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Domestic policies alone can’t tackle wood fuel challenges

A call for a regional approach towards sustainability
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Mwelwa Musonko/CIFOR

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This article was originally published in the print edition of the Zambia Daily Mail on 28 March 2020.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa remains off-the-grid. As such, wood fuel is the main source of energy for cooking for over 60 percent of families, who rely on charcoal or firewood to prepare their meals and meet their nutritional needs.

Africa’s population is rapidly growing and becoming more urban, and city dwellers are expected to nearly triple by 2050, reaching 1.34 billion – a phenomenon likely to further drive a soaring demand for wood fuel, particularly charcoal. Unsustainable wood fuel use leads to negative environmental effects through physical disturbance of the continent’s vast forests. And the lack of affordable, adoptable and reliable alternatives (linked to economic and socio-cultural factors) means that the demand for wood fuel will continue to increase for years to come.

In response to this trend, African governments have expressed a desire to dramatically reduce the contribution of wood fuel to meet their countries’ energy needs, and current policies reflect a region-wide aspiration for wood fuel to be tolerated until alternatives become available. However, data suggests that these changes are not taking place at a pace and scale that will avert a biomass-dominated future.

In the meantime, the wood fuel sector suffers from a lack of official support, marginalization and even outright bans. As a result of inadequate policies that do not respond to local realities, wood fuel production and trade, which remains a highly informal sector, mostly operates in the shadows of weak legal frameworks and makes little contribution to government revenues.

These issues call for a fresh approach to wood fuel governance, one that focuses on promoting more sustainable value chains that can positively contribute to livelihoods, energy and food security, while mitigating negative environmental impacts. Wood fuel isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future, so we had better start improving the sector.

Problems without borders

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) recently hosted a regional exchange to discuss how to improve wood fuel governance across southern Africa. During the event, which was held at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre in Lusaka, representatives from Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, one by one presented the same picture: unsustainable (and informal) production; inadequate domestic legal frameworks which sometimes affect other countries, institutional arrangements, and policies; knowledge gaps and limited resources for research; lack of regulatory enforcement and political support; and widespread forest degradation and deforestation.

If we all share the same problems, why can’t we then share the same solutions?

Across the region, isolated initiatives have managed to improve the value chain at various levels. Whether it is supporting Assisted National Regeneration, organizing charcoal producers, or promoting improved kilns and stoves, there are successful examples out there that prove that sustainable wood fuel can become a reality. The key is thus, as a region, to share best practices and learn from these experiences, promote cooperation to escalate and replicate successful models, and together build the political will that these pressing issues require.

Where there is demand there will be supply

A country’s domestic policies have an impact on other countries in the region. For instance, if one country adopts restrictive measures to regulate wood fuel production but does not offer alternatives to meet the population’s energy needs, there is a risk that the problem will simply be transferred to neighboring countries. Porous borders enable cross-border movement of wood fuel, particularly of charcoal as it is easier to transport.

Research currently being conducted by CIFOR shows that Zambia is at the epicenter of regional charcoal trade flows. Although the country currently does not allow charcoal exports, stringent production laws and high demand in neighboring countries seem to be behind an undocumented cross-border movement, whose dynamics are yet to be fully understood.

The delegates that participated in CIFOR’s regional workshop also echoed this view. While there is no hard evidence documenting cross-border movement of wood fuel, forestry departments across the region observe a dynamic exchange between countries. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to trace these flows and determine how and how much is moving due to the informal nature of the sector.

Facing this situation, once again regional cooperation is the only answer. Only by bringing countries together we will manage to understand wood fuel trade dynamics, and to adopt policies that do not simply transfer the problem to our neighbors but tackle unsustainable production and trade. At the end, if one country fails to protect its forests, the ecological consequences will be felt across the region.

At CIFOR, we will continue to study cross-border issues and to provide recommendations on how to move towards a regional approach to sustainable wood fuel value chains. We hope that these lessons from the regional wood fuel exchange will be taken into consideration in the upcoming National Charcoal Indaba, which will soon be hosted by Zambia’s Forestry Department.

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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.
This research was supported by the European Union.
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