Tobacco is the chief crop in Santa Cruz do Sul, 167 kilometers from Porto Alegre, and in other municipalities in the central region of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.
Tobacco-growing is a tradition passed along from father to son. Most of the farmers are of German descent. They say that the first German immigrants arrived in the region over 200 years ago, bringing the first tobacco seeds with them.
The crop, which presently accounts for over 90% of the economy of Santa Cruz do Sul, transformed Rio Grande do Sul into the biggest tobacco-producing state in the country.
After Brazil’s ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control late last year, local tobacco-growers became increasingly concerned and unclear about the future of this activity and the options for crop diversification.
The Brazilian Minister of Agrarian Development, Miguel Rossetto, traveled to the municipality this week to present the Support Program to Diversify the Production of Tobacco Plantations, which should be implanted by the end of March.
The farms in Santa Cruz do Sul have 10 hectares, on the average. The terrain on most of them makes it difficult to introduce machinery and new technologies.
"It’s cultivation by hand, which everyone learns from the time they are small, and the entire family works to sustain a livelihood," explains the president of the Tobacco and Food Industry Workers’ Union (STIFA), Sérgio Pacheco. He speaks for the 20,000 urban workers employed in the city’s tobacco industries.
"Here in the region, over 35% of the properties are leased on a seasonal basis by local tenant farmers, who also rely on tobacco-growing as their source of income and don’t know how to go about diversifying," Pacheco believes.
According to the union president, the tobacco industry in Santa Cruz employed 14,000 temporary workers last year during the tobacco harvest.
"We are foreseeing 2.5 fewer workers during the 2005/2006 harvest, because of company mergers and modernization. In addition, it’s turning out to be cheaper for companies to process tobacco in Santa Catarina," Pacheco observes.
He says that the current harvest is expected to be 100,000 tons smaller. "That means fewer workers, in terms of percentages, and a shorter working season, since the harvest, which used to last 5 to 6 months, will end up lasting 3 or 4."
He explains that, despite all the present difficulties, a hectare of tobacco currently yields between US$ 3,600 (8,000 reais) and US$ 4,500 (10,000 reais). Any other crop – corn, beans, or potatoes – wouldn’t even bring in US$ 450 (1 thousand reais), he says.
According to Pacheco, farmers used to spend from July to December working in the tobacco fields. Then many of them would find jobs in the cities to have formal employment and health coverage.
"This has dropped off nowadays, because most of the workers who grow tobacco are older. Their children are studying and working in the cities. They don’t know how to do anything else," Pacheco explains.
"We are very concerned [about the need to diversify production], because we see no prospects for replacing tobacco." The union leader predicts that crop diversification will occur gradually over a period of 15 to 20 years.