Tobacco farmers seek divine assistance To avert imminent tobacco cultivation ban

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By 2017-10-20

Tobacco farmers recently participated in a Bodhi Poojawa seeking religious blessings to continue tobacco farming, amid the Government's plans to ban tobacco cultivation in the island by 2020.

The Atawisi Bodhi Poojawa was held recently at the Sri Sambodhi Viharaya in Kalegama, Dehiattakandiya, organized by the All Island Cigarette Tobacco Barn Owners' Association (AICTBOA). Over 350 farmers and their families gathered at the temple to perform religious rites and invoke blessings on all Sri Lankan farmers to safeguard their livelihoods.

AICTBOA President Jayantha Egodawela stated, "This is the first time we have come forward to organize a Bodhi Poojawa of this magnitude, as an Association of Farmers. As farmers, we grow many crops and have faced numerous challenges from the external environment, including extreme weather conditions. Only tobacco has taken us through these harsh times where we were able to keep our families fed and clothed. Today we pray for blessings not only for ourselves, but for all Sri Lankan farmers and hope they get the strength, motivation and support to persevere." Farmers from many areas across the island including Galewela, Polonnaruwa, Mahiyanganaya, Theldeniya, Buttala, Ududumbara and Haliela gathered at the temple for this religious event, which was conducted under the auspices of Makuruppe Pangnasekara Thera, the Chief Incumbent of the Sri Sambodhi Viharaya, who delivered a Dhamma sermon to the gathering. The farmer families received pirith-nool (sacred thread) following the Bodhi Pooja Pinkama.

Tobacco is a cash-crop farmers choose to grow during the Yala season, when water is scarce for paddy cultivation while farming paddy during the Maha season. Over 20,000 farmers across the island supply the tobacco industry's leaf requirement using less than 0.01% of the total arable land. According to tobacco farmers, tobacco farming generates Rs 300,000 in profits per hectare during Yala season, compared to less than Rs 200,000 per hectare from paddy. CTC-supplying tobacco farmers get a guaranteed price for their harvest through a purchase agreement they enter prior to the planting season. In addition, the farmers also receive technical support, fertilizer, pension schemes, and other benefits from CTC.

CTC estimates a ban on tobacco cultivation would likely cause foreign exchange losses over Rs 4 billion, as CTC would be forced to import tobacco leaves from abroad. Moreover, according to Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) officials, the Government does not have data on number of tobacco farmers or the overall tobacco-cultivated land, except for data provided CTC. They added that due to increasing beedi consumption, tobacco farming is rapidly expanding in Northern Province and Puttalam District.
The Government, with the support of certain foreign organizations, is planning to implement a ban on tobacco cultivation in 2020. The ban is likely to threaten the livelihoods of over 300,000 farmers and their family members who depend on tobacco cultivation to make a living. The Government is yet to introduce an alternative economical crop to tobacco.

"This Bodhi Poojawa is symbolic for us this year as there is a real concern that the tobacco cultivation ban will destroy our livelihoods and leave us without a means of survival. Our farmer communities have good employment opportunities and benefits through our out-grower model and we are able to share these benefits and uplift our communities as a result. We call on relevant authorities to enter dialogue with our farmers, understand our predicament and then take decisions that are fair to all," continued Egodawela. The farmers also requested the Government to grant a minimum 5-year transitional period to experiment any alternative crop the Government is planning to introduce. However, the Government is yet to notify both the stakeholders in tobacco industry, including farmers and CTC, regarding the 2020 tobacco cultivation ban.

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