SO PAULO, BRAZIL — CENTURIES before Columbus sailed to the new world, the indigenous inhabitants of Brazil smoked tobacco rolled in palm leaves.
When the Portuguese arrived, they quickly saw the economic potential of tobacco and began shipping high-quality leaves to Lisbon while exchanging lower-grade tobacco for African slaves.
During the American Civil War, Brazilian tobacco gained worldwide popularity when blockades cut off the world from tobacco grown in the rebellious Southern Confederacy.
In 1888, Brazilian production increased significantly after newly emancipated slaves left the sugar plantations to work in the tobacco fields.
With 450,000 tons of tobacco produced last year, Brazil today is the world's fourth-leading tobacco producer, trailing only China, the United States, and India. But it is the world leader in exporting tobacco leaf, sending 272,000 tons overseas in 1994.
Souza Cruz is the nation's largest tobacco company, with 1994 sales of $4.6 billion. The firm makes Brazil's five best-selling brands, which account for more than 80 percent of all cigarette sales. Last year, Brazil produced 164 billion cigarettes, with a third of that exported.
Environmentalists charge Souza Cruz and other tobacco companies with playing a major role in the deforestation of Brazil.
According to the Ministry of Health, in 1990 tobacco plantations occupied 670 million acres of the nation's arable land to grow tobacco and provide wood fuel for 96,000 ovens needed to cure the leaves.