Farmers worry as EU funds go up in smoke

SKIADA – A world removed from the Greek city bars and coffee shops where customers crave his product, 63-year-old farmer Hussein Emin praised the virtues of tobacco as he sat on a broken chair outside his farm. «In my years, no child has left this village,» he said, looking around the small ethnic Turkish community of Skiada in northeastern Greece. «And, as long as there is work, it will be so,» he added. This remote corner of Thrace, one of the European Union’s poorest regions, is home to most of Greece’s 100,000-member Muslim minority which includes ethnic Turks but also the Pomaks, Muslims of Slavic origin. Life and tradition here have always been closely associated with the cultivation of tobacco. But in the wake of a European Union reform in 2006 that put a lid on tobacco subsidies, most of today’s growers are having to rethink their future. EU members – including Greece – in 2004 agreed to halve direct funding to tobacco farmers from 2010 onward and shift the rest of the money to another fund for rural development. Even high demand for the leaf at home, with Greeks counted among Europe’s heaviest smokers, has not helped. Tobacco production in the country has fallen by 80 percent since 2006 and the number of growers has shrunk from around 50,000 to 15,000, according to the International Union of Tobacco Planters (Unitab). Northern Greece is one of the few areas in the eastern Mediterranean basin favorable to the cultivation of basma, an Oriental variety of tobacco that is highly prized by manufacturers. And a century ago, even Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s paternal grandfather was a tobacco grower in Serres prefecture, further to the west. Back in Skiada and neighboring villages, the locals are facing a no-win situation as switching crops is not really an option for them. «Only wheat and tobacco grow in this area, and wheat does not bring enough money,» says 44-year-old farmer Hussein Sezoi. «I guess I could raise livestock but you need start-up cash for that and I don’t know where to find that kind of money,» he adds. Sezoi produces around 18,000 euros’ (28,000 dollars’) worth of tobacco yearly from a family plot of around two hectares, with his wife and two children helping to bring in the harvest. From that, he gets to keep 8,000-9,000 euros in profit. «It’s not much but we make do,» the farmer told AFP. Little help has come from the Greek state, which for the most part is content to leave the Turkish-origin minority to their own devices. Unionists warn that without an alternative crop strategy, the villages will empty as the inhabitants seek a better future elsewhere. «Farms in these areas are small, and the yield is just enough for people to make ends meet,» says Yiannis Tsiforos, general manager of the Greek Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives (PASEGES). Tobacco production in Greece has plummeted from 112,000 tons in 2004 to around 20,000 tons in 2007, according to PASEGES. The growers want the Greek government to call on Brussels to reconsider the subsidy reform, starting from the next European summit in June. But the EU’s top agriculture official sees little chance of that happening. «The tobacco reform in 2004 was supported by all tobacco-producing countries,» European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said last month after talks in Athens with Greek Agriculture Minister Alexandros Kontos. «As I see the political situation today, it will not be possible to get unanimity between the agriculture ministers to postpone (this),» she said. The tobacco farmers won a tactical victory in late May, when the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the continuation of full subsidies until 2013. «It may be just a respite but it’s a badly needed one,» says Damianos Maroufidis, a PASEGES unionist for the Thrace region. A former tobacco grower himself, Maroufidis switched to wheat and livestock fodder a long time ago. But he admits that he was growing Virginia tobacco, which yields a lower-quality leaf in Greece. When it comes to the highly sought-after basma leaf, there is hope as long as prices remain competitive, says Unitab spokesman Francois Vedel. »The tobacco industries are prepared to make an effort, but not to the point of going without state subsidies,» he said.