Farmer's Voice

Heliodoro Campos, chief executive of the colombian tobacco federation, shows his concerns about the sector and declares: “If we do not grow tobacco, other countries will do it"

sept2_entrevista.jpgHeliodoro Campos, Fedetabaco manager, talks about the sector's concern regarding the future of the business in the country due to the WHO's appeal to interfere with the tobacco industry.

"If we do not grow tobacco, other countries will"

Sector Interview
Cristina Bustamante

The eventual implementation of two articles contained in the Framework Agreement of the World Health Organization (WHO) by the National Government, which would practically forbid all state support to tobacco crops in the world, is currently a headache for tobacco growers all over the country. If said articles enter into effect, the sustainability of tobacco production activities would be threatened. Heliodoro Campos, manager of Federación Nacional de Productores de Tabaco (Fedetabaco), who is waiting for the results of the meeting that will take place in November at Seoul (Korea), where the matter will be resolved, claims as much.

What are the articles referring to?
These articles state that the governments that signed the Framework Agreement must begin to discourage tobacco-growing activities from several standpoints: forbidding any loan intended for the tobacco sector, which is pretty serious because this is a production sector that was legally constituted and developed; forbidding technical assistance, which is what allows us to become more competitive every day; and forbidding state support to the sector's system that exists in each country, such as Fedetabaco, and the economic support to the institutions carrying out research for the tobacco sector. I think these proposals fully oppose the world's normal development and progress in agricultural matters, and this is the situation that concerns us.

The production per hectare of a tobacco plantation ranges between 1,800 and 2,000 kg, according to the numbers provided by Fedetabaco. There are 12,000 planted hectares of the product in total.

The value of the tobacco market in Colombia during 2010 amounted to $87.285 billion pesos (the last number available to date) according to the Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture.

How man people would be affected?
There are approximately 15,000 families engaged in some way in tobacco production in Colombia. We are talking about approximately 12,000 hectares of crops. Something that should be noted is that tobacco is one of the main generators of rural employment. Forbidding tobacco growing would represent the loss of approximately 3 million daily wages generated each year in the agricultural sector.

What would happen in that case?
What concerns me the most is that they are proposing to eliminate the crop without giving us an alternative: they will not tell us what to plant, or what to grow with similar or with the same marketing features. This is the serious part. If they had told us "change tobacco for this other crop", okay, we would do it. The WHO is talking about replacing tobacco with paprika, a kind of chili. The question is, who is going to eat 6 million tons of chili, which, more or less, equals the total amount of tobacco production in the world. There are no logical, feasible or objective alternatives.

Have you thought about using tobacco for other products?
Many countries have been working on it, but that other use that could be given to tobacco is not as established regarding its transformation and industrial use as cigarettes are; it could be done, but it would be a very slow process. We are doing what is currently consolidated.

What has the government told you?
The Ministry of Agriculture agrees that this is a legal activity that should be preserved. However, we have no idea what could happen because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is participating in the meeting.

The price of one kilogram of tobacco in the country ranges between $3,500 and $5,500 pesos, according to Fedetabaco. In addition, the average production per planted hectare in Colombia ranges between 1,800 to 2,000 kilograms.

Have you spoken to the tobacco companies?
Of course. They have an investment in this matter and they are interested in tobacco growing. However, if we do not grow tobacco, other countries will, because we must remember that not all countries signed the agreement. For example, Argentina, one of the largest producers, has not signed the agreement yet. The business is not going to die because Colombia stops producing tobacco, it will not die while there are still smokers out there; as long as there is a demand, there will be an offer somewhere. The worst-case scenario is that we will be left with the smokers only and others will be transforming and selling tobacco, but we will not be producing the raw materials to do so.

Would you be willing to have the crops reallocated?
The question is which crop, with better or with the same conditions than tobacco. Because you can say: "okay, I'll start growing tomatoes". If I have a gross income of 12 million pesos per hectare by growing tobacco, I can earn 40 million if I grow tomatoes, but by the next harvest I can loose the same amount because the prices are very unstable. The cost of tobacco remains basically the same even though it does not have a significant increase every year.

The Framework Agreement, the farmers' bone of contention.
Colombia signed the Framework Agreement on April 10, 2008. With this agreement, the WHO basically seeks to discourage tobacco consumption worldwide, with the purpose of affirming the right of every person to enjoy the best health possible.

Currently, 168 countries have signed it at a global level, including the United States, Spain, Panama and Mexico.

In the official text, article 17 (one of the articles about which the tobacco growers have expressed their concern) states the following: "Parties shall, in cooperation with each other and with competent international and regional intergovernmental organizations, promote, as appropriate, economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.".

Even though each State will decide whether to apply the provision of the agreement, the tobacco growers are concerned with the fact that the restrictive measures imposed to date (which have affected demand) were contemplated therein.

es.jpg Spanish version of the document - Heliodoro Campos, gerente de la Federación de tabacaleros colombianos, muestra la preocupación por el Gremio y declara "Si nosotros no cultivamos tabaco, lo harán otros países"