the public health and the environment in CHT. Among three districts of CHT Bandarban and Khagrachhari districts rank near the bottom in almost all health and nutrition indicators for child health. Surprisingly, there is no more reports were found on health issue caused by tobacco.

On the contrary, in modern countries several research works have been done on indigenous people. For an example an article on Australian aboriginal peoples (APs) says that in 2003, tobacco use was the leading cause of burden of disease and injury among APs, responsible for 12% of the total burden of disease. Besides, the proportion of aboriginal men who were currently smokers (49%) was higher than the proportion of aboriginal women (46%) in 2008. Aboriginal males and females living in remote areas were more likely to report being a current smoker (53% and 52%, respectively) than aboriginal males and females living in nonremote areas (45% and 42%, respectively). Similarly, smoking is the number one cause of
chronic conditions and diseases among aboriginal people and causes 20% of deaths in aboriginal communities; this is why smoking is one of the factors contributing to poor health status. Aboriginal people don’t identify tobacco smoking as a health issue due to poor upbringing education. However, aboriginal health workers experience multilevel barriers to quitting smoking Gradually increased tobacco cultivation accelerates negative impact on ecological degradation in CHT as well. This trend is a threat to biodiversity in tobacco cultivated landscapes. It also attributes climate change. The following major negative impacts of tobacco cultivation were identified in CHT.

A. Soil erosion- As a result of tobacco cultivation long strips of alluvial lands (Char) are formed. Depth of river water decreased gradually due to siltation. Soil erosion was observed during field visits in most areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts. Surface run-off and leaching are major concerns in the cultivation areas.

B. Loss of natural vegetation cover and habitat fragmentation-Due to gravel
extraction, natural vegetation and habitat fragmentation was observed on the banks of Sangu and Kasalong rivers.

C. Soil management -There was no concern on soil health and effects of fertilizer use as farmers are less dependent on inorganic fertilizers.

D. Agrochemicals and their usage-There was no concern on the effects of chemicalinsecticide use.

E. Soil water level fall- Water layer fell by 10-30 feet resulting in severe water crisis
during the dry season.

On 16 June, 2003 Bangladesh signed the Framework convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in the 55th convention of World Health Organization (WHO) for discouraging the smoking and using of tobacco product. Afterwards, according to Consolidated Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 (Act No. 11 of 2005, as amended by Act No. 16 of 2013) Bangladesh government is discouraging the tobacco cultivator to cultivate tobacco product, and encouraging to cultivate alternative cash crops, grant loans on easy terms, such opportunity shall continue for a period of next five years after the commencement of this Act.
Though EGs of CHT grow and use tobacco traditionally now commercially, national cost of tobacco is indisputable.

As Bangladesh Government interested control cultivation rater than ban. It might be
suggested following some alternative uses of tobacco cultivation concerning environmental factor.

1. Green Biofuel: Researchers at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratory of Thomas Jefferson University, USA, discovered two genes that control oil production in tobacco plants. Genetically engineered plants can produce 20 times more oil from the leaves. Seed oil was successfully tested in diesel engines.

2. Cottage industry: Papers, bags, basket and many other products can be produced from tobacco.

3. Natural pesticide: Tobacco is a great insect repellent for the kitchen garden. By soaking as little as a cigarette amount of tobacco in a quart of water and allowing it to soak overnight, the nicotine released in the water will create an all purpose insect repellent.

4. Medicinal properties: Tobacco is used for Dental lesions, stomach ailment, and
headache. More recently, a study has shown that the chemicals in tobacco may be a factor in preventing Parkinson’s disease. When mixed with a small amount of spittle and applied to stings, tobacco is said to stop pain and relieve swelling.

5. Bioreactor: Tobacco can be used as a bioreactor to produce transgenic proteins.

6. Biomass / Ethanol production: A good amount of ethanol of 92 % purity can be
extracted.

7. Protein extraction: Tobacco proteins are comparable in nutritive value to soybean
protein. Tobacco is rich in protein and may be useful as a high-protein supplement for persons who require therapeutic nutritional formula. They may have value as an emulsifier or thickening agent in food and industrial products.

8. Honey collection / Entomophilies business: Tobacco flower produces a small
amount of nectar. Bees collect nectar from these flowers and store as honey. Therefore, apiculture in the tobacco cultivated field may be a profitable business.

9. Edible oil: Tobacco seed cab be used to produce very good edible oil.

Eventually, Bangladesh government has an opportunity to control the role of tobacco in ethnic groups of Chittagong Hill Tracts along with biodiversity particularly by imposing new or amending the existing tobacco control low.

As a partial research, it has been performed from 2009-2014. To do so integrated researches have been accomplished with literature survey, extensive field survey in different tobacco fields in CHT, observation in different aspects, and recording statements of the local people and making discussion with local community and stakeholders have been done to reveal the extension of the problems.


I am grateful to Professor Dr. Badrul Amin Bhuiya, Biodiversity Research Group of
Bangladesh (BRGB) and Professor Dr. Md. Ismail Miah, Department of Zoology, University of Chittagong for their effective suggestion during research.





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