The hazards of industrial development have been polluting and sickening African societies for generations, but one of the most toxic commodities isn’t found in the oil fields or mines often associated with pollution. The continent’s new “resource curse” can be found in the golden fields of its lushest cash crop: tobacco. Disturbing patterns of child exploitation pervade the tobacco fields, leaving rural youth poisoned for life while tobacco brands fuel the world’s deadliest habit, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) research.

Though smoking rates are declining across the West, tobacco retail markets are booming in the Global South, and Asia and Africa are driving tobacco farming as a premier high-value commodity. Through field research during 2017, HRW investigators discovered that children of 12 to 17 years old were regularly employed during the harvesting and processing seasons in Zimbabwe, and workers of all ages were “pushed to work excessive hours without overtime compensation, denied their wages, and forced to go weeks or months without pay.” Youth in the fields are particularly vulnerable, because tobacco picking is not officially regulated as dangerous work for children in the country, despite the clear health and social threats linked to child farm labor.

Though multinational corporations bear special responsibility for labor violations, which hit both wage laborers and smallholder farmers, “the government and tobacco companies are failing to ensure that workers have sufficient information, training, and equipment to protect themselves.” Unlike countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, which have made strides in eradicating child labor, such exploitation remains an open secret in Zimbabwe, thanks to corruption and incompetent regulation.

The ouster of Robert Mugabe last November appeared to open opportunities for democratic reform after decades of dictatorship. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a more business-friendly strongman, has vowed to overhaul agricultural policy by returning control to local people. Human-rights activists warn that child labor must be immediately outlawed as a basic step toward restoring the economy while redressing abuses throughout the agricultural system.

HRW researcher Margaret Wurth tells The Nation that “if authorities want tobacco to be central to the economy, to be a pillar of the country’s economic recovery, they need to make sure that the workers and the small-scale farmers sustaining the industry are protected.”

The effects of nicotine poisoning include coughing, skin and eye damage, chronic neurological disorders, and reproductive-health impacts. Children are disproportionately harmed when exposed during sensitive developmental stages. Additional toxicity comes from agricultural-pesticide exposure, associated with cancer and long-term neurological damage. Children are also at high risk for asthma and allergies due to the dust churned up during the harvesting, processing, and transportation of crops. The workers interviewed, who had little effective union representation or contact with regulators, seemed mostly unaware of the hazards of their jobs. One farmer remarked, “You fall sick, but you don’t know what it is.” Proper protective gear was reportedly rarely used.

A 15-year-old described the pesticide-spraying process and how workers were sent to extract worms by hand from the fields: “They spray first, and then the worms come out, and then we go [into the field] and get them. Every time they spray, people go home sick [after work].” 

While workers were kept ignorant of the occupational hazards, corporate leaders from tobacco giants like Philip Morris and Imperial seemed to display a willful ignorance of issues of human-rights violations in their supply chains. Many companies questioned by HRW reported that they had not received any major complaints of child labor, generally refused to disclose details regarding supply-chain monitoring, and restated boilerplate points on their brands’ “ethical” sourcing.

Though rural children have traditionally aided with a household’s farm labor in Zimbabwe, the current system isn’t tradition but a response to a lack of alternatives; parents simply can’t afford the cost of schooling, and children out of school are simply absorbed into the workforce. A recent UN report cited a “high proportion of children who were turned away from school due to non-payment of school fees.”

Even farm children technically enrolled in school suffer chronic absenteeism, as the harvesting duties sometimes force them to miss weeks at a time during the semester. One middle-school teacher reported that farms impose quotas on child harvesters, so during the heaviest work periods, “they will be busy, working very hard, and even overnight…. Even if they are there…they are sleeping, they miss out a lot too.”

The impoverishment of farmers was further entrenched by pricing inequities in tobacco marketplaces, due to non-transparent trading practices that potentially leave smallholders severely underpaid for the crops sold to profiteering middlemen and funneled into global conglomerates.

Meanwhile, the global market trends driving Zimbabwe’s tobacco economy are accelerating faster than the rate of ongoing political reform. Across Africa, tobacco smoking is becoming widespread despite declining market demand in the rich world, thanks to a combination of youth culture, growing consumerism, and mass media. Demand is also expected to soar in countries neighboring Zimbabwe, like South Africa.

HRW urges multinationals doing business with Zimbabwean tobacco farms to institute strict policies prohibiting suppliers from using child labor in any work that involves contact with tobacco. Corporate codes of conduct must also ensure equitable and transparent pricing structures and stronger health and safety protections for all workers.

“In Zimbabwe everyone calls tobacco the ‘golden leaf,’ ” says Wurth, adding that “it’s seen as the potential solution to the country’s economic woes, and we want to make clear that’s coming at a cost.”

The cost is clearly not simply in agriculture. We know how both tobacco growing and smoking harm communities through destructive production processes and public-health harms, and Africa’s impending smoking epidemic will inevitably bring addiction and deadly disease.

Although Zimbabwe itself is not expected to see a major rise in smoking rates, its agricultural industry seeks to capitalize on the global market trend. For Zimbabwe’s rural communities, government ministers have a responsibility at least to prevent the poisoning of children in the tobacco fields who have never picked up a cigarette.

Upending the scourge of Big Tobacco’s exploitation requires collaboration across borders and industries, and holding multinationals to account for abuse at each point in their supply chain. Facing the opportunity and the perils of this poisonous yet profitable crop, governments must understand that development without worker protection is development at the expense of democracy.