By Jeffrey Moyo
MUTOKO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Shouting, sweating and stamping their feet, dozens of farm laborers fill Tinago Chisvo’s makeshift office to demand their money, as the tobacco farmer desperately tries to explain the crisis that has hit his farm. Nobody listens.
“We don’t want to hear stories,” bellows one angry laborer. “You must just pay us for the job we did for you!”
But Chisvo has no money to give them. Like many of Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers, he ignored warnings of an impending El Nino-induced drought and continued planting.
But the rains he relies on never came, and his crop in Mutoko district in Mashonaland East Province, a rural district 143 km east of Harare, has been devastated.
“I am heavily in debt because my tobacco this year gave me very little cash in return, which will all go toward settling my debts, first with workers and second with banks that capitalized my venture,” Chisvo told the Thompson Reuters Foundation.
Zimbabwean tobacco farmers hit by El Nino’s scorching heat and lack of rain are reeling, forced to sell what remains of their poor-quality crops for a third of what they charged last year.
Without the money they usually make selling the so-called “golden leaf”, they and their families face joining the millions across the country who are increasingly hungry.
FAILING TO ADAPT
Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers knew trouble was coming. In 2015, the Meteorological Department (MET) warned that the country was likely to be affected by the El Nino weather phenomenon, a large-scale climate-pattern shift linked to the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.
Other experts agreed, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) also predicting that chances of El Nino conditions manifesting themselves by the end of 2015 were as high as 80 percent.
But many farmers like Chisvo either couldn’t or wouldn’t act on the warnings.
“I knew about El Nino after I had already started planting my tobacco,” said Chisvo. “Had I opted to change my plan soon after receiving the warning, I wouldn’t have fallen in the current crisis.”
A season of low rainfall has prompted the government’s Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) to drop projections of Zimbabwe’s 2016 tobacco output to 170 million kilograms.
That figure is a 14 percent fall from the 198 million kilograms produced last year, and that was already less than 2014’s output of 216 million kilograms.
“The tobacco industry has not been spared by climate change,” TIMB Chief Executive Officer Andrew Matibiri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Tobacco farmers are selling their crops for as little as 50 cents per kilogram, compared with last year’s average price of $2.83 per kilogram.
In 2015, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry raked in $584 million; this year, experts predict sales will only reach about a third of that, approximately $194 million.
According to TIMB, some of Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers took heed of last year’s warnings and chose to put their farming on hold, and instead use their money to buy enough food to carry their families through the season.
But thousands of others continued farming – a decision that TIMB chairwoman Monica Chinamasa applauds.
“This tobacco season has been unique, with erratic rains, but we are happy that tobacco farmers have been resilient and remain working on their fields,” she said.
Many of those farmers, however, are regretting their decision.
“What clogged my head was the desire to make money as usual,” said Mutoko tobacco farmer Albert Kazingizi. “Personally, I didn’t take the warnings seriously.”
As they deal with the disappointment of losing much of their crop to El Nino, Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers now also face a graver threat: hunger.
The southern African nation is grappling with a widespread food crisis, with the U.N.’s World Food Programme putting the number of Zimbabweans at risk of starvation at 4 million.
In March, the government appealed for $1.6 billion to buy maize to feed its citizens.
For many of the country’s tobacco farmers, the hunger is just beginning.
“I have no option except to face the effects of … the El Nino phenomenon after I went against the warnings of the looming tragedy,” lamented Letwin Zengeni, a single mother of four from Marondera in Mashonaland East Province.