By Sophie Makris and Diana Simeonova
KIRKOVO,Bulgaria—When seven-year-old Fatmagul Ali picked her first tobacco leaves in 1967, growing the crop seemed like a license 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 shriveled 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 tons 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, large-scale 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 now—with 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.
There’s also a political dimension to the issue.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms party that controls Kirkovo and its Muslim population has resisted government plans to convince people to turn to other crops.
“Growers are politically highly dependent on the MRF. Anything tobacco-related has to go through them,” said Valkanov.
Either way, observers say the shallow and infertile fields of the Rhodope mountains are suited to little else other than tobacco, leaving growers hinged on a dying trade.