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Chapter 9: Breaking Dependency on Tobacco

“The sun slowly evaporated the dew off the tobacco leaves. The feeler of the picking machine bounced and groped its way between the rows.

Photo: Picking tobacco causes green tobacco sickness from exposure to nicotine through the skin.


“The sun slowly evaporated the dew off the tobacco leaves. The feeler of the picking machine bounced and groped its way between the rows. The four seats and the four pickers remained just the right distance from the plants. I leaned back against the steel seat. My feet rested on the stirrups in front of me. I skimmed along the ground, my heavy yellow rain pants and jacket shiny wet and flecked with sticky sand. My right hand shot out and with a twisting sweep gathered in the three sand leaves. A quick transfer to my left hand, the leaves slapped into the steel framed basket in front of me. Twist slap my right hand shot out again and brought in the leaves from the next plant as we jittered and bumped between the rows. The motor chugged and pulled its way along with a rhythmic motion matched by the twisting snapping slapping of the leaves. The sticky sap covered my fingers and burned my eyes as the higher leaves brushed my face. I tried to wipe the sand and sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand but it too was sandy and covered with the juices of the plant. My hair hung down stringy and wet.


The pile grew slowly. The wide flat leaves stacked up neatly in front of me.”


"Export A,” by Danny Buckles (1974)


I wrote these lines when I was 18, after a season picking tobacco in Tillsonburg in southern Ontario. They are part of a short story called “Export A” I published in a university student collection. My creative writing teacher at Sir George Williams University was Clarke Blaise, a Canadian-American writer of short fiction and co-author with his wife Bharati Mukherjee of an analysis of the Air India tragedy. He said he liked the rhythmic repetition of words used to convey meaning and mood.

This was a time when anti-smoking movements were just beginning to have an impact on policy worldwide. My short story was not political at all, but rather a coming of age tale. It did, however, feature a mysterious illness I experienced then without realizing that it was “green tobacco sickness” from exposure to nicotine through the skin.

Many decades later I worked with tobacco farmers in Bangladesh and a remarkable group of people dedicated to breaking farmer dependency on tobacco farming. I learned that farmers in several districts of Bangladesh are as dependent on tobacco as smokers of the final product. Debt to the tobacco companies, and the seductive appeal of incentives they offer, bind tobacco farmers to an industrial mono-crop that depletes soils, denudes forested hillsides and compromises the health of field workers and the women and children curing the leaves. Many tobacco farmers, especially older ones who have seen the impacts on their families and on their lands, are desperate to shift into other livelihoods, but don’t know how. Breaking the dependency is not easy. The British American Tobacco Company (BATC), the largest buyer in Bangladesh, is particularly effective at drawing farmers into tobacco farming. For decades they have been setting up operations in prime food-producing areas such as river valleys and flood plains close to abundant sources of firewood for curing kilns. As they deplete these resources, the company shifts to new areas, leaving damaged landscapes, neglected agricultural markets and indebted people in their wake. From both a farmer and national food security perspective, tobacco production in Bangladesh and many other developing countries around the world is a disaster.

Photo: British American Tobacco entices farmers into clearing land and forests, leaving behind debt and degraded soils.


In 1971, a few years before my tobacco-picking experience, Bangladesh went through a horrible liberation struggle many consider a genocide. Some 30 million people were internally displaced, out of a total population at the time of 70 million. In the chaos, as many as 3 million people were killed and up to 400,000 women raped. Refugees from the conflict, numbering between 8 and 10 million, fled to India where they suffered deeply. Most refugees were Hindus. Ethnic violence between Bengalis and Urdu-speaking Biharis fractured the population along linguistic lines as well. Intellectuals were targeted, including university professors, doctors, poets, musicians and journalists. Most of the atrocities were attributed to the West Pakistan Military and collaborators, although many people with roots in West Pakistan were also killed. War crime trials have been pursued periodically to the present day, but political leaders often confuse the purpose of the prosecutions with personal and partisan goals.

The Liberation War remains a defining personal event for any Bangladeshi alive at the time, including all of my close collaborators in the tobacco research. Farhad Mazhar, a student of pharmacy in 1971 and today one of Bangladesh’s leading poets and intellectuals, participated in the armed conflict. I met him in 1995 shortly after I joined the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and was immediately drawn to his intellect and positive nature. He became a mentor to me, and is a close friend to this day. Farida Akhter, the lead tobacco study researcher, married Farhad many years after the war and together with others started the research organization UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives). Her father worked in West Pakistan, where she learned to speak Urdu fluently, along with her mother tongue Bangla. She was a teenager during the war. Today, she is a fearless and formidable champion of women’s rights. In Asian feminist circles, Farida is best known for putting international attention on the sexist and racist uses of Depo-provera as a birth control measure, and on the complicity of Asian governments in the cross-border trafficking of women and children. Her reputation in Bangladesh is equally strong on these issues, but in the last decade has become closely tied to her advocacy against tobacco farming and for food producing communities. She is currently the guiding force in the development of a national policy on tobacco control that addresses the structural factors keeping farmers tied to tobacco farming. This is the key policy outcome from our collaboration on tobacco issues, an accomplishment with far reaching implications for developing country national governments and agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) that support the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).


Photo: Farida Akhter, Bangladeshi activist and researcher.


The tobacco story from Bangladesh illustrates the power of the grassroots to drive change at multiple levels, from the village to the banking institutions that regulate economic activity. Another of the close collaborators in the research, Palash Barel, understood this from his own experience as a student union leader in Dhaka during the 1980s, and tireless organizer. A Hindu, Palash was married to a Christian Bengali and understood better than most what unites people in common cause. He died from a chronic condition in 2019, and his wife died a year later from complications due to COVID-19.

Meeting and working with Palash, Farida and Farhad showed me what research and activism could do when it is grounded not only in politics and good science, but in culture as well. We did careful and detailed research with farmers to understand the pros and cons of growing tobacco, the barriers they faced when trying to shift into other livelihoods and what alternative technologies could turn things around. The questions we asked and the actions that followed were based on respect for farmer perspectives, but also recognition of the limits to knowledge the research needed to overcome. Solutions were not simply lying about ready to be picked up. Participatory research methods, as I show in this chapter, produced critical discoveries. What was truly transformative and highly original, however, was the integration of research insight with a grassroots political and cultural movement that cut across class (farmers and health professionals), sectors (health, finance and agriculture) and geography (rural and urban). These threads united communities of interests (stakeholders) in solidarity against the human suffering and environmental destruction wrought by Big Tobacco.

Anti-tobacco politics did not, however, carry the day. The pressure had to be sustained for years in the face of sophisticated tobacco industry subterfuge and politicized government indifference. As related below, what made this persistent pressure possible, in addition to the leadership involved, was a positive and culturally specific alternative vision. This lifted the research results out of relative obscurity, mobilized thousands, and provided an antidote to the despair of tobacco debt and history of neglect and exploitation of the peasant world. It was a wonder to behold, and is a treasure trove of lessons for researchers, development organizations and policy makers alike.


The Invitation

I was invited to join the research on tobacco almost a decade after my first visit to Bangladesh and engagement with the work of Farhad, Farida and Palash. As a research manager at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), I had funded research by their organization on agriculture and biodiversity, an experience explored in chapter 6. While at IDRC, I considered myself a “talent scout,” paid handsomely to scour developing country settings for people and organizations doing important work. When I found them, and verified the quality of their work on the ground, the IDRC team funded the organizations with grants of about $100,000 a year. These sometimes turned into phases spanning five to six years, allowing research to mature along with my relationship to the researchers. From 1995 to 2005, I got to know people and support research projects in more than 60 settings in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The initiatives focused on bringing indigenous and farmer voices into global debates on biodiversity, addressing rural conflicts, rural and urban agricultural technology, and many other research-for-development themes.

By the time I left IDRC, the scope for relatively small grants to small and innovative organizations was decreasing due to an institutional shift to fewer and much larger research projects only big, established institutions could undertake. From my perspective, this was a mistake because it discouraged novel initiatives with higher risks, showered attention on a small number of research institutions that already had many funding options and forced IDRC to move away from its earlier bottom-up approach to research talent and institutional capacity building. International credentials and the capacity to write good proposals became more important to the grant-giving process than verification of the value of people and work on the ground. I left IDRC just in time to avoid most of this culture shift.

My transition from research manager to Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University began in early 2005 when I announced to my bosses at IDRC that I wanted to leave the organization. I was met with surprising grace and generosity. They said they wanted me to stay, but that if I was determined to go they could help me make the transition. The IDRC Vice President at the time said that IDRC staff should be encouraged to contribute to university life in Canada, and authorized a grant to Carleton University that paid my full-time salary for two years. This was later extended for two more years, and then again for another two years at a half-time salary. I never made the full transition to a tenure-track university position, but this track was much better. I had all the freedoms of an academic life without any of the administrative requirements or expectations regarding what constituted a good class lecture. Unfortunately, I never learned to lecture a class of students with authority and, for the most part, I missed out on the joys of teaching and advising students. I did, however, do a lot of research and publishing.

The grant to Carleton University enabled me to work with my close friend Jacques Chevalier on a project we developed together when I was still at IDRC. It was called Social Analysis Systems, and over its nearly eight years of IDRC funding engaged with thousands of people around the world. I handled the work in Asia while Jacques travelled to Latin America and Africa. Between the two of us, we helped design research and train researchers in a novel approach to participatory action research Jacques had initiated several years earlier. Another chapter explores this work, and our relationship. My own direct involvement really started with an unexpected prominent role in a project training event, and two in-depth research studies in Asia that followed from that event. It was a baptism by fire.

Signs leading to my new role began in Goa, an Indian state on the southwestern coast best known for its beaches, nightlife and world heritage architecture. Jacques and his partner Michelle had stopped there on their way to the project workshop I had arranged with Rajeev Khedkar, one of our key partners in India. People from across South Asia, including Farida Akhter, had been invited to learn how to use the participatory research tools Jacques had been developing. While on the plane from Goa to Mumbai, Michelle developed abdominal pain forcing her into medical care just before the week-long event was to begin. She had a ruptured appendix and immediately underwent life-saving surgery in Mumbai. Jacques stayed with her in hospital, and asked me to run the workshop. I did, even though at that point I had never been a lead trainer. With Michelle’s life hanging in the balance, and workshop participants praying for her daily, I felt strangely confident and resolved to do my best. It turned out to be not only the first but also the most consequential workshop I ever facilitated, leading directly to work on tobacco in Bangladesh and fighting eviction of the Katkari in India (see Chapter 8).

Photo: The workshop participants, 2005.


The Sun Rising over Bengal

One of the Bangladeshi participants in the workshop was a singer, Gain Bhai, who was also a tobacco farmer keen to shift out of the business. Farida had invited him to the workshop along with several staff from UBINIG, her organization. Together, they applied the tools they learned to the question of how and why they might go about organizing research and advocacy in support of farmers seeking to break their dependency on tobacco cultivation. They planned a cultural strategy as well, based on the Bangladeshi tradition of spontaneous song composition Gain Bhai was so good at. In the years that followed this first encounter, I heard him compose and sing laments about the impact of tobacco farming on people’s health and the health of the land. His songs were performed with the one-stringed Ektara used by Fakir Lalon Shah, a Bengali Baul of the late 19th Century.

Lalon’s contribution to Bengali culture, forged during the height of British Rule in India, was to merge the anti-caste and anti-class ideals of Islam with Sufi, Bhakti and Tantric spiritual traditions circulating in the region of Bengal (now in India and Bangladesh). Devotional songs convey the meaning of his ideas, which focus on the triviality of attempts to divide people and the power of the body’s senses (breath, sexual energy, movement) to bring unity with god. He also believed that god is feminine, a perspective that lends itself to practices of gender equity. For example, all male followers of Lalon’s teachings must form a permanent union with a woman companion, and treat her as an earthly manifestation of the divine feminine. Farhad and Farida integrated this and many other aspects of the teachings of Lalon into UBINIG by making women’s leadership central to its organizational practice. This is a remarkable accomplishment in any society, and difficult in present-day Bangladesh.

Photo: Disciples of Lalon, and each other.


Farhad was not part of the initial workshop team but he was excited by the potential of the tools we were using to tap into the oral traditions and knowledge of farming people, and support authentic participation in research. He encouraged me to explore questions raised by farmers and he supported the methodological experiments described later. I became an integral part of the tobacco research team, visiting farming communities in Bandarban and Cox’s Bazaar in the south, Khustia near the Indian border where Lalon had lived his entire life, and Rangpur in the north. Farida and other UBINIG staff organized encounters with farmers, translated my questions and instructions, and quickly picked up the research approach and tool details on their own. My passport accumulated three and sometimes four Bangladesh visas a year for several years, and I created the unwarranted impression among Bengalis that I spoke the language. There was even a room in one of the UBINIG centres known as “Daniel’s room.” Farhad fondly chided me recently for not visiting recently, saying that when he sleeps in the room people ask him, “Why are you using Daniel’s room?”


Photo: Farhad Mahzar, a poet, activist, philosopher and friend.


I felt not only welcome in the farmer centres run by UBINIG, but also at home walking in the rural landscape. Bangladesh is a lush and green country for the most part, and more water than land at some times of the year. The fields around Tangail in central Bangladesh, the centre I spent the most time in, are bound by narrow bunds and simple dirt tracks connecting people and villages. Human figures dot the landscape in all directions, collecting grass, grazing a few goats, carrying a head-load of jute stalks, or simply walking to and from their home. Everything seems connected in a slow dance, bathed in the sun and embraced by humidity. My secret was to relax and let the sweat be absorbed by a light cotton kurta Farhad had ordered for me. In the privacy of the walled centre, I wore a lungi but could never tie it well enough at the waist to be confident that it would hold up in public. Pants were safer when visiting and facilitating work in villages, and expected on Westerners.


Photo: Travelling by boat in Khustia, 2010.


The Institutional Context

The research process that unfolded in the villages was decisive in creating a novel and effective approach to transitioning out of tobacco production. IDRC funding made this possible, as did the foresight of staff in the tobacco control secretariat at IDRC. Wardie Leppan, the lead until 2014 on tobacco farming issues, is a white man from South Africa with a sharp sense of humour and modest, easy going manner except when the situation calls for a principled stand. He and others at the secretariat developed a funding program asking questions that had not been asked or adequately answered by national governments that had signed on to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), one of the most widely embraced treaties in the United Nation’s history.

The FCTC has many strongly framed articles aimed at curbing tobacco use across the globe, and as such is a powerful and existential threat to Big Tobacco. The corporate interests at stake are highly adaptable, however, and in the years leading up to the 2003 approval of the convention the industry pivoted from denial of the harmful effects of tobacco use to espousing the contribution of tobacco production to government revenue and farmer and worker livelihoods. They warned of critical losses for developing country governments collecting taxes from from tobacco companies operating in the country and the sale of tobacco products. They also predicted disaster for workers and tobacco farmers that relied on the sale of cured tobacco for their livelihoods, framing both groups as innocent victims of tobacco control policies.

The IDRC research program set out to test these claims against the facts. Research on government tax revenues by IDRC funded researchers and others has shown that a tobacco tax actually increases government revenue in the short to medium term while tobacco control measures as a whole dramatically reduce heath costs for governments and society at large. The net impact of tobacco control on government budgets is positive overall, even in poor countries where most tobacco is now grown. Research on tobacco farmer livelihoods is equally decisive. It shows that tobacco cultivation is almost always a poor livelihood, rife with debt, production risk and uncertain prices. Health impacts on tobacco workers and farm families, ranging from green tobacco sickness to smoke inhalation, are also significant.[1]

The IDRC research program also challenged the WHO perspective at the time that tobacco control was simply a health issue that could be addressed by educating governments and farmers about the evils of tobacco. The perspective in effect reduced the problem to one of ignorance, with education and moral sanction the policy solution. By contrast, IDRC advocated for research into the pros and cons of tobacco cultivation and the barriers farmers face when they try to shift out of tobacco. This reframed the situation and policy challenge to include broader development issues and structural constraints affecting agriculture and rural communities. Instead of blaming tobacco farmers and limiting action to the health field, the research program responded to two articles in the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) focused on measures to reduce the supply of tobacco in global and national markets. Article 17 deals with the search for viable alternatives for tobacco workers and growers. Article 18 focuses on protection of the environment and the health of people engaged in tobacco cultivation and manufacturing. Doubt about the impacts of these articles on farmer livelihoods had been sown by the tobacco industry in the heart of national ministries of agriculture and finance, stalling tobacco control measures in some countries until viable alternatives were in place. Better guidance to implementation of the articles was needed urgently to address this hesitation. Bangladesh was one of several projects, along with Malawi and Kenya, where IDRC funded researchers to generate new knowledge on the viability of alternative strategies and explore the policy implications. This was pioneering work on a misunderstood and neglected issue.

[1] Leppan, Lecours and Buckles (eds). 2014. Tobacco Control and Tobacco Farming: Separating myth from reality. Anthem Press/IDRC, London/Ottawa.


Photo: Sheuli Begum (centre) and friends.


Research Discovery

Designing the research was an iterative process, involving the exercise of judgment along the way by the research team in light of farmer responses, new information and experience. Our approach was flexible and constantly adapted to the situation at hand, rather than the “plan and implement” approach to research design typical of both the natural and social sciences. Initially, I selected the research tools and set up the conversation while Farida facilitated the discussion with farmers and other UBINIG staff took notes and photographs. We then reviewed results together and planned the next steps. Eventually, UBINIG staff did it all.

The research tools I selected, drawn from a well stocked “tool box” Jacques Chevalier had been developing over the years, were participatory, breaking with traditional methods such as surveys focused on extracting data from people in isolation from each other and from discussion of the result. For example, the question that launched the study — why do you grow tobacco, despite its many problems — was explored using a tool adapted from economics. I asked farmers for their reasons, which we compiled, compared and refined together until we had a list of clearly expressed and distinct reasons. We then used a tree metaphor and diagram with roots (causes) and branches (effects) to ask to what extent one factor caused another factor. The question focused attention on the interdependencies between things like “tobacco growing makes good use of family labor” and “the tobacco company pays us with a lump sum for our entire crop.” We applied numerical ratings to farmer assessments of the interaction and causal weight of all the factors and compiled the results in a diagram showing the overall system of reasons for growing tobacco. The final step was to discuss with farmers which factors to focus on changing, in light of their causal weight and whether or not they or UBINIG could do something about them.

The brilliance of the underlying logic of the tool, worked through by the Soviet-American economist Wassily Leontief, was recognized in 1973 by the Nobel Prize in economics. His work has since become a standard model for assessing the interdependencies between different sectors of a national economy or different regional economies. Jacques had recognized the potential of the model to support systems thinking, and adapted it for group discussion and a wider range of topics. He also worked through the mathematics needed to calculate the causal weight of different factors. I tested the tool in many different settings and on many different topics, and added a range of facilitation options for working with non-literate people. This was pretty amazing stuff, with farmers and other marginalized groups making practical use of an economic model that had earned the inventor a Nobel Price.

In Bangladesh, the farmer-based analysis of their reasons for growing tobacco converged around the conclusion that decades of tobacco company dominance had undermined farmer capacity to innovate their way out of the conundrum. There seemed to be no alternative to tobacco, in part because farmers were not trying new things and the national agricultural research system was not providing new options. This conclusion led the group to decide to collectively design and implement experiments with potential cash crops, and to evaluate outcomes together. If the universities, research centres and tobacco companies would not help them, then they would do the technical research themselves.


Photo:Tobacco companies provide loans (with high interest), inputs (fertilizer and pesticides) and purchase tobacco (graded to unpredictable standards and prices), among other enticements for farmers with virtual no other options.


As I had learned in Mexico, conducting field experiments is no small matter for farmers, even on a small scale. Land and other resources dedicated to an experiment expose farmers to risk from the loss of income if the experiments fail. For small scale farmers already living on the edge, even small losses could be devastating. To help minimize the risk we needed to plan experiments that might work economically and technically while at the same time offering something new. Radical innovation was needed to break through the inertia and dependence on the tobacco companies. The challenge led me to a different method in the “tool box”, this time adapted by Jacques Chevalier from the field of psychology. We call it “Domain Analysis,” although it is known in psychology as the repertory grid for eliciting personal constructs. It is based on a theory of personality and cognition developed in 1950s by the American psychologist George Kelly. What appealed to me for the question at hand was its potential to tap into traditions of local knowledge and continuous learning – what farmers actually know about crops and their capacity to “think outside the box.”

Domain Analysis is a “soft system” alternative to conventional anthropological studies of local knowledge systems. Instead of naming and classifying discrete components of a system, as ethno-botanists might do for native plants, the method identifies schemas, or ways of seeing the world. It is a “soft system” perspective in the sense that the system described emerges dynamically and evolves in unanticipated ways. This is in keeping with the therapeutic purpose of the original theory — how do I understand the world around me and how well does that understanding help me predict, and adjust, my personal experience. The significance of this perspective is that the tool provides a loose framework, without pretending to describe everything in a system or box people into fixed ideas. My contribution, aided by Jacques’ own experiments with the method, was to find a way to do the detailed and complex research with non-literate people steeped in an oral tradition and knowledge system most people knew very little about. What emerged was a variation on the games Twister and X’s and O’s.

Domain Analysis uses triadic elicitation to generate characteristics that describe a topic from within the world view of the people involved. The technical term hides a simple idea and fun activity. Three things are chosen at random, and people are asked to say which two have something in common different from the third. Of three friends, for example, two may be great sports buddies while the other is someone to sit down with when facing a hard choice. From this point of view, the world of friends is made up of people to play with and people to plan with.

Photo: Triadic elicitation involves identifying two things that have something in common, different from the third, and then naming the contrasting characteristic.


Organizing tobacco farmers into meaningful groups for field experiments relied in part on an application of this technique to elicit the world view of tobacco livelihoods, without predefining what farmers might consider important. I asked three people to sit close together and invited them and the rest of the group to think of one thing two had in common different from the third. The frame for the discussion, proposed by the research team and accepted by the farmer participants, was the kind of livelihood people engaged in and the resources at their disposal. Contrasts emerged quickly from the farmers. Some had little or no tobacco in their fields while others had only tobacco. Some grew a few food crops while others grew a wide variety of food crops. Some frequently engaged in buying and reselling tobacco while others did this rarely or not at all. Some were old and some were young. People changed up the triad by shifting around on the large palm mat we all sat on until everyone had a chance or no new contrasts could be identified.

I don’t know for sure why people tolerated this activity, although I do think they appreciated that the exercise focused on a common purpose and the results were shared immediately and transparently. Also, the exercise was lively and everyone’s intelligence was respected regardless of their literacy or apparent education. These features reflect a key principle of our approach to participatory action research. Too much structure and not enough conversation undermines participation. The opposite is also true. Not having a structure runs the risk of losing sight of what people are going for, and why. Jacques coined the term “structured conversations” to capture this balance.

The activity might also have been tolerated because I had developed something of a reputation as a magician among UBINIG staff and some of the farmers involved. For years, coming to Bangladesh had meant that I needed to arrive with a new magic trick to show people during sessions of music and relaxation at the end of each day. This tradition of gathering and sharing, established by UBINIG early on in its organizational life, was a communal way of ending the work day for staff living in village settings. It also acknowledged and provided some cover for the Muslim practice of evening prayers. Villagers would have looked askance at gatherings of the young, unmarried men and women that worked for UBINIG, but for the careful gender-based separation of residences (even married couples slept in separate areas when at the village centre) and the twice-daily practice of piety. Morning sessions started the day at dawn with reflective and soulful songs by the Baul Lalon. Evening sessions started the same way but emphasized more joyful songs and even allowed for humour and story telling. During one of the first sessions I attended of this sort included a pantomime by a tall, thin villager who had been to Paris, France. He went there with UBINIG to promote traditional hand-loom textile products to the fashion industry. His skit was to reproduce the movements of female models walking down a catwalk as they showed off the clothes of fashion designers. My magic show was tame by comparison, comprised largely of rope tricks and gags I’d learned from my brother Steve and other playful parents. It was very welcome, however, and always ended with laughter as my tricks were unveiled or my gags touched the funny bone.

One of the useful insights from the magic of triadic elicitation of farmer livelihoods was that it became apparent that land-poor farmers rely heavily on tobacco trading. We hadn’t considered this before, and resolved to make sure they had a strong voice when evaluating crop options and market dynamics. Other livelihood details were identified in regions with a shorter history of tobacco farming, and where ethnic minorities were an important part of the farming population. For example, reliance on wood cutting for tobacco kilns emerged as a distinct livelihood of tribal communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, adding further complexity to the challenge of shifting a whole region out of tobacco without undermining the livelihoods of vulnerable populations.

Photo: Preparing tobacco leaves to go into a kiln for drying. The work is intense, with little rest until the entire harvest is collected and cured.


Even deeper insights emerged from a separate exercise on the question of what crops to grow as alternatives to tobacco, and why. As with farmer livelihoods, we used triads to elicit contrasting crop characteristics. Small pots of seed or sprigs of a plant where placed together and then separated by farmers into meaningful contrasts such as “crops farmers can market themselves” versus “crops that must be sold through a broker”. Labels, one for each pole of the contrast, were then placed at opposite ends of a row on the floor. This created a space for farmers to rate a large number of crops on the contrasting characteristic by indicating which pole the crop was closest to, including the possibility of in-between ratings (for example, between “must be grown as a monocrop” and “grows well mixed in with other crops”). UBINIG staff watched and recorded the rating for each crop on each contrast until we had enough scores to fill a matrix on the floor.

We used a three-point grey scale to show the ratings without relying on numeracy, and to make it as visual as X’s and O’s. This patterning of black, white and grey helped people make sense of the results and participate directly in the analysis. For example, farmers could see that crops that “require added fertilizer” tend to be “monocrops” and also “need extra water.” Crops that “help fertilize the soil” tend to cluster around other ends of the continuum such as “grow well mixed in with other crops.” Initially, I set up the conversation while Farida facilitated and kept it on track. UBINIG staff repeated the exercise independently in a variety of settings, learning to facilitate sophisticated, participatory and action-oriented research on local knowledge with non-literate farmers. I also collected the data to do multi-variate cluster analysis using a specialized piece of computer software. It validated and refined some of the patterns observed, published in two books.

Photo: Farmers assessing patterns and sharing insights into novel combinations of crop characteristics.


The practical implications of the research were subtle but significant, producing an unexpected and pivotal insight when we realized that some crops combined characteristics in unusual ways. We found that jute and peanuts, for example, are similar in many ways to other “food and fodder crops for local markets” but also, like tobacco, have “well-established external markets.” Also, they do not compete for space with tobacco during the same season but rather straddle the tobacco season, either before or after. This put them outside of the general category of “alternative” cash crops that farmers could simply substitute for tobacco and insert during the same season. The insight prompted us to include in our study cropping patterns and crop rotations over the entire calendar year, rather than limiting the research to a single substitute crop that would magically change everything for tobacco farmers. We realized that change could come from creating the conditions for a transition from one state to another over a defined period of time.

One of the women farmers in the group, Sheuli Begum, gave shape to this shift in thinking with an example. She explained that recently she had seen a spice in the market that she and other rural women regularly buy. It contained seeds of three different plants not currently grown in her region. She had decided to sprout all three, and then chose one (Methi) that she believed could be easily grown in a mixed cropping system. She noted that it needed to be planted before the tobacco season, and would help create some cash income at a time when she would be tending to other crops that would mature later on. She remarked that she could consider reducing or eliminating her tobacco crop if she could spread her income and home food supply out in a steady stream by over the long growing season available to Bangladeshi farmers. Inspired by this observation, farmers and the project decided to also search local markets for crops that combine with each other in novel and fruitful ways over the full agricultural calendar. Developing a transition strategy with diverse crop combinations, rather than finding a single substitute crop, became the new guiding narrative. The discovery paralleled the psychological process of “breakthrough thinking” central to George Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology.

Photo: Farmers rating crops on different criteria.


Photo: Beeswax, a part of my son's Waldorf schooling, was a useful medium for non-literate Bangladeshi farmers to form their ideas about crops of value.

Research Generalizations

The distinction between substitute crops and transition strategies identified by and with Bangladeshi farmers had not occurred earlier to either the farmers or the research team. It was also an original contribution to the suite of strategies emerging from the IDRC funded research. In Kenya, researchers tried to get farmers to replace one cash crop with another (bamboo). In Malawi, the research involved introducing a second cash crop that could be grown alongside tobacco, in the hope that eventually it would displace tobacco. Both focused on substituting one crop for another. The findings from Bangladesh pointed instead to a process of change involving strategic adjustments to different parts of the cropping system, including soil enhancement and mixed cropping stretched over several seasons and integrated with active markets for food products.

This was the kind of nuanced, integrated and locally adapted solution that scientists hope to discover through careful, participatory and evidence-based study. It also has something to offer to broader thinking about system change, relevant perhaps even to other fields (the urgent need for a transition to renewable energy comes to mind). First, it suggests that change strategies need to have a firm and ambitious timeline, or else the idea becomes a mere stalling tactic. If tobacco companies have their way, national governments will not control tobacco cultivation until and unless robust alternatives are already in place. The position is impractical, and the result is paralysis. Second, transitions need to include strategic structural changes from the start. For tobacco farmers, that means improving the soils destroyed by years of tobacco cultivation and getting relief from the cycle of tobacco debt. Otherwise, useful crops will simply not grow and land and labour will remain tied to what is rather than what could be. Without transformation of at least some of the conditions of farming, a transition strategy will be reduced to an “alternative strategy" in arrested development. New life cannot thrive. Finally, transition strategies need to include a kick start with strategic inputs. As described further below, access to seed of diverse crops became the catalyst for farmer experimentation with new cropping patterns that could sustain the enterprise through the timeline of transition. Without a strategic hand up, change will simply remain out of reach.

The policy implications of the research findings from Bangladesh did not, at the time, work themselves into the international policy dialogue on tobacco control. Wardie Leppan, the lead IDRC staff on the tobacco farming file until 20xx, recently told me that the WHO are still looking for “cookie-cutter solutions” for tobacco farmers. They also continue to frame the challenge within the narrow bounds of “alternatives to tobacco” outlined in Article 17 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Structural constraints on change within the agricultural sector and the need for transformative investment over time may have been obscured by the geekiness of the particulars, although a later publication edited by Wardie, Natacha Lecours and myself did try to bring these out. Our hopes were high when the book was released with much fanfare at the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, held in 2015 in Abu Dhabi. The boxes of copies carried by Wardie and Natacha quickly proved to be insufficient, as were copies of a companion policy brief prepared for the event. Recently, Raphael Lencucha, a university professor at McGill University and specialist on tobacco control, told Natacha that the book was unique and still relevant because of the global perspective it provides on a neglected global issue. It has not, however, translated into better guidance from the WHO on how to implementation of the articles in the convention related to tobacco cultivation.

Limitations on the broader use of research results from the Bangladesh study may also reflect the challenges of scaling science. Researchers often assume that to have impact all they need to do is sharpen and highlight research results with policy implications. With a policy brief backed up by science, policy makers will then do the right thing. The history of climate science tells a different story, as do the Bangladesh tobacco research discoveries. There are lessons here for international development agencies, including IDRC, that too often fail to circle back to see what has been of lasting value in the work they have funded, and instead lurch from one topic and institutional setting to another. Policy impact, even when it occurs, remains unnoticed, unsupported and misunderstood. The events that unfolded in Bangladesh after IDRC support and after my direct involvement in the research show that scaling science is not just a team sport where one player passes the ball to another. The research methods and solutions that seem viable at one level cannot be assumed to work at another level. Context changes as solutions are scaled, and so too must the methods and skills needed to make them happen. This perspective brings me to the most exciting chapter in the Bangladesh tobacco story, the struggle still in play to create a national tobacco cultivation control policy. The progress to date reflects in part a message emphasized by Wardie Leppan through an expression he often uses: politicians don’t see the light, they feel the fire. Good research is important, but persistent political pressure is necessary. I would add, and illustrate briefly next, a meaningful vision grounded in local culture is also critical.


From Research to Policy

From the moment of my first visit to Bangladesh and the work of UBINIG, I was uplifted and strengthened by the spiritual and political ideas and practice of the Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement). It is the most original rural movement I have ever come across, and deserves vastly more attention and support than it has received to date. On one level, it brings together some 300,000 Bangladeshi farmers into a common framework of biodiversity-based ecological agriculture. Ten rules establish the foundation for shifting from conventional to ecological farming, starting with the absolute rejection of pesticides and harmful chemicals in agriculture. I experienced this principled practice in the quality of the food I ate at the UBINIG centres — red rice, lady fingers cooked in a light curry sauce, cooked greens with onion and potato, tiny fish you could eat whole or strip clean through your teeth.

“Keep seeds in your hands, Sisters” is another rule, illustrated in a poster showing a woman surrounded by a plethora of different crop seeds. The poster is displayed prominently on the wall of “Community Seed Wealth Centres” in every UBINIG centre. A sturdy bamboo and palm structure, the seed wealth centres are stocked with samples of a very large number of rice varieties stored in clay pots made locally and, for parts of the year, sealed with a mixture of mud and neem leaves to control insects. Vegetable seeds are stored in small glass bottles, suspended with colourful macrame holders to maximize the storage space. Gourds have their own protective shells. Sitting on lattice work shelves that allow air to circulate, each one stores a unique variety of pumpkin or squash. The seed caretaker, always a woman, periodically empties the pots and spreads the stored seed out on a woven palm mat to dry, choosing sunlight for some species, shade for others and moonlight for delicate types. The depth of knowledge embodied in these practices is breathtaking.

Photo: Interior of a community seed wealth centre in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.


Photo: The community seed wealth centre in Tangail, Bangladesh manages nearly 1,000 local varieties of rice, and is one of the largest services of this nature anywhere in the world.


The term “community seed wealth centre” may seem quaint, or even a little awkward in English, but it is profoundly political in meaning. It intentionally eschews use of the term “seed bank” associated with the Green Revolution centres where I worked in the early 1990s and that hold most of the world’s seed diversity. While in theory the diversity in seed banks is held “in trust,” the commercial character of the banking metaphor aligns with much of what actually happens with the intellectual property bound up in every seed variety developed over decades and even centuries by farming communities. Commercial seed companies benefit disproportionately from these seed collections by adding a minor quality or reproductive lock to the original seed (aptly dubbed “terminator technology” by Pat Mooney, the brilliant Canadian founder of the ETC Group) and patenting the result. By contrast, the term “community seed wealth” communicates the collective origins of all seed inventions, who the seed currently belongs to and the asset seed represents beyond the notion of money. It also puts into action the practice of in-situ conservation of agricultural biodiversity, an approach that contrasts with and is sometimes seen as a complement to ex-situ conversation in gene banks. In situ, or on-farm conservation of crop biodiversity acknowledges that plants are living organisms co-evolving in a given environment. To stay relevant, crop genetic resources must be actively managed by farming communities, and not simply “frozen” in time outside of the agricultural system. The steady stream of farmers I saw visit the seed wealth centres, exchanging seed of their own for a variety they wanted to try, gave a human face to this history and social relationship.

The Nayakrishi Andolon provided a unique and powerful vehicle for scaling up the research on tobacco transition strategies, far beyond anything I had dreamed of for the farmer promoter network I had helped establish in Mexico two decades earlier. The seed wealth centres maintained by UBINIG across the country, and associated village and household level seed centres run directly by farmers, provided tobacco farmers with access to a ready and very diverse supply of crop seed adapted to local conditions. This filled a gap commercial seed suppliers could not, and directly supplied a strategic input needed to kick start the transition to another kind of agriculture. Over a period of several years, hundreds of tobacco farmers gained access to seed from the Nayakrishi Andolon, in exchange for the promise to use it and a commitment to return some seed to the seed wealth centre once their own crops matured. While UBINIG incurred some costs to underwrite the organizational arrangements, these were small and meant that no cash had to change hands between the groups involved. Farmer desire to regain control of their cropping system, along with orientation from other experienced farmers, was enough of a motivation to get started.

Photo: Stoking the fire of a kiln is an exhausting task falling to women and children. Smoke inhalation and extreme fatigue are particularly damaging during pregnancy.


On another level, the Nayakrishi Andolon brought an inspirational message to tobacco farmers, inviting them to “plant a seed of joy.” The call proved to be a powerful one, and a sharp contrast to the experience of tobacco farmers deeply in debt to tobacco companies, dismayed by the steady decline in fertility of tobacco soils and impacted directly by the pesticides, green tobacco illness and respiratory damage wrought by tobacco cultivation and curing. It filled a different kind of gap, while also breaking the spell of quick money promised and seldom delivered by tobacco company promotors.

Women, and their concern about the health impacts of tobacco farming, were a driving force behind the anti-tobacco farming campaign that ran in parallel to the technical research. Farida told me of a nurse, married to a tobacco farmer, who spoke out against tobacco farming in a widely circulated film interview. The nurse was later confronted in the local health centre by an angry British American Tobacco Company representative, who demanded she explain why she was supporting the campaign when she benefited from the industry. She responded, “I am a health worker so I can see all the health effects of tobacco farming. I have to see that.” The nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches I experienced when my clothing and skin became saturated with tobacco juices while picking tobacco in the heat of Tillsonburg, Ontario many decades earlier, are typical symptoms. The nicotine is absorbed through wet skin, poisoning millions of tobacco farm workers and forcing some to require emergency medical treatment. Other serious health hazards are borne by the women and children that cure the tobacco leaves in drying kilns next to their homes. Curing tobacco takes 60 to 70 hours of continuous attention to an open fire built into the kiln, leading to smoke inhalation and extreme fatigue.

The path to policy on tobacco farming in Bangladesh went through the health community, but not along a straight line from research on occupational health risks. World No Tobacco Day, sponsored by the WHO on May 31 every year since 1988, became an early focus for use of the tobacco farming research and was a tipping point for policy advocacy. It united in marches on the streets of Dhaka, former tobacco farmers and middle-class proponents of anti-smoking laws. Many of the marchers were women with first-hand experience of the human suffering from both ends of the product cycle, growing the product and dying from using it. Journalists covered the unusual and highly photogenic alliance in media across the country, and integrated into their news stories a range of related issues. The food security and environmental impacts of tobacco farming, and in particular the company practice of targeting prime agricultural land near forested hillsides, made for compelling media messages. These impacts were also tangible and measurable. Traditional food basket regions of Bangladesh such as Tangail and Khustia were experiencing exponential growth in tobacco farming, as were well-known and politically sensitive forested regions such as the Chittigong Hill Tracts where ethnic struggles between Bengalis and indigenous hill tribes persist. Suddenly, the true scope of tobacco’s harm to the security of the nation was apparent in a single image of rural and urban women of different classes and occupations walking together in common cause.

Some policy changes came quickly. In 2011, The Bangladesh Bank (the monetary and financial regulator for Bangladesh) ordered all scheduled commercial banks to suspend new loans to individuals and companies for the purpose of tobacco farming. The Circular cited the threats to public health from the use of tobacco products but also noted the negative impact of tobacco farming on the food crisis in Bangladesh. That same year, and in subsequent years, the Ministry of Agriculture suspended individual subsidies on fertilizer for tobacco production and the Ministry of Industries reduced its fertilizer subsidies for tobacco companies. Local officials in tobacco growing areas such as Bandarban made use of administrative procedures to ban tobacco cultivation on government-owned lands in the district. Several municipal-level governments in tobacco growing areas announced bans of their own. The effects were visible enough to prompt representatives of the British American Tobacco Company to visit Gain Bai, the singer and former tobacco farmer, at his home in Tangail, central Bangladesh. Much as they did with the woman health worker, the representatives complained about the anti-tobacco campaign. His reply was “Tobacco is not a food crop so it is bad. That is why I’m helping UBINIG."

Photo: Gain Bhai (centre) singing to a group of farmers about the pain of tobacco cultivation and the joys of food production.


Deeper policy change has been longer coming. In 2016, Farida was acknowledged with an award from the Minister of Health for UBINIG’s work on tobacco farming. She was also invited to sit on a newly formed committee charged with drafting a National Tobacco Cultivation Control Policy. Coordinated by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the committee has the formidable task of negotiating the interests of multiple arms of government, including the National Board of Revenues responsible for the Value Added Tax paid by both national and international tobacco companies, the Ministry of Commerce regulating the trade licenses of tobacco companies, the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management monitoring food deficiency for the country, the Ministry of Labour responsible for the enforcement of laws regulating the use of child labour in tobacco production, the Ministry of Education concerned with high level of child absenteeism during the tobacco curing season, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests charged with limiting deforestation for tobacco kilns and controlling air pollution. It needs to work as well with the Ministry of Agriculture, a partner of tobacco companies for decades.

The existence of the drafting committee is, in and of itself, evidence of the shift in awareness. The long delay in the legislative drafting process, entering its sixth year and counting, is also evidence of the influence of the tobacco industry lobby. There are many touch points it can use in different government departments to weaken and undermine the intent of the new policy. The delays also speak to the cruel and even deadly nature of politics in Bangladesh, dominated for four decades by two women Prime Ministers, Sheikh Hasina Wazed (currently the Prime Minister) and Begum Khaleda Zia (currently under house arrest after serving years of imprisonment). Throughout, Farida has remained untarnished by detractors and persevered as a leading member of the drafting committee. Thanks to allies in the Ministry of Health, the policy is now in its final stages. More and more members of parliament and government officials are speaking out against tobacco cultivation. Only a few very powerful government Secretaries, swayed by the BATC, continue to stand in the way. “They will not succeed,” Farida says. Once enacted into law, the Bangladesh policy will become the first in the world to take a firm stand against the cultivation of tobacco, in concert with policy supports to address structural constraints and kick start a transition to sustainable agricultural systems. I can imagine a new national label for cigarette packages: “Tobacco cultivation causes fatal consequences for farmers and the earth.” Packaging on rice and pulses grown by former tobacco farmers might read Shohoj ananda, that is, “the joyful interaction of human beings and the external world."

Photo: A clay bowl, wax and wick contain and sustain the fire that steadies the mind and guides the way.

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