Bulgaria tobacco growers hope for EU cash

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Ablanitsa, Bulgaria

Image caption, Ablanitsa, Bulgaria: Tobacco production is tough work but some communities rely on it in Europe

Tobacco farmers in the European Union might seem to be an anomaly, when across the continent draconian anti-smoking laws are in vogue.

But many Europeans still rely on the crop for an income, and hope proposals to restore EU subsidies will help save their jobs.

In Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member state, many feel they have an especially raw deal.

The tobacco farmers of Ablanitsa near the Bulgarian-Greek border have the blessing of a small lake. And they need every drop of water.

While many Bulgarians were voting in a parliamentary election, whole families covered the red-brown hillsides here - bending, kneeling, hoeing and above all planting tender tobacco seedlings in the heavy stony soil. These were grown from seed in their own gardens, then carried here in hessian bags.

Watered through hosepipes stretching to the lake, the first leaves will be picked in six weeks' time, the last in September.

Image caption, Gyulfie wants her granddaughters to escape toil in the fields

Every field and hillside has neat lines of the harmless-looking plants, grown without pesticides or other chemicals.

"Nothing has changed in the way we grow tobacco, since I was a child," 84-year-old Gyulfie told me, hardly pausing from her work.

"We have to work flat out," she explained, "to keep the girls at university".

Her two granddaughters are studying sociology and business administration in Sofia, three hours' drive to the north. The villagers want to give the girls the chance they never had - to escape from the back-breaking work in the fields, to have soft hands and pale faces, not burnished by the sun.

Parched fields

From June to August, the temperature here rarely dips below 35C. The lake dries up completely, like the streams which run now through the deep, wooded valleys. A white horse lumbers across the field nearby, pulling a plough. A donkey passes, pulling the wreck of an old red car, upside-down on its cart. The sky rumbles, promising precious rain.

EU subsidies have been used for years to raise living standards in Europe's rural backwaters.

But Ivan Sabahlakov, co-ordinator of tobacco farmers in south-west Bulgaria, says cash alone will not solve their problems.

"We need technical equipment, and we need chemicals - Greek farmers have triple the yield that we have," he says.

Bulgaria has 200,000 tobacco farmers in a population of 7.3 million. The crop is sold for three euros (£2.5; $3.8) per kilo to companies appointed by the state. Buried in the purchase price is a one-euro subsidy from the government.

Farmers here grumble that Greek tobacco farmers just across the border get a four-euro subsidy per kilo from the European Union, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). "We want to get the same - we're in the same union, after all," Mr Sabahlakov. "Our overheads are 800 euros. We would need a purchase price of at least five euros a kilo."

Under a 2003 agreement on reforming EU farm subsidies, Greek tobacco growers will continue to receive a subsidy until the end of this year. This is true only for farmers who registered before 2002, and amounts to half the original subsidy. Tobacco farmers in Greece consider that arrangement unfair - and many have gone out of business or switched to other crops.

But Bulgaria did not join the EU until 2007, so its growers did not qualify for any EU subsidy.

Tussle over jobs and health

In 2010 the EU decided to end direct subsidies for tobacco production - "decoupling", in the EU jargon. The European Commission says it does not want to see those subsidies reintroduced - but in March the European Parliament voted to do just that, in a package of CAP reform proposals.

Image caption, Cigarettes made in Ablanitsa - the growers cannot compete with big producers

Crisis-hit Greece and some other struggling EU countries are lobbying to prevent the CAP reform and new anti-smoking directive leading to further job losses in the tobacco sector.

The anti-smoking directive - aimed especially at discouraging young smokers - would include bigger health warnings on packs and a ban on strong flavourings which disguise the bitter tobacco taste.

It is a revision of the 2001 Tobacco Products Directive - and the focus of intensive lobbying in Brussels by industry groups and health campaigners.

In the village square in Ablanitsa, sitting with his friends near the mosque, Ibrahim opens a tin to show me the cigarettes he made himself from his own tobacco.

"Why buy them, when a packet of 20 in the shops costs the same as a kilo of my own?"

The walls of the bus station are plastered with the posters of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the mostly Turkish party usually favoured by tobacco farmers. But there are murmurings against the party in the village.

The party has taken part in most coalition governments in the past 16 years, and won seats in parliament again in the 12 May election. But some farmers say the MRF has done too little to stand up for their interests in Brussels.

Big earner

Image caption, Villagers worry about EU pressure on Bulgaria to stop growing tobacco

The tobacco debate in the EU has triggered concern here.

"We know they want us to stop growing tobacco," says Severin Bektashev, in another field nearby, "but our politicians, and the people in Brussels must realise that nothing else grows in this soil… only tobacco plants survive the summer heat".

"Let the bureaucrats come here and see for themselves," he adds. Bulgarian farmers are angry with their own politicians for not winning a better EU accession agreement.

Severin is 34, with a university degree in economics, a wife and two children. He works with his parents planting tobacco seedlings. The family grow 1.5 tonnes of tobacco in a good year. That earns them a grand total of 5,000 euros.

"Bulgarian politicians would be crazy to let the EU stop production of tobacco in Bulgaria, because at this moment it contributes 1bn euros a year to the state coffers - that's about 10% of the state budget," said the mayor of Ablanitsa, Adem Arnaudov.

But the European Commission says it has "no plans to support, encourage or facilitate the growth of tobacco production".

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