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March 17, 2009

Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop may decline by 40% this year

by Brian Latham

Zimbabwe’s official tobacco harvest may fall as much as 40 percent to 42 million kilograms (93 million pounds) this year as destitute farmers sell the leaf illegally, the government’s Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board said.

The southern African nation last year produced an estimated 70 million kilograms of tobacco leaf. The exact size of the crop may be difficult to measure because destitute farmers are selling their leaf on the black market, said Andrew Matibiri, chief executive officer of the board.

“The practice is illegal, but some farmers are desperate because they’re facing challenges,” said Matibiri. Under Zimbabwean law, tobacco can only be sold on auction or to licensed merchants.

Farmers are selling tobacco for as little as $1 a kilogram, compared with an average price of $3.20 a kilogram last year, the marketing board chief said. The southern African nation produces flue-cured tobacco that rivals the U.S. for quality.

Tobacco production in Zimbabwe has plummeted since 2000, when President Robert Mugabe authorized the often-violent seizure of most white-owned farms. That year, the country produced 236 million kilograms of tobacco, making it the world’s second-largest exporter after Brazil. Since then Zimbabwe has slumped to the world’s sixth-largest exporter after Brazil, India, the U.S., the European Union and Argentina.

Last month, supporters of Mugabe invaded at least 77 white- owned commercial farms and threatened other landowners, according to Doug Taylor-Freeme, president of the Commercial Farmers Union. The eviction campaign threatened the livelihoods of about 100 farmers along with about $140 million worth of crops, he said in an interview Feb. 24.

Zimbabwe’s tobacco selling season will begin in April and traditionally runs until mid-October. The crop is usually the country’s top export earner.


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