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Tobacco eats away West Bank agricultural lands

Tobacco cultivation is expanding rapidly in the West Bank without regulation, threatening the Palestinian economy and agriculture.

JENIN, West Bank — Four years ago, Moazzaz Fares used to grow vegetables. Now he is cultivating tobacco on his 10 dunams of land  doubling his financial return.

Fares told Al-Monitor that growing tobacco is inexpensive and uncomplicated, yet profitable. Unlike vegetables, tobacco does not require a lot of water, and fertilizer is not affected by weather fluctuations and is very easy to market. Fares is not the only farmer who has shifted from the cultivation of vegetables and other crops to tobacco. In the town of Baqa ash-Sharqiyya, east of Tulkarm, tobacco is the main crop grown by dozens of farmers.

As farmers seek first and foremost to make a decent profit, in the difficult economic conditions, tobacco cultivation is threatening to take over agricultural lands. Officials have yet to form a plan to regulate the industry.

Tobacco cultivation — which has spread rapidly since 2012 — depletes the soil and the Palestinian economy, particularly since the cultivation is unregulated and is expanding at the expense of other crops in the most fertile agricultural lands in the northern West Bank, more precisely in Jenin. Fares is well aware of that but has no other alternative, he said.

He added, “No one supports the Palestinian farmer. He is alone on the land. There are no official [measures] to protect him, or compensation funds if a natural disaster knocks out [his crop]. Moreover, there is no control over fertilizers and pesticides, nor are they subsidized, and more importantly, there is no market to sell the products. This has prompted the farmers to opt for an easier and more lucrative choice.”

Fares is a father of six, three of whom are in college, which is costly. He said he cannot worry about soil quality and depletion, as the profit he makes from tobacco is four times that of any other crops.

Savian Atatira, a farmer from the town of Ya'bad, which is near Jenin and is well-known for tobacco cultivation, said he grows tobacco every year without rotating crops to preserve soil fertility.

Atatira, who received a degree in economics from Al-Quds Open University in 2010, used to grow summer vegetables on his 20 dunams of land. But he has found growing tobacco to be much more profitable.

In Jenin, tobacco-cultivated land increased from 7,000 dunams in 2012 to 20,000 dunams in 2015, according to Khaled Daoud, an engineer at the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee

The price of imported tobacco increased in the Palestinian market, as Israel raised taxes on tobacco in 2013 as the cost of a pack of cigarette rose by about 2.5 to 3 shekels (around 70 to 85 cents), and a large segment of smokers started buying local tobacco.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Daoud said he expects a continued increase in the amount of land dedicated to tobacco cultivation at the expense of vegetables and horticultural crops. The lands in the Jezreel Valley, Sanur, Zababdeh and Meithalun have been turned into tobacco farms. The practice also is spreading to Nablus, Tubas, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Jericho and the Jordan Valley.

Halting that expansion would require the intervention of the Agriculture Ministry.

Mamoun Daraghmeh, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the Arab American University of Jenin, said the harm "is not only limited to the damage caused to the soil, but also results in an imbalance in the Palestinian market." He continued, "[Jenin] used to fully meet the Palestinian market's needs, while we are currently importing agricultural products from abroad such as tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini.”

Tobacco growth in the plains in Jenin — which used to be known among farmers as the Palestine breadbasket — is not regulated. The land used to grow tobacco is not marked, because farmers know tobacco harms the environment and agricultural economy, Daraghmeh told Al-Monitor. He said he has demanded that the Palestinian Authority make serious efforts to identify tobacco-growing areas, particularly since its cultivation on rain-fed agricultural land will deplete fertility and affect products that will be grown later.

Daoud agrees with Daraghmeh and said a comprehensive national plan is required to resolve the issue, including a comprehensive political strategy that replaces tobacco with equally profitable crops, promotes the marketing of these products, supports farmers and activates disaster compensation funds to compensate farmers in the case of damage.

Mohammed al-Masri, deputy general director of the agricultural investment and financing department at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Al-Monitor that the ministry participated in the 2013 national commission for the regulation of tobacco cultivation and marketing and introduced a number of proposals and policies such as dedicating dry and infertile lands to tobacco cultivation.

Masri added, “The Agriculture Ministry developed a plan based on categorizing lands according to their fertility level, to prevent tobacco cultivation on highly fertile lands. These lands will be dedicated for the cultivation of field crops, horticulture crops and vegetables to meet the local market’s needs.”

Daoud considers the actions taken by the ministry and other official bodies inadequate. He added that the government is trying to use the 2011 law on tobacco cultivation to determine tobacco cultivation areas without monitoring the law's implementation or even introducing alternatives for the farmers.

Daoud concluded, “This is insufficient, particularly since the farmers who cannot find a job often do not abide by these laws.”