Killing Trees to Cure Tobacco: Tobacco and Environmental Change in Kuria District, Kenya, 1969-1999


Babere Kerata Chacha[1]


Tobacco is a cash crop that has been produced in Kenya for the last 40 years. Since its inception by the British-American Tobacco (BAT) multinational, its culture, use, health and economic implications have become issues of social and academic inquiry. Growing concerns have been expressed not only about the health hazards involved in tobacco production, but also about the environmental unsustainability of the crop in terms of excessive use of wood. Today, the crop poses a particularly difficult dilemma for development since its production has generated a wide range of employment, income, foreign exchange and other cash-contributing effects, while the damage to forest resources and to the environment in general seems to outweigh the benefits.

Tobacco is one of the Kenya's largest industries and currently accounts for nearly 59% of export earnings. Strong government support for the tobacco industry, including subsidies and tax breaks, has led to tobacco’s domination of Kenya’s export market. The tobacco industry was intended to accelerate economic growth and promote development in Kenya. Unfortunately, with the tremendous rise and structural shift of tobacco production into developing countries, and the fall of prices on the international market, this has not been the case. Instead, the countries remain stunted and the environmental resources of these nations are at risk.

This study looks at many of the economic and political conditions that have led Kenya to its dependence on tobacco. It then explores some of the economic, environmental and development implications of tobacco production. In so doing, the aim is to promote a better understanding of the nature of the problems of African agriculture. Ultimately, such an approach is best able to reveal the reasons for the poor economic performance of many African societies in the post-colonial era.

"Clearly, priorities have shifted in Kuria-agropastoralism. The hill- side once dense with forests and plenty of grazing cattle are now covered with a green-gold patchwork of tobacco fields.... The once mighty cow has lost all economic or social utility. But now it occupies a limited space, both physically and metaphorically in the Kuria culture. The dense Kuria forests has now been reduced to shrubs...."[2]

I. The Study Area

Kuria district comprises four divisions namely, Kehancha, Mabera, Ntimaru, and Kegonga. The district has a total area of 580 square kilometres and borders Tanzania to the south, Migori to the north and Transmara (Narok) district to the east. Topographically, the area has undulating hills with river valleys which run from the south towards the north interspersed with few stretches of flat areas. The district has an inland modified tropical type of climate.

The vegetation of the area has reduced to the secondary level (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources classification) the primary (indigenous) vegetation has been left along some parts of the riverines. The soil type range from the red volcanic soils to the south of the district (Ntimaro) loams to the to the black sandy west and east of the district (Kehancha and Mabera divisions). Initially, the district was traversed by numerous rivers and seasonal streams which flew towards the north direction into river Migori. However the major rivers now found in the District are Hibwa and Tebesi both of which are tributaries of Migori River.[3] The population of the district as by the 1999 census is 120,000.

II. The Problem

The World Health Organisation recently termed tobacco control as the quintessential challenge of sustainable development, since it carries implications for trade and taxation, agricultural subsidies, the environment, social policies, and health care expenditures, among other sectors. Blunting the epidemic therefore requires a better understanding of the process and the socio-ecological implications of tobacco production at the farm level.

Even so Kenya's forests are rapidly declining mainly due to pressure from commercial farming -According to a recent report, tobacco agriculture and other land uses constitutes a greater percentage in forest destruction in Kenya. The productive area which forms about 20% of the country's area falls in the medium and high potential agro-ecological zones and is under agriculture, forest and nature reserves. According to FAO Forest Resource Assessment 1990, Kenya is classified among the countries with low forest cover of less than 2% of the total land area.

The dwindling forest cover has a severe effect on the climate, wildlife, streams, human population especially forest dwellers as one of the recent report stated:

"...The slopes on the sides of the Kunati Valley, near Mount Kenya, are now completely bare... their former covering of trees has been cut down to be used as fuel for curing tobacco. Farmers in Kenya's [in this ] Valley have stopped growing maize-the country's most important staple food-and are now growing tobacco for a multinational company ...."[4]

On the other hand and as it is suggested on the report above, tobacco cash cropping and its side effects has caused deterioration in the health and nutritional status of households in the district since the crop substitutes for and or displaces the food crop production and above all increased tobacco growing in these areas conflicts with the national objectives of self-sufficiency in food production as enunciated in Sessional Paper No. 4 of 1981 on National Food Policy, Republic of Kenya, 1981.

In 1963 after the Kenyan independence, Kuria district was classified as a high potential area by the ministry of Agriculture.[5] And by the year 1964 the District had formed a powerful marketing board that sold an annual average of 300,000 bags of Maize[6] from a handful of small-scale farmers compared to 1995 when the production were 20,000 bags of maize. Cattle Sold to the Kenya Meat Commission during the 1960s constituted 90% of total sales from Nyanza Province.[7]

Forest resources in the District were mainly natural forests with about 5 government owned or gazette areas. With gradual intensification of agriculture indigenous trees were to a large extent replaced by exotics. The SRDP (Special Rural Development Program) reached a conclusion that the Kuria district had good soils and adequate rainfall but the area had been neglected compared to other potential areas in Kenya.

III. From Pastoralists to Contact Tobacco farmers

The history of tobacco production in Kenya can be traced back from the year 1935, when a native tobacco industry was been started by settlers in Nyanza province for making cigarettes. In 1954, due to the Swynnerton Plan of improved agriculture in Kenya and in 1956, a cigarette factory was constructed in Nairobi but until the late 1960s, there was little tobacco production in Kenya. As a result of deteriorating political situation in within the East Africa Community gave impetus to in the expansion of tobacco production in Kenya especially in the late sixties.

Tobacco production was organised by BAT on the concept of contract farming- a system whereby schemes or companies use small holders farmers to produce cash crops. BAT became the third British company to use the contract system in Western Kenya following initiatives in Tea and Sugar.[8] The BAT company, considered Kuria District a best alternative area for tobacco growing after failed initiatives to grow tobacco in Oyugis, Rangwe and Kisii.[9] These areas were not suitable for tobacco cultivation and tobacco crop could suffer severe hail risk.[10]

By 1975, at least one out of three homesteads in the district were growing tobacco. Soon, Kuria became the second largest tobacco producer in Kenya.[11] Tobacco farming in general required substantial amount of wood for a variety of purposes: Firewood for curing, others used for constructing curing bans, poles and sticks for the preparation of tobacco prior to curing. It is estimated that by this time in one crop year at least 60 indigenous trees were cut to facilitate the expansion and curing of the crop. That meant that at least 3000 farmers then active in Bukuria were cutting down over 180000 indigenous trees per year so that by the year 1975, over 300000 indigenous trees in Bukuria had been destroyed.[12]

During his visit to the area in October 1975, Aggrey Luseno the marketing Director of the BAT company in Kenya projected that through a thorough campaign, the company would work to achieve self-sufficiency in tobacco production by the year 1985.[13] He therefore, launched a campaign to promote the growing to the crop in the district. According to informants in the district, farmers were given incentives like free ploughing, inputs wheel-borrows. Similarly, a few eucalyptus seedlings were distributed to farmers to meet the growing demand for firewood. Nevertheless, the local B.A.T officials were continued to encourage the use of indigenous trees for the purposes of curing tobacco on the understanding that:

The smoke from these trees determines the aroma of the final cured leaf and it is therefore, essential that certain varieties of sources of fuel such as eucalyptus, cypress, pine, etc [exotic trees] which give unwanted smell must never be used, recommended sources of fuel are therefore, green leafs, and local African fig trees..[14]

as a result of the campaign, tobacco reached its highest peak of production in 1982, it was reported that "Kuria has a tobacco boom"[15] the mean cash income rose in the ten-year period, from 7,059 to 57,599.6 Kenya shillings.[16] Kjerland wrote:

..the Abakuria in Kenya are successfully growing tobacco for the BAT and they were are earning good money... people are forced to invest in object other than stock the iron sheeting was one sign,..numerous local shops and bars others Those who had extra money to spare invested in posho mills, high breed cattle and in canopied pick-up trucks-matatu"".[17]

while Suzzette observed that "indeed, the Bukuria appeared to be undergoing economic boom"[18] Kuria farmers like those of the Philippines in the late eighteenth Century were like gold miners, always hoping to strike it rich.[19] tobacco also had brought about a number of positive changes to Bukuria. For one, it produced a rich class of people who bought cars and lorries; others installed grain grinding machines and bought grade cattle. These individuals included Gesabo Mwita, Maisori Itumbo, Mwita Nyagakende and Maroa Wantera to mention a few.

According to the agricultural reports intensive tobacco farming was now a norm, but fallowing practices were abandoned and farms exposed to greater dangers of soil depletion due to over-cultivation.[20] In June 1987, the district suffered food crisis when Kuria District was faced with a serious famine that shattered peoples hopes for a quick recovery. The tragedy proceeded by virulent crop diseases. This was followed by a terrible outbreak of cholera (ikinyamanche) believed to have spread from the neighboring Migori district this swept through the district between 1987-1989.

Livestock population was reducing drastically and more Kuria farmers becoming tobacco contract producers for the BAT Company. " While Friedsberg commented that:

"Clearly, priorities have shifted in Kuria-agropastoralism. The hillside once dense with grazing cattle are now covered with a green-gold patchwork of [tobacco ].... fields.... the cows are relatively few...the once mighty cow has lost all economic or social utility ...a colonial administrator might gaze upon such a scene with pleasure, but he could not fairly take a credit for its creation..".[21]

Tobacco contract farming undoubtedly gave an impetus to this development, as the Kuria were now impelled to produce in order to fulfil their increased consumption needs.

IV. Tobacco and the Forest Change in Kuria District

Tobacco is well know to be destructive, not only to the soil, but also to the forest resources indeed, Geist contends that Tobacco production can indeed be a "driving force of environmental change, he writes that the crop generates good income and it he concludes that tobacco poses a particularly difficult dilemma for development since its production generates both a range of employment, income, foreign exchange and other cash contributing effects, while the damage to the environment in the long term appears to outweigh the benefits.

According to Geist, as a key feature of, it emerges that in the course of the 20th century African tobacco continental production has shifted from Northern Africa to countries in the central, eastern and predominantly southern part of the continent where the bulk of recent output originates. He writes:

"As a matter of fact - and taken here as a preliminary indicator of tobacco's environmental impact, from national data on recent tobacco expansion and deforestation it emerges that deforestation in tobacco growing and miombo covered countries by far exceeds that in non-tobacco producing countries of the same dry forest or woodland ecozone"[22]

In a study that was carried out in Kenya on the use of wood in tobacco industry, Fraser noted that "the area of all types of forests in Kenya is now below the level at which it is capable of meeting the current and future fuelwood demand on a sustainable basis"[23] This meant of course that accelerating deforestation can be expected, with potentially serious ecological consequences.

In March 1982, Bazinger reported that "Tobacco production was responsible for the depletion of Forest in Meru District.[24] He wrote:

"Farmers in Kenya's Kunati Valley have stopped growing maize-the country's most important staple food-and are now growing tobacco for a multinational company...The slopes on the sides of the Kunati Valley, ner Mount Kenya, are now 'completely bare. Their former covering of trees has been cut down to be used as fuel for curing tobacco"

"With most of the fertile ground given over to tobacco, some farmers have tried to grow maize on the formerly forested hillsides. But heavy rains wash away soil, plants, and all. The topsoil has eroded in some places, and rocks and boulders are already washing down toward the fertile fields below, the report says.

Tobacco growing certainly brings the farmers more profits than maize has done, so that what is happening in the Kunati Valley is being repeated in a thousand other places in all of Kenya. Exports are being promoted at the expense of local consumption. In the long run the ecological basis of all production is being permanently destroyed.[25]

Likewise, the burden of external debt has put immense pressure on African countries to maximize export production of remunerative cash crops such as tobacco at the expense of soil fertility, forest and water resources. Destruction of forests has therefore, become a nationwide problem in Kenya, in recent years, the consequences of depletion of Kenya's forest resources has ranged from an increased risk of drought to damage to the economy. Close canopy forests that have had crucial role to play as water catchments and much of this has been destroyed on Mount Kenya which happens to have three-quarters of the indigenous forests in Kenya. The consequences have been water shortages and inadequate electricity supply in areas surrounding Nairobi.[26]

The competing interests of tobacco agriculture, forest products and area utilization for a growing population on one side, and conservation of catchment on the other have resulted in a complex management issues, that are difficult to resolve. Indeed changing environments in Kuria district seems to be rooted in changing modes of production-from unexploited agro-pastoalism to intensive tobacco agriculture.

Owing to paucity of information and sources, it is difficult to reconstruct the environmental change in the district or even detail the physical environment of Kuria District prelude to the introduction of tobacco cultivation.[27] However, this study will be based partly from the perceptions of Kuria farmers on the changing soil quality and vegetation and partly from comments on government publications in the district concerning tobacco and the environment.

Joy Adamson for example, while visiting Kuria in the late 1950s wrote that " in untouched countryside, they (Kuria) are the most picturesque I have ever come across...and certainly the least affected by civilisation."[28] Writing in 1970, William Ochieng described Kuria a "beautiful land with rolling hills" The first Kuria member of Parliament, Samson Mwita Maroa when asked in parliament for the house to vote for the establishment of the Farmers Training centre in Kuria, the Assistant minister for agriculture, Maina Wanjigi rebuked him saying: "how can we put such an institution in a remote area such as like Kuria? just in the bush".[29] Indeed such evidence would perhaps seem to suggest primitive precolonial realities, but Kuria maintained a resilience and sound ecological footing until the intensification of tobacco farming started in the area. Although isolated in many respects, rural Kuria society was far from placid and stagnant.

After the introduction of tobacco, criticism of land usage in the district became a routine part of the official records.[30] Protection of thinning forests and destruction of catchment areas became a growing concern of agricultural staff. When population increased, and tobacco agriculture expanded, the landscape gradually became domesticated. From these reports it is clear that forests areas of Kurutiange and Maeta were quickly and gradually invaded by prospective farmer. From the areas such as Naora and Ikerege, which had been used exclusively for cattle, were being penetrated by tobacco farmers. Oral interviews show that some cattle owners in these areas began to sell off their lands to tobacco cultivators and as land got scarce, they continued to migrate into Musoma, Mugumu and Serengeti areas in Tanzania where they continued with their pastoral life.

The afforestation specified that BAT must ensure that each tobacco farmer in tobacco growing areas had to spare a certain percentage of land for the production of food crops. However, the BAT company sorted to be exonerated from this blame, the company therefore, funded a research that went into establishing the impact tobacco farming had on food production, the findings were summarized as follows:

Taking per hectare gross margins as indication of profitability, tobacco is the most profitable among the enterprises examined in Migori (Kuria included), tobacco enterprise complements food production such that an increase in tobacco production would increase food production. That tobacco production increases afforestation process..etc[31]

However, there were many cases of disastrous soil erosion. In due cause, permanent rivers such as Nyangoto and Kwigancha which had been main catchment areas in the district for both human and livestock became intermittent. In other places, the streams, when they continued to flow, became silt laden.

It was not until 1983 that BAT established an afforestation programme based on eucalyptus species so that by 1995 a tree audit report released by Moi University in Eldoret, the company's afforestation programme had over 40 million surviving trees planted by its contracted farmers and public institutions near leaf growing areas and indeed, a casual visitor to Kuria District could not help to recognize the preponderance of blue gum tree species in the region. An incongruous symmetry had evolved as farms had now been demarcated with hedges.

The natural forests (imiyuuyi) of Kurutiange, Ikerege, Kebarooti areas for example had been cleared off and replaced by numerous tobacco farms. Natural regrowth of the natural forest in these area according to the forestry department, is about 75 years. Although the exploitation of indigenous forest was banned by the president in 1984, a report indicates that the use of these products have reached an epidemic proportion. Much favoured camphor Octea usambarensis is almost wiped out, equally, a number of indigenous species like Fagara macrophylla, Olea capensis, Poloscias kikuyensis etc have been extensively used for construction of curing bans in the district.

As mentioned early on, the aroma of the final cured tobacco especially of the flue-cured tobacco depended on the nature of tree used in curing, for this reason, the BAT staff continued to encourage farmers to use other sources than eucalyptus to so that what was happening in the district was a transformation from indigenous vegetation into an exotic eucalyptus one. Very rare species such as markahamia, platylx grevillea robusta and fig trees were often preferred for curing purposes. A survey report indicates that by 1985, the proportion of fuel-wood for fire-curing derived from the indigenous woods amounted to 93 per cent. Another report, indicates that by 1996, the gazette forest in the district had reduced to only 44.3 hectares and the rest of the forest estates falling under the Kehancha Town Council had been depleted and replaced with eucalyptus species.[32]

In 1995, the soil and water conservation was stated by the Swedish government through SIDA the overall objective of the project was to ensure increased and "sustainable farm productivity with minimum soil loss and damage to the environment" underlying the formation of the project was that the some parts of the district were seriously experiencing erosion in tobacco farms. Along with this the focus was on the afforestation targeted places along the rivers, on farmlands and hilltops. A report from the ministry stated that:

"People of Nyangogo (west of Kuria District) have been spared the major destruction as they have not ventured fully into tobacco farming."[33]

According to wood report in 1996, one tobacco farmer was using 28 tonnes of tree per hectare, 6500 farmers were therefore using 184 tonnes per year and in five years the projection was that they would use 944,000 of wood by the year 2001 and in 1997, When Kuria district released its first District development Plan for the years 1997-2001 it stated inter alia that:

"although the climate of the district favours the growth of natural forests, to a large extent, these have been virtually depleted through exploitation of the tobacco industry...there is a need for a new forestry legislation in the area.[34]

The above sources are just a few evidence that proves that there has indeed been a change of environment in Kuria district,following the establishment of tobacco. The District at present still produces 80% of total tobacco export from Kenya and the government puts pressure on the district to maximise production of the crop. The matter becomes complex when the British-American Tobacco contribution to the government revenue over a period of ten years i.e 1986-1996 amounted to 5.6 billion Kenyan shillings making it an equivalent of 5% of the total government revenue for that year therefore, placing the company among the highest revenue generators in the country. Equally the company earned $92 million in foreign exchange between 1986 and 1996 through leaf exports.

According to oral interviews conducted between March and June 1998 year in four Locations in the district, seems to tally with the official government records I have sited above so far, for instance, most respondents held that a great deal of changes has taken place in their localities, in comparing with the years after independence and after the introduction of tobacco, their description of environmental change is dominated by answers depicting decline in forest resources, their descriptions of past environment included the use of words such as imiyuuyi and ibikongo, irisissi words that describe different types of forest and, most comments emphasize how income has reduced the tobacco dominant role of livestock.

[1] Department of History, Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya. Email:
[2] S Friedberg, "Changing Values in Kuria Agropastoralism", mimeo, Yale University, 1987, p. 18
[3] Kuria District Development Plan, 1997-2001,(Nairobi, 1997), p. 5
[4] Tobacco Depletes Food-Crop Land," 28 Smoke Signals (3) 7 (1982).
[5] Government of Kenya Deparment of Agriculture, Annual Report, 1964
[6] KNA/DC/HB/2/5, Nyanza Provincial Marketing Board Report, 1964-1969
[7] The Kenya Farmer, 1969, p. 16
[8] Mogens Buch-Hansen and Henrik Secher, "Contract Farming and the Peasantry: Cases from Western Kenya" in Review of African Political Economy, No. 23, 1982, p. 19
[9] Suzzette Heald, A Short Report on Parterns of Small Investment in Small-holder Agriculture, A Kenya Case Study, mimeo, 1987
[10] KNA/BV/7/7, Tobacco Production in Kenya, 1940-1969
[11] KNA/DC/HB/2/2/22, Kehancha Division Monthly Report, 1976
[12] Chacha, Babere Kerata, "Agricultural History of the Abakuria of Kenya From the End of the Nineteenth Century to the Mid 1970s," MA Thesis Egerton University, 1999, p. 183
[13] Daily Nation Newspaper, October, 1975
[14] Ministry of Economic Planning, Economic Review of Agriculture Vol.2 No. 2, 1977. See also, British American Tobacco Kenya Annual Report, 1977.
[15] The Daily Nation Newspaper, September, 1982
[16] Suzette Heald, "Agricultural Intensification and the Decline of Pastoralism: A Case Study From Kenya," in Africa Vol 69, No. 2, 1999, p. 215
[17] Kirsten Alsaker Kjerland, The Belated Incorporation of the Abakuria into Modern Kenya, PhD Dissertation, University of Bergen, 1995. p. 289
[18] Suzette Heald, "Agricultural Intensification and the Decline of Pastoralism: A Case Study From Kenya," in Africa Vol 69, No. 2, 1999. p. 155
[19] The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines: Bureaucratic Enterprise and Social Change, 1756-1880, p. 87
[20] Ministry of Agriculture, Kehancha Division Monthly Reports, 1984
[21] S.Friedsberg, "Changing values," p. 18
[22] Ibid, 13
[23] A.I Fraser, The Use of Wood in Tobacco Industry in Kenya, 1987, p.7
[24] Bazinger, "Tobacco Depletes Food-Crop Land," 28 Smoke Signals (3) 7 (March 1982).
[25] H.Geist, p. 20
[26] See for example the IRIN Nairobi Report, 2 November, 2000,
[27] According to the Kenya National Archives Staff, aerial photograph was taken in an area covering Kuria District in 1945 by the East African Royal Airforce, the photograph is no longer in the Archives in Nairobi.
[28] Joy Adamson, The Peoples of Kenya, 1960
[29] An interview with Samson Mwita Maroa
[30] See for example, Ministry of Agriculture Monthly Reports for Kenhancha Division, 1979-1988, Ministry of Natural Resources Annual Reports, and Provincial Tree Audit Annual Report for the same period
[31] L.A Oyugi, A.W Mukhebi, W.M Mwangi, "The Impact of Cash Croping of Food Production: A Case Study of Tobacco and Maize in Migori District of Kenya" in Eastern Africa Economic Vol. 3 No. 1, 1997 p. 43
[32] Ministry of Lands and Settlement Kehancha Division Land Survey.
[33] Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development and Marketing, Kuria District, Annual Work Programme, 1995, p. 45
[34] Kuria District Development Plan, 1997-200.