Lessons from Zambia on promoting sustainable wood fuel management

Learning from local case studies to halt deforestation
Men prepare a charcoal mound
Villagers prepare improved charcoal burning on the Choma community land in Zambia. UN-REDD Programme

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In Zambia, around 90 percent of domestic energy derives from wood fuel in both urban and rural areas. But with demand rising, protecting woodland areas in forest reserves and open lands through more sustainable sourcing is becoming more critical than ever, scientists say.

Charcoal production alone contributes to almost a quarter of the country’s deforestation, with 300,000 hectares of forests a year lost to tree felling. In a new policy brief, researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) outline actions that must be taken to curb misinformation among communities and strengthen weak restrictions around tree cutting to halt Zambia’s massive deforestation problem.

“The situation in Zambia is alarming, with deforestation rapidly increasing,” said Kaala Moombe, a senior researcher at CIFOR. “Our research points to critical measures needed to curb tree cover loss linked to wood fuel production, which is also important for protecting biodiversity hotspots.

Actions that need to be taken include clarifying group and association mandates, benefits and responsibilities, and improving communication to improve management of forestry resources,” he added.

The brief focuses on the Choma district in Zambia’s Southern Province, which is a major charcoal production hotspot, with demand coming from as far as the capital Lusaka. To provide wider policy actions to make wood fuel production more sustainable in future, researchers at CIFOR, Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) and other partners, with the support of the European Union, researched how individuals, communities and institutions interact in Choma, to provide wider lessons for wood fuel management across the country.

Lesson 1: Enforcement needs streamlined communication  

In Choma, most wood fuel is sourced from customary land, which is under the care of traditional authorities, yet management from both formal and informal authorities is lacking. Although rules and laws to regulate the use of forest resources exist in the country, enforcement is lacking, the researchers say. One challenge is that communication across the different authorities, from the Zambia Forestry Department, to chiefdoms, charcoal association groups, transporters and end users, is weak, fragmented and contradictory.

“There is much misunderstanding within existing producer networks about what is and what is not legal or acceptable, especially from the customary perspective,” added Moombe. “If we are going to improve the situation, there has to be better communication across the sector, with rules and responsibilities among the different authorities made clear.”

For example, the Chief of Cooma Chiefdom had imposed a ban on charcoal production due to concerns over deforestation. Yet CIFOR found that charcoal production continues, with fruit trees being cut for charcoal. In other areas, under traditional governance, villagers can obtain a letter from a headman or woman of the customary lands allowing them to manufacture charcoal. The letter is endorsed by the chief, and payments are due to both the head person and the chief.

But producers complain that this process is time consuming and sometimes open to abuse, with few controls on quantities of wood harvested. Researchers found malpractices along the value chain, from the Forestry Department to local chiefs, the judiciary, district council, local charcoal associations and producer groups. While there are penalties for the violation of existing rules, including being handed over to state police, fines or suspension from groups, malpractices include charcoal being confiscated for personal gain by controlling agents, further eroding trust between authorities and communities.

Lesson 2: Grey areas must be addressed to embrace sustainability

In reality, few producers obtain licenses from the Forestry Department due to relatively high costs, cumbersome processes and the short validity period of permits. Most production and trade activities take place under informal arrangements, with control systems at both community and state levels weak, and no clear links to resource management plans around harvesting and issuing of documents.

Yet there are many opportunities for improved and sustainable production of fuel wood. Miombo wood species used for charcoal are resilient and show good regeneration capacity, but this requires targeted management of wood fuel sourcing. The regeneration capacity of 42 different tree species in the area show good potential for the Assisted Natural Regeneration of these woodland species under improved management strategies, while protecting them from threats of over harvesting, fires and grazing.

To improve the situation, linkages and communication must be strengthened along the wood fuel value chain, to clarify roles and responsibilities, with the common objective of guaranteeing long-lasting wood fuel supply from sustainable sourcing and efficient practices. Better collaboration between traditional leadership, the state Forestry Department and charcoal producer groups is critical to ensure grey areas around wood harvesting are stamped out, with enhanced monitoring and enforcement of sustainable sourcing and production.

Lesson 3: Change must be incentivized from the ground up

Producers should be clearly informed about the correct procedures and legal obligations for licensing, with implementation of certification, like the Participatory Guarantee System of certification (PGS), originally developed for smallholder organic agriculture producers and recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, being piloted for improved sustainability of charcoal value chains by partner Forest and Farm Facility (FFF). Village-level PGS action groups have already been established, with training to support implementation of guidelines, and these lessons can offer a first-of-a-kind incentivization mechanism for sustainable charcoal practices across Zambia.

Producer groups also need guidance about resource management, including tree planting and access to quality seedlings for regeneration, said researchers. More needs to be done to enforce legal processes for wood fuel production, with trade and wood supply better linked. Additional extension and advisory services must provide targeted messages and clear understanding of incentives to implement sustainable charcoal production in future. And dialogue is critical throughout the value chain, with clear roles, responsibilities and benefits outlined and understood among communities going forward, the researchers said.

This research was supported by the European Union.
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