Despite the environmental cost of using firewood and charcoal for meal preparation and to meet other energy needs, more than 60 percent of families in sub-Saharan Africa have no alternative to wood, making it a significant contributor to forest degradation throughout the region.
The solution is not simply to ban the use of wood fuel without offering alternatives, say scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
They argue that policies adopting this approach can simply result in cross-border trade, transferring environmental risks to other countries. CIFOR and partners are working on forging a regional approach to sustainable wood fuel and trade management.
A range of misconceptions swirl around wood fuel production, trade and consumption. Some common myths follow:
1. Wood fuel cannot be produced sustainably: Options, including assisted natural regeneration and agroforestry systems, use of invasive species or sawmill waste, improved carbonization practices and more efficient end-use technologies, can mitigate negative environmental consequences.
- In Kenya, CIFOR and World Agroforestry are testing the use of invasive Prosopis juliflora for sustainable charcoal production
- In Cameroon, CIFOR and the University of Douala are developing more effective fish-smoking technologies to reduce consumption of mangrove wood
2. Wood fuel contributes little to national economies: The livelihoods of millions of people, including small-scale producers, collectors, traders, transporters and sellers, depend on supplemental wood fuel revenues.
- 195 million people are involved in the sector in Africa
- 63 percent of people in Africa use wood fuel as a primary energy source
- 90 percent of wood extraction in Africa is used for fuel
3. The wood fuel sector is male dominated: Women play a key role throughout the entire wood fuel value chain, participating in production, transportation, sale and retail. However, due to unequal gender roles, women often don’t compete equally with men in producing charcoal.
- Women’s participation in charcoal value chains is generally highest in retail
- Women tend to get involved in charcoal production in the absence of alternative livelihood opportunities
4. Wood fuel will soon be replaced with other sources of energy: Throughout the African continent, population is growing and becoming increasingly urban, which will continue to rely on wood fuel, especially charcoal.
- The relative use of bioenergy — mainly wood fuel — in sub-Saharan Africa’s energy mix has barely changed over the last 25 years
- In sub-Saharan Africa, 44.6 percent of people have access to electricity
5. The impact of wood fuel use is a domestic concern: When national governments halt production, trade or consumption of wood fuel, the risk is that the problem will simply be transferred to neighboring countries.
- In Zambia charcoal exports are not allowed, but regional cross-border movements on borders with DRC, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have been observed
This factsheet was produced as part of the project Governing Multifunctional Landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa (GML), financed by the European Union.
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