Bul­garia’s tobacco in­dus­try going up in smoke

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

When seven-year-old Fat­magul Ali picked her first tobacco leaves in 1967, grow­ing the crop seemed like a li­cence to print money. At the time, com­mu­nist Bul­garia was one of the world’s largest cig­a­rette ex­porters and key sup­plier to the en­tire Soviet bloc.

Five decades later, Fat­magul and her hus­band Fahim are still hard at work in their small field in the southern Rhodope moun­tains, close to the Greek bor­der.

The cou­ple are al­ready bent low over the plants well be­fore dawn, their hands tarred from pluck­ing the sticky leaves in the glow of their head torches. Row after row, they will spend hours re­peat­ing the same ges­ture be­fore re­turn­ing to their nearby vil­lage of Kar­chovkso, in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity Kirkovo re­gion, to hang the leaves to dry.

And yet these ef­forts will barely yield enough for sur­vival. “When you take into ac­count the ex­penses, we’ll make only a cou­ple of eu­ros to­day,” Fahim, 57, shrugged.

The fall of com­mu­nism led to the dis­band­ing of co­op­er­a­tive farms and a de­cline in tobacco pro­duc­tion, slowly smok­ing out what was once Bul­garia’s most valu­able as­set. With a kilo of dried tobacco leaves cost­ing around 2.50 eu­ros ($2.95), the Alis will make only about 2,300 eu­ros gross this year. They’ve taken up se­cond jobs to make ends meet. “We’re think­ing about aban­don­ing tobacco, there’s no point to it any­more,” Fahim said. Al­though the Kirkovo re­gion still boasts the Euro­pean Union’s largest num­ber of tobacco grow­ers per capita, the out­put is a far cry from the days when Bul­garia’s so-called “golden leaf” was an in­ter­na­tional mark of qual­ity.

Days of glory

Tobacco was first in­tro­duced in Bul­garia un­der Ot­toman rule, with pro­duc­tion surg­ing by the 19th cen­tury. “It was a real cur­rency, al­low­ing Bul­garia to take out in­ter­na­tional bank loans,” Sofia-based econ­o­mist Niko­lay Valka­nov told AFP. Of the four grown va­ri­eties, the ori­en­tal type was by far the most val­ued thanks to its highly aro­matic fla­vor. De­mand ex­ploded dur­ing and after both World Wars as an in­creas­ing num­ber of sol­diers and fe­male fac­tory work­ers took up smok­ing.

Un­der Soviet rule, Bul­garia be­came Europe’s lead­ing tobacco pro­ducer and, at its peak, ex­ported some 100,000 tons in the 1970s and 1980s. To­day this has shriv­elled to 16,250 tons, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data. And while Bul­garia is still in the EU’s top five grow­ers, it can­not com­pete with the num­ber one pro­ducer Italy, which churns out close to 55,000 tonnes of dried tobacco leaves per year.

“The drop has been dras­tic”, said Tsve­tan Filev, chair­man of Bul­garia’s Na­tional Tobacco Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “We haven’t been able to re­build a com­pet­i­tive sys­tem after the dis­man­tling of the planned econ­omy,” he told AFP.

With the col­lapse of com­mu­nism, largescale ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems stopped work­ing while skilled la­bor dropped in ru­ral ar­eas as peo­ple mi­grated to cities and abroad. The resti­tu­tion of ex­pro­pri­ated lands saw the huge tobacco fields bro­ken up into nu­mer­ous small parcels and handed back to the orig­i­nal own­ers.

EU data from 2014 showed that Italy only had tenth of Bul­garia’s 23,700 tobacco grow­ers, but pro­duced five times as much. “The way that the Bul­gar­ian sec­tor is or­ga­nized nowwith nu­mer­ous tiny farms, low yields, in­suf­fi­cient know-how, low ed­u­ca­tion-leaves it with­out a fu­ture,” said Valka­nov. There’s added pres­sure from neigh­bor­ing Turkey, Greece and Mace­do­nia which have boosted their pro­duc­tion and are threat­en­ing to push Bul­garia out of the mar­ket. Many Bul­gar­i­ans now head across the bor­der to pick leaves in Greece to earn a de­cent wage. “Once upon a time there were tobacco fields ev­ery­where and look at what’s left now,” lamented Hasans­abri Mehmed, the re­gional chief of the na­tional grow­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion, point­ing to the vast bushy planes around him. —AFP

An old lady picks tobacco leaves in a field near Sofia.

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