Blantyre (Malawi) (AFP)

The blow is all the harder it was unexpected. By freezing Malawi's tobacco imports for strong suspicions of child labor, the United States has endangered the main source of income for this East African country.

The news fell without warning, through a statement from US Customs.

As of November 1, they announced, products containing tobacco from Malawi "will be retained at all points of entry" of the country. The reason ? "Information (...) suggests that Malawi's tobacco is produced through forced labor, including children."

Among Malawian farmers already weakened by the global decline in demand caused by anti-smoking campaigns, the US decision has had the effect of a cold shower.

"We are disconcerted, stunned," says one of them, Alick Yagontha, who has been growing tobacco for twenty years in Rumphi (north). "We understand that we will not be able to sell our leaves, it is written, there is no future for tobacco in Malawi."

According to the Malawi Investment and Trade Center (MITC), tobacco is by far (53%) the main source of foreign exchange for one of the world's poorest countries and contributes 25% of its tax revenue.

The sale of raw Burley variety leaves, which the country produces 6.6% of the world's volume, brought in $ 232 million in 2017, according to the Central Bank.

The US freeze targets only a portion - $ 29 million, depending on the industry - but in terms of image, its consequences are disastrous.

US sanctions fell in the wake of the launch of a forced labor procedure against the world's No. 1 cigarette maker, British American Tobacco (BAT), on behalf of 2,000 farmers in Malawi, including hundreds of children.

- 'Accountable' -

In a letter addressed to BAT in advance of his complaint, the London law firm Leigh Day accused him of "unjust enrichment" thanks to the work of farmers "very poorly paid" and "who have no choice but to to make their children work ".

"It is high time that multinationals who make money on the back of exploited employees are accountable," said one of the lawyers, Oliver Holland.

"We do not endorse or resort to child labor," a spokesman for tobacco company Simon Cleverly told AFP. "The well-being, health and safety of children are always for us. 'capital importance'.

BAT minimizes the importance of Malawian tobacco in its activities: it buys less than 2% of Malawian production (160 million kilos per year) and the country provides "less than 1%" of its annual tobacco.

And, says his spokesperson, the group "does not buy directly from producers in Malawi" but from wholesalers "obliged to respect (his) code of good conduct."

Also in the hot seat, the Malawi Tobacco Association (TAMA), which brings together 50,000 producers, believes the US accusations are unfair. "Malawi has done a lot against child labor," says his boss, Felix Thole.

Despite these efforts, the use of minor labor remains fairly widespread.

A survey published in 2017 by the National Statistics Office revealed that more than one third (38%) of the country's children aged 5 to 17 were forced to work.

Especially in tobacco. "Sometimes our members think they do well without knowing that their practices are child labor," says Betty Chinyamunyamu, director of the Small Growers Association (NSFAM).

- 'Always losing' -

"So we make them aware of the difference between a little job and the real work," she says.

Agriculture Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa says progress has been made.

"80% of Malawi's tobacco is produced under the guise of an Integrated Production System (IPS) free from forced labor or child labor," he says, "the government is committed to protecting the sector. , if necessary by changing its policy ".

"There is no ban (...) (the Americans) are putting pressure to respect the rules," says the minister, who ensures that negotiations have been opened with Washington to try to lighten the embargo.

Meanwhile, the impact of the American freeze remains difficult to assess.

"We are now told that this is a restriction, not a ban," notes the president of the Malawi Economic Association, Chiku Kalilombe. "In that case, what will be the share of our tobacco affected?", He worries.

In his plantation of Mzimba (north), Athan Chipundwe already knows that he will lose feathers there.

"The companies that buy us sheets (...) will lower prices on the pretext that the US market is closed," he sighs, "the farmer is still the loser".

A little further south, James Gunde employs about 100 pickers in his 12-hectare Kasungu plantation. He also fears the worst for the little ones. "The impact on them will be considerable," he anticipates.

str-pa / jlb

© 2019 AFP