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Ruthela Mabalo, 73, a comprador at the Bagsakan, the tobacco trading center in Laguindingan town in Misamis Oriental, examines a mano (a sheaf of 100 batek leaves) before she decides to buy them from a farmer-seller. (photo by Lina Sagaral Reyes)

Romancing storms, worms and leaves: Growing tobacco in the shadow of environmental perils in Misor

By LINA SAGARAL REYES
Special Correspondent . 

First of three parts

ALUBIJID, Misamis Oeiental — As soon as tropical typhoon “Amang” (international name, Mekkhala) hit Mindanao in the third week of January this year, the country’s weather bureau issued the “Orange Rainfall Alert” for seven provinces, including Misamis Oriental.

The alert meant intense rains in these areas for two hours or more, with about 15-30 millimeters of rainfall in an hour, and flooding could have been an imminent threat.

Instead of alarm, the information heard over radio brought a celebratory mood among tobacco farmers in the uphill village of Calatcat here, some 35 kilometers west of Cagayan de Oro City.

“Do not mistake us for becoming mad just because we are happy when a storm comes. The fact is, we have only learned how to dance with the weather,’’ says Pedra Villaestique, 59, who had planted a second cropping of the native batek tobacco on a half-hectare field in December last year.

Villaestique was among the 2,330 farmers in the province who planted the controversial cash crop in 2018. Because of its profitability, more farmers had been growing it in the past three years despite their bearing the brunt of unpredictable weather conditions, costlier agrochemicals with long-term health and ecological impacts, the diminished fertility of the land, as well as the clamor from tobacco control advocates to shift to other crops deemed more sustainable, and healthier for humans and the ecology.

More than 90 of women farmers like Villaestique make up only more than 15 per cent of the town’s 608 tobacco farmers, records for the year 2016 from the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) gender-disaggregated database show.

But because the women farmers lead cooperatives and other organizations, the town administration look up to them as a potent force. Worldwide, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that at least 60 percent of farmers in tobacco agriculture are females.

The province’s native batek-growing region comprises of seven towns west of Cagayan de Oro City, where about 1,233 hectares of farmland are devoted to growing the native variety in 2018. This area was twice that of 2015 figures of 619.85 hectares.

Since the 16th century when Augustinian friars who established settlements here brought in tobacco seeds to the Philippine islands, the shrub has been traditionally grown here in Northwestern Mindanao as far as Zamboanga, when this large swath of Mindanao was still a component of the Cebu province under the Spanish colonial rule.

The traditional batek-growing season begins in May and ends in August. Harvesting and air-curing the leaves occur within September and October. Some farmers grow a second cropping from December to March but most plant corn or legumes instead for their own consumption.

Misamis Oriental’s batek tobacco is not processed into cigarettes, and thus, is not part of the corporate tobacco industry supply chain,  as these leaves are sold to smokers in Mindanao and in the Visayan islands. Viajeros and compradors — wholesale traders and middlemen– purchase bales of the dried leaves at the bagsakan (trading center) in Laguindingan, or directly from farmers.  The long-time batek clientele also include indigenous peoples who chew, instead of smoke, the leaves.

In 2013, Republic Act 10351, dubbed the Sin Tax Reform Law, amended sections in the country’s Internal Revenue Code thus increasing excise taxes for alcoholic drinks, and cigarettes and tobacco products like native batek.

The RA 10351 amended RA 8424 (Internal Revenue Code) to increase the taxes on tobacco products like the native tobacco that Villaestique has cultivated for almost three decades now.

The amendment also provided guidelines that specified that local government’s shares of the taxes must be used exclusively to provide, among others, support to farmers shifting to the production of agricultural products other than tobacco, and other agricultural livelihood projects as livestock and fisheries.

The law fulfilled the country’s commitment to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), particularly Article 6 on reduction of demand for tobacco products. The corresponding Department of Budget and Management guidelines also addressed FCTC’s Article 17, on providing viable alternatives to tobacco growers by giving them support as they switch to other high value food crops.

The Philippines signed in 2003 and ratified in 2005 the FCTC treaty that had recognized tobacco use as a global epidemic that killed seven million a year, and a risk factor in cancer, and other heart and lung diseases. The FCTC further set out strategies in its implementation among state parties.

In October 2018, at the eighth Conference of Parties (COP8) in Geneva, the WHO FCTC spotlighted Article 18, which commits signatory countries like the Philippines, to addressing the environmental impacts caused by tobacco agriculture as well as the health of growers. 

On the ground, however, it is easier said than done. While the number of farmers and the hectarage had significantly declined in the past seven years nationwide, Misamis Oriental had seen an upsurge as farmers turn to tobacco as major crop once again.

For tobacco farming has also become more lucrative, with the retail price per leaf has skyrocketed to P50 from P20, such that a good harvest means at least P200,000-worth of leaves per hectare.

In Alubijid, for example, farmers cultivated more than 336 hectares of native tobacco in 2018, even as relying solely on the rains to water their crops that grow on stony clayey soil, up from 133 hectares only in 2014.

“The radio is my friend, I make sure I listen to it often for news on the weather so I can prepare,’’ she says, especially in the past decade when she noticed how unpredictable the weather had been.

“In the early ’80s, the rains would come certainly in May, and the wet season would last till August. It has been different since the late 1990s,” she recalled. There has been long, dry spells during the El Nino that contributed to infestations and crop failures, particularly in 1987, 1997-1998, 2004, and 2014-2015.

While El Nino is considered a natural phenomenon, the advent of climate change is seen by scientists to have exacerbated its impacts, breeding extreme weather like typhoons.

Villaestique and other women farmers here are unaware that tobacco farming contributes to climate change even as they welcome the extreme weather.

According to a study by Imperial College presented at the COP8 last year, the production of a single ton of dry tobacco is associated with nearly 14 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. The study also says that globally, the tobacco sector’s annual contribution to climate change is nearly 84 million metric tons, of which 20.8 per cent is attributed to the cultivation of the crop.

“As long as the winds are mild like Amang with only 65 kilometers per hour, we consider a typhoon a blessing,’’ chimes in Ubalda Roxas, 78, the village matriarch and treasurer of the women’s cooperative, who had been farming tobacco since she was 13. (to be continued)

(Reporting on this story was supported with funding from InterNews’ Earth Journalism Network, and the South East Asia Press Alliance.)

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