It has been 400 years since John Rolfe cultivated the first successful tobacco crop in Virginia.
The crop quickly became the colony’s largest export, laying the foundation for what would later become the United States of America.
“Thanks to tobacco, the colonies became financially independent and this was the beginning of America’s story,” said Rocco Rorandelli, an Italian photographer who has been working on a long-term photo essay on the tobacco industry.
As part of his project, Rorandelli traveled this year to Jamestown, the historic Virginia settlement where Rolfe planted the first crop, and to several tobacco farms in North Carolina.
“I wanted to go back to the same places, to Virginia and to North Carolina, to see what is the state of the industry today,” he said. “What remains of that historical iconic connection with the past? What is the present? And what could also become the future of the industry?”
The United States is no longer the world’s leading producer of tobacco - that’s now China - but it still has a significant presence. Major cigarette manufacturers like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds are headquartered in the United States, and many American farmers still produce tobacco as their main cash crop.
Rorandelli got a chance to spend time with some of those farmers as well as some of the workers who toiled in the tobacco fields.
“It's a very mechanized job, and the industry is highly specialized with the use of machinery,” he said. “Still, hand labor is used, and it's a tough job. Tobacco is tough because you're working in the hottest months … and you get exposed to nicotine and pesticides.”
Health issues are a reality, Rorandelli said, and it’s usually the Hispanic worker who suffers.
Over the past few decades, the demographics have changed on the American tobacco farm. It used to be African-Americans working in the fields; now, Rorandelli said, it’s primarily Hispanics from outside the country, whether they are undocumented or in the United States on a temporary work visa.
“In the fields, you will find only Latinos,” Rorandelli said. “As it happens in many other countries, not many people want to do the hardest jobs in the fields. And the ones who are available are the ones who have recently migrated to the country. They don’t have a social structure or family support, so they are ready to work long hours.”
Many farms employ workers on a seasonal H-2A visa, but Rorandelli is concerned about the undocumented workers he met along the way.
“You can exploit them easily,” he said. “You won’t have undocumented white or African-Americans in the U.S., so if you are looking for cheap labor, you’ll find it among the undocumented ones.”
Rorandelli also met some children working in the fields. In many states, children as young as 12 can legally work on a farm as long as it’s after school and they have their parents’ permission.
“It doesn't specify whether the farm is producing corn or tobacco, but … the kid who works in a farm that produces corn is exposed to much less than a kid working a farm that is producing tobacco. And this is important to know,” Rorandelli said. “There is no differentiation, but there should be.”
Rorandelli hopes his photos will make people think twice about the dangers of the tobacco industry, because it’s not going anywhere.
“In the West, we think that we have defeated or are very close to defeating tobacco,” he said. “Cigarettes are very expensive. It's very hard to smoke anywhere. There was a settlement with the tobacco companies, who had to pay billions of dollars.
“But in reality, the main number of smokers is not in the U.S.; it's not in Italy; it's not in Europe. The main number is in Asia. And in Africa, it's growing. One out of three smokers is in China. The industry is booming. And you can see that by looking at the value of the cigarette companies.”
- Kyle Almond, CNN
Editor’s note: Part of Rorandelli’s project was covered with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.