Lombok’s Tobacco Road Is A Highway to Hell for Some, 11/12/11

Lombok’s tobacco farmers are having a tough time as they find it’s a lot more difficult to make money out of the process than they imagined. (JG Photo/Fitri) Lombok’s tobacco farmers are having a tough time as they find it’s a lot more difficult to make money out of the process than they imagined. (JG Photo/Fitri)

Lombok. Siti Fatimah sat in front of a burning stove as a kettle hissed. The water was poured into glasses filled with ground coffee and sugar and the scent of coffee filled the house in Lombok’s Surabaya village.

Her guests were quick to compliment her brew. “Lombok coffee is the best with cigarettes,” one of the guests remarked. Fatimah’s wide smile suddenly disappeared and she said softly, “Bitter. It’s bitter.”

She paused as though deciding whether to continue her story.

“Tobacco separated me from my loved ones. My husband left me and I am childless. I’ve lived alone for years mired in debt because of tobacco,” she said, counting the amount she had to repay with her ten fingers.

“My husband is no longer here. To me, he is only a name but his debts never go away. I don’t know where he is now. Maybe he ran away to Malaysia. All because of tobacco,” she said.

Ten years ago, Fatimah and her husband joined the tobacco bandwagon, expecting a windfall from the business. He borrowed money from everyone he knew to grow tobacco on their tiny half-hectare plot of land.

“Fifty million rupiah, collected from loans was a lot of money then,” she recalled.

“He was so convinced that we would make money and be able to pay off the debts once we harvested our tobacco. We never did,” Fatimah said.

Anti-smoking campaigns are increasingly popular these days because of health concerns. But even before the leaves were rolled into cigarettes, tobacco took its toll on Fatimah and many others in the village.

Papuq Aisyah is another villager with a similar story. One of her granddaughters left home to look for her husband who ran away to avoid debt collectors. Papuq was one of the guests at Fatimah’s house.

Papuq said the young couple also chose to plant tobacco. It was OK at first. “They did not make a lot of money [from tobacco] but were also not broke because of it. But later, they never had a proper harvest and they become too indebted to support their every day life.

“They sold everything, even their wedding rings,” Papuq said.

Fatimah and Papuq live surrounded by a sea of tobacco fields. Under the scorching sun, the smell of tobacco leaves is everywhere. In this tiny village alone there are at least 300 tobacco farms.

The Tobacco Belt

Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara is one of Indonesia’s three tobacco belts, the others being East and Central Java. The three provinces contribute 90 percent of total tobacco production in Indonesia or about 150,000 metric tons per year.

According to 2010 Basic Health Research (Riskesdas) data, 34.7 percent of Indonesians smoke, with the highest percentage in the 25-64 year old age group. In 2010, there were about 82 million active smokers in the country and about 220 billion cigarettes were produced, placing it third after China and India.

Despite somewhat stricter law enforcement on smoking in public places and the recent Tobacco Law, the number of smokers is not dropping. Health campaigners say smoking is increasing, especially among women and young people.

Even with tighter regulations, cigarettes remain a good business and the tobacco industry is still among the top advertisers in most Asian countries including Indonesia, where cigarettes seem to be everywhere. Tobacco tycoons are routinely listed as among the wealthiest people in the country and the aroma of kretek cigarettes is a defining feature of Indonesian life.

The Little Guys

While high-flying tobacco barons and tireless anti-tobacco campaigners often make news, left out of the spotlight are small-scale tobacco farmers like Fatimah and Papuq.

Munawar, another villager, had a similar story. He was saddled with loans and his tobacco farm earned him nothing. “Every time I see my neighbors bringing home a good harvest, I’m tempted to try because it seems so easy to earn money,” said Munawar, who once fled to Malaysia to escape a Rp 50 million ($5,550) debt. After paying off his loan, he started another failed tobacco farm.

In spite of Lombok’s status as a tobacco haven, many small farmers do not have the infrastructure to benefit from the trade. They lack drying ovens to treat their produce and many of them sell unharvested tobacco to middlemen at a low price.

Muhammad Rusli, an official in the West Nusa Tenggara provincial administration, confirmed the stories of farmers falling into heavy debt. He recalled one who burned himself to death inside the oven he used to dry tobacco leaves.

“It was in 2009,” Rusli said. “The farmer borrowed hundreds of million of rupiah. He tried and tried but never succeeded,” Rusli said.

For one hectare of land a farmer needs about Rp 50 million to harvest 10 tons of tobacco or about two tons of dried leaves. If good quality dried tobacco is sold at the current market rate of about Rp 35,000 per kilo, farmers can make about Rp 70 million per harvest. Deducting the crop loan, they can make Rp 20 million, but out of that must also come fertilizer, labor and fuel to operate their ovens.

Making the Grade

It all comes down to the grade of the leaves, say the farmers, and the middlemen who rate the crop and control the sale of the produce to the big companies. Prices can be slashed by 90 percent for Virginia leaves that are rated poorly.

“If we know the graders personally they can give us a better price,” farmer Munawar said.

Iskandar, an executive with tobacco giant Djarum, said his company does not allow unfair transactions or favoritism. “We educate the farmers so they are aware of the grades,” he said.

“But personal relationships cannot compromise a bad harvest with our standard,” Iskandar said.

Still, Lombok’s Virginia tobacco is billed as among the world’s best, and the years between 1990 and early 2002 are cited as the heyday of Lombok Virginia leaves.

With relatively little land planted with the crop, prices were high ­— which is one reason so many farmers rushed to get in on the trade.

Many were too little and too late. But lately, as tobacco production has dropped in Indonesia, Lombok’s Virginia has also been finding a growing export market Amaq Teme enjoyed the good days in Lombok.

“From tobacco I could send my children to school. I could meet their needs. Tobacco is our life,” Amaq said. “My happiest days are the planting season and the harvest season.”

Amaq is among tens of thousands of farmers who are smitten by the sweet success of Virginia leaf. Some failed and were drowned in debt but others made it, he says.

Amaq has managed his income, invested his money and saved for his children’s education. One of his sons, Subadio, graduated from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He returned home after graduation and chose to become a tobacco farmer himself, following in his father’s footsteps