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Environment, health impacts awareness factor in tobacco production nosedive

By Lina Sagaral Reyes
Special Correspondent . 

First of two parts

CLAVERIA,  Misamis Oriental – Last year, Minda Gamalo stopped growing tobacco. “I need to let the land take a rest. Already the leaves were getting smaller and smaller season after season,’’ she said, explaining why she ceased planting Virginia tobacco for Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp. in 2018.

“No matter how I followed the farm technician’s instructions, the plants wouldn’t grow as much as they did in the first three seasons,’’ she added.

She had planted eight times, twice each year on her upland two-hectare field in Barangay Madaguing here, about 59 kilometers southeast of Cagayan de Oro.

Gamalo, 73, has been a contract grower since 2014. “No matter how I talk and sing to the plants every day, they seemed not to believe me anymore,’’ she added in jest.

As a Higaonon, an indigenous people, she speaks of the land as a sentient being. “It must be tired already. Like human beings, the land also needs to recharge.’’ She hopes that by letting the land lie fallow for months, its soil can gain back the nutrients depleted by tobacco.

According to PMFTC brochures, it had introduced farming technologies that allow the yearound cultivation of a variant of the tobacco that suits this upland farming town’s climate and soil.

Gamalo was among the 851 planters of Virginia tobacco under a contract in 2017 with PMFTC who quit last year and let the land lie fallow, or planted other crops like vegetables, cassava or Bt corn. Under the contract, the company buys the fresh leaves and flue-cures these at curing barns in its own seven-hectare facility in Barangay Ane-i.  Since 2013, it has engaged farmers here as contract growers, providing farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides on loans as well as technical support and training for what the company defines as sustainable and safe agricultural practices.

Based on data obtained from the field office of the National Tobacco Administration (NTA), only about 366 of the previous year’s 1,117 farmers in Claveria grew the cash crop last year in about 436 hectares, down from 1,387 hectares in 2017.

Consequently, the decrease plunged yearly production in Misamis Oriental from 1,872 million kilos in 2017 to just around a million kilos in last year, according to Ma. Merceditas Ayco, NTA monitoring and regulatory officer for Mindanao. This is way below the 2015 production of 1.6 million kilos. In 2015, PMFTC’s projected that production would reach four million kilos by 2017.

Gamalo’s neighbor, Gliceria Mission and husband Felipe are thinking of shifting to other crops like corn, which they used to grow aside from tomatoes and squash. But unlike most of the contract growers in Madaguing, they persisted to grow tobacco as they still wanted to pay for agrochemical inputs loaned by the company.

“The produce was good in the first three planting season but onwards, it has been a failure,’’ she told the Gold Star Daily. Like Gamalo, she complained of smaller leaves that weighed lighter. She added that while the buying price has increased, the standards of leaf quality were upgraded, and this, ironically, had resulted in much lesser income for farmers like her. 

She had earlier in the day hoped to begin harvesting some mature leaves but her husband foresaw that the harvest might not be enough to pay for two leaf-pickers so they postponed the harvest, risking overipeness and a decreased price for not meeting the company’s leaf quality standards.

She looks forward to paying their debts to the company, and then she would stop growing tobacco because of health issues, like having the symptoms of green tobacco sickness (GTS), and of the land’s infertility and the buying price fluctuations.

“This is the only plant so far that had me experience various kinds of illnesses. I itched everywhere, and I had headaches afterwards and felt dizzy and intoxicated,’’ she said. This, even as she wore protective gear such as mask, rubber gloves, goggles, rubber boots, and jackets that were provided by the company. 

Green tobacco sickness is caused by the skin absorption of nicotine, a chemical present in tobacco leaves. Its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, severe weakness, stomach cramps, chills and sweating. It can also cause changes in blood pressure and heart rate.

Gamalo, on the other hand, attributed the never-healing sores on her lips to tasks like topping and de-suckering, though the doctor told her it is an allergic reaction to other substances, not nicotine.

“I’ve got beautiful lips till I grew Virginia,’’ she said with a laugh, adding that she does these tasks herself so she doesn’t have to hire farmhands.

She said she followed safety instructions and wore protective gear but could not stop herself from the years-long habit of wiping sweat from her face with her hands. She had been prescribed cetirizine, a steroidal anti-allergy drug, during a medical mission sponsored by PMFTC way back in 2015 but she had stopped using the medication as she was told by a health officer that continuously using it will weaken her bones.

The awareness of the health impacts of growing tobacco among women farmers, like Gamalo and Mission, echoes that of a study done by academics at the Claveria-based subsidiary of the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines (USTP), previously known as the Misamis Oriental State College of  Science and Technology (Moscat).

Done in 2016, three years after tobacco’s commercial cultivation began here, the study, which profiled women farmers, including the knowledge, perceptions and practices of women working in tobacco farms in Claveria. Among its findings is that 90 percent of the women workers were aware of the health impacts of cultivating the plant.

Dr. Dennis Mugot, lead researcher, compared the results with a similar study in China, the world largest producer of tobacco, which showed that only 43 percent of women farmers there were aware of the impacts on their health.

Dr. Mugot noted, in an interview with the Gold Star Daily, that this high degree of awareness on health impacts, according to farmers, is due to orientation sessions of PMFTC for farmers and workers as part of the contract-growing training package.

According to the study, 67 percent of the Claveria-based respondents claimed they have not experienced any of the symptoms of green tobacco illness at all, while the rest claimed they had felt the symptoms.

Dr. Mugot said the study was part of  the Gender and Development program of the College of Arts and Sciences, and he hoped to expand the survey to include more respondents and to include women’s perceptions of the impacts of pesticides use and exposure.  (to be concluded)

(Reporting for this story is supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Southeast Asia Press Alliance.)

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