Photo: The Herald
Tobacco farm (file photo). By Ryan Truscott
Cash-strapped Zimbabwe has started selling this year's tobacco crop to international buyers.Tobacco is the country's top foreign currency earner. But a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests the crop is being grown and harvested at a terrible price.
The HRW report says child labourers and other workers on tobacco farms are being exposed to acute nicotine and pesticide poisoning.
After a two-year study on farmworkers, including a significant number of children, Human Rights Watch found many suffered symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning – such as dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
Tobacco is harvested by hand in Zimbabwe and nicotine is absorbed through the skin.
In its report, A Bitter Harvest, the rights group says workers are also exposed to poisoning by pesticides sprayed on the leaf crop.
It says that those under the age of 18 work mostly on small-scale tobacco farms.
The land reform programme opened up the possibility of tobacco cultivation to tens of thousands of farmers often working as families or with a meagre workforce: this year there are 100,000 of these registered farmers.
Human Rights Watch called on multinationals to make sure the tobacco they buy is not produced by child labourers.
But with only 120 government labour officers to monitor the whole country, that's a tall order.
With the "golden leaf" now Zimbabwe's main source of desperately-needed foreign currency, the question is this: will the protection of children on tobacco farms be a priority for the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa?