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Africa - “I’ve been doing this job for more than 20 years,”  said Milade Lomoyo, a charcoal seller at the Litoyi market. “I can support my four children. Two of them are in the university and two in primary school. The job is tough because I have to go up the river to reach villages several kilometres from Kisangani, to get the charcoal. And I do it at my own risk.”

It was 11 o’clock when we reached the Litoyi market in Kisangani on the banks of Tshopo River. The market is well known for its charcoal and firewood trade. We see tricycles, rickshaws and vehicles full of charcoal leaving the market that’s more than 50 years old. It supplies bakeries, brickyards, restaurants, households, and even the Sotexki textile company.

Charcoal production in Kisangani employs more than 23,000 people like Milade Lomoyo, according to a report by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) published in 2011.

The low rate of access to electricity in Kisangani, and throughout DRC, means massive use of wood energy for cooking.

Yet, the inefficient use of this biomass is leading to overconsumption of this resource, which is used by more than 90% of the Congolese population. Given that the need for firewood continues to grow as a result of population pressure, and that forests are shrinking, it is essential to develop more sustainable methods of producing and using charcoal, so that the forests continue to meet the needs of the population, biodiversity and climate.

   A charcoal producer stacks the wood to prepare the kiln. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

A VISIT TO YANGAMBI

We arrive in Yangambi, a village known for its biosphere reserve and for having one of the best agricultural science faculties in the DRC, and are greeted with a familiar smell. After a while we realize what it is: rubber. After docking our boat, we discover bags of rubber that were recently extracted from the hevea trees. Out of curiosity, we reach out to touch this substance that we are discovering for the first time in its natural state.

In Yangambi, we meet the charcoal producers. who agree to show us a carbonization kiln. After a thirty minute walk through the forest, we suddenly get a whiff of something burning.  Fifty meters ahead, we see smoke coming from several vents on a nearly 10 meter long oven.

“This oven has been on for ten days”, explained one of the charcoal producers. “It needs to keep burning for at least five more days before we put it out. If the carbonization is good, we can produce more than 35 bags, if not, then it will be between 18 and 25 bags. Which will mean a loss considering all the work we did.”

To learn more about carbonization methods, they take us to another oven that is under construction.  Nearby we notice that the wood is directly stacked on a kind of rail track, before the oven is covered and carbonization begins. According to the experts, these carbonizing methods result in lower production for most of the charcoal producers of Yangambi.

“The production yield is close to 6% in Yangambi and in other Tshopo villages, while on the Batéké plateau it is nearly 26 percent,” said Jolien Schure, a CIFOR researcher. “This difference is due, among other things, to the carbonization methods used by the producers.”

In addition to the low yield rate, the other problem is transportation. Because the forests are far away, the producers have to travel very long distances to bring their products home.

“At one time the forests used to be closer and the work was easier. But, now, it’s different,” said Germain Mondo, a charcoal producer. “The farther the forests are, the harder the work is. I feel like giving it up, but what would I do, since there are no jobs here.”

After talking, we realize that the Yangambi charcoal producers do not have their own association. And the trees used to make charcoal come from forests managed for timber production.  But the disappearance of these forests is being felt more and more, and these charcoal producers are not used to reforesting the areas they exploit.

“We do not plant trees because we do not have the resources. But, if there are partners willing to help us do this, why would we refuse since we want to leave the forest for our children”, suggested Makario Nsakala, a charcoal producer from the village of Basukulu 1.

   A man wrapping up charcoal ready to be sold Axel Fassio/CIFOR

KINSHASA, THE CITY OF ASTRONOMIC CONSUMPTION

“The volume of wood sold in Kinshasa is estimated at 4.9 million m3, in other words, 490 million tons with a total market value estimated at $143 million,” according to the CIFOR report.  Out of a sample of 100 households, only four use improved cooking stoves and 73 use the simple charcoal kilns.

Here, we focus on the origin of the charcoal sold in the city, since the forests that used to surround this huge city of more than 10 million people no longer exists.

This source of fuelwood energy is often brought in from Kongo-Central, Bandundu and the Batéké plateau. We went to Batéké to study the technique for producing the charcoal consumed in Kinshasa.

José, who has made charcoal for more than ten years welcomed us and took us to the production site in Mbakana village. There were eight charcoal producers making a kiln. The wood being used was clearly the high-energy kind that could be turned into charcoal.

“We make charcoal out of trees we plant ourselves,” said the charcoal producer Jean Mukuba, with satisfaction. “When we fell the trees, we immediately plant other ones. Using the improved carbonisation techniques, our ovens only have four vents instead of eight, like they used to have. The yield is really better.”

The charcoal sector provides jobs for more than 300,000 people in Kinshasa. Thanks to SNV, the Batéké charcoal producers were able to form cooperatives.

“These cooperatives were created to make the coal producers more skilled in improved carbonisation techniques, to listen to their problems in order to advocate solutions to the authorities and to create greater awareness of the regulations and the formal taxes,” said Emmanuel Mvula, expert in the wood energy sector.

   Charcoal sold on the market Axel Fassio/CIFOR

ALTERNATIVES FOR A SUSTAINABLE SECTOR

Considering the problem of access to electricity, it would be almost impossible to eliminate this sector in Kinshasa, and elsewhere in DRC. Oversight is needed to familiarize the people in this sector with sustainable management that would secure the resource availability in the future.

CIFOR’s Jolien Schure says that “research indicates that people will continue depending on this resource but it is important to develop other approaches to make the sector sustainable. This is possible, but it will require the determination of the people involved.  Example: encourage improved carbonisation techniques and agro-forestry.”

In Kinshasa, as elsewhere in DRC, alternative solutions are being developed to reduce pressure on forests but the problem is convincing the households to apply them. The large-scale use of improved cooking stoves could save thousands of hectares of forestlands.

“Between 2013 and 2015, more than 7,000 such stoves were distributed to households in Kinshasa,” said Dieu Donné Kazadi, Mbabola project manager at SNV. The use of these stoves helped save 329 hectares of forestlands and reduced CO2 emissions by 659,925 tons, he added.

Other alternatives that can reduce reliance on wood energy include environmentally friendly briquettes made of sawdust or organic waste like Makala-bio.

Through  FORETS, a CIFOR project funded by the European Union, the research organization expects to play a decisive role. About 50,000 trees have already been planted in Bangala village, Yangambi. With EU funding, the project goal is to plant 100,000 trees by the end of 2019, not only to fight climate change but more importantly to help the local communities sustainably manage this artificial forest by preserving the primary forests.

Besides all these efforts, this sector should be included as part of national policy. It needs to become a formal sector, first of all by harmonising all the regulations on taxes levied by the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Environment, and the Fond forestier national since the sustainability of the supply line will depend on the legality of the sector’s actions and on the strength of its institutions.

***

This article was published in the 31 May 2019 edition of Environews RDC and won first prize in the FORETS environmental journalism contest (concours de journalisme environnemental FORETS).-

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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