Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:05 pm (KSA) 09:05 am (GMT)

Muslim farmers face tough times in Greece

A tobacco grower works on fields
A tobacco grower works on fields

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 for as long as there is work, it will be so."

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 onwards 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' 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 startup 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.

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