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How charcoal producers are restoring Zambia’s Miombo woodlands

New initiative to increase availability of wood resources for sustainable charcoal production

 

Faced with widespread forest degradation in northern Zambia, the livelihoods of charcoal producers are at risk. In response, CIFOR-ICRAF supports the development of Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR) sites as an effective restoration solution to renew much-needed wood resources, while protecting the region’s unique Miombo landscapes.

This work is part of the project “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa (GML),” which is funded by the

The Copperbelt region, which comprises most of northern Zambia and southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is one of the world’s mining hotspots, where economic opportunities have led to population growth. Kitwe and Ndola – only 60 kms apart – are Zambia’s second and third largest cities respectively, while Lubumbashi is DRC’s second largest. Together, they have over 4 million inhabitants. The densely populated area is also surrounded by many other booming towns.

 

Due to poor access to electricity and regular power cuts, most urban dwellers are dependent upon charcoal as a primary source of cooking fuel. Charcoal is readily available, supplied by thousands of individual producers living in neighboring forests and woodlands, including landless immigrants and farmers affected by the severe drought that has hit southern Africa in recent years. In an area economically dependent on mining, a largely unregulated charcoal production provides an alternative means of earning or supplementing an income.

 
 

Protected areas and customary forests in Zambia’s northern region include the Ngala Forest Reserve, Kalilele National Forest, Nshoka and Kepipa villages, parts of which are now heavily degraded due to decades of unsustainable wood harvesting. The livelihoods of charcoal-makers are now at risk due to the scarcity of wood resources.

 
Charcoal transport. Photo by Gabriel Mulenga/CIFOR
Charcoal transport. Photo by Gabriel Mulenga/CIFOR

Previously, this area was forest. You could not see very far as our forest was very dense. Now it is all gone. We can’t even find a tree anymore for charcoal making. We destroyed everything and now we have no trees left.

Joffrey Nyanga, charcoal-maker living in Mushindamo district, North-Western province, Zambia

 

In 2018, CIFOR-ICRAF carried out a study to map forest degradation and deforestation hotspots in Zambia, identifying the border areas with DRC as priority areas for restoration. Therefore, in partnership with the country’s Forestry Department and the European Union, CIFOR-ICRAF has since then been working with communities in three districts (Mushindamo, Nchelenge and Mufulira) to find solutions for sustainable charcoal production that does not exceed the capacity of forests and woodlands.

 

Women sell charcoal in the Solwezi market. Photo by Gabriel Mulenga/CIFOR

Miombo woodlands are unique landscapes found in southern Africa.
Photo: Jeff Walker/CIFOR

Threats to Zambia’s Miombo woodlands

Miombo woodlands are a type of dry forests that can be found in a broad belt across much of southern Africa, spanning an estimated total area of around 2.7 million square kms, from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east and to the northern edge of South Africa.

In the Copperbelt region, mining has polluted waterways vital for Miombo woodlands. Close to cities and towns, woodlands have been cleared for farming and charcoal production.

These unique ecosystems, however, are home to such endangered flora and fauna as elephants and rhinoceroses. They also provide critical services and products, including timber, drinking water and medicine to millions of people.

Potential disturbances to Miombo woodlands regeneration

ANR measures can be as simple as removing weeds around seedlings or pressing the grass to control growth. Regeneration is nevertheless a long-term process that requires constant engagement from communities to take care of an area. “It is important to have a complete local buy-in as ANR will require an investment of years’ work,” said Mwaanga.

Managing grazing is key to successful Miombo regeneration. Photo: Gabriel Mulenga/CIFOR

CIFOR-ICRAF and the Forestry Department have built demonstration plots in the above-mentioned districts for this purpose. They serve as open air laboratories for communities to try different techniques and learn about ANR before implementing them elsewhere.

“ANR requires significant efforts from the community, but it is a cost-effective restoration method that works well in Miombo landscapes,” said Esnelly Katongo, assistant researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, who supervises the field implementation of this initiative. “Our goal then is to accompany these communities in finding the most efficient ways of supporting forest regrowth.”

Each community provided two community land plots. One of them is left as a control plot – we don’t intervene. In the other one, women, men, youth, everyone is involved in supporting regeneration. The community can see the difference and they are very happy with the results.

Charles Chalwe, District Forestry Officer, Nchelenge district, Luapula province, Zambia

Choosing the best restoration model

While ANR can be an important natural solution to restore degraded landscapes, it is important to choose the best approach for each context.

The demonstration sites in northern Zambia are key to evaluate charcoal producers’ interest and potential involvement in ANR efforts and if this could become a model for restoration and improved management of Miombo woodlands. Communities and the Forestry Department have expressed their interest in disseminating their experiences to other places in the country. These lessons will also be presented to the government to inform the ongoing reform of the national charcoal regulation and national development plans.

According to Mwaanga, ANR should be supported by the government as a solution to bring degraded landscapes back into productivity, as well as a long-term sustainable management option to produce charcoal without exceeding forests and woodlands’ capacity.

For example, if charcoal makers use adequate tree cutting techniques and leave the stump of the trees untouched, Miombo tree species often regenerate, according to Mwaanga. Combined with protecting areas for natural regeneration, this increases potential for regeneration of woodlands and any future wood stock that these charcoal makers depend on for their livelihoods.

“The new charcoal regulation must provide sustainable options for producers to keep their livelihood, and to conduct ANR in combination with a participatory management plan as one of the most efficient ways to ensure that wood resources will remain available,” said Mwaanga.

Assisted Natural Regeneration, a restoration solution for Zambia’s charcoal-makers

 
Coordination: Ahtziri Gonzalez | Text: Jolien Schure and Ahtziri Gonzalez | Editing: Julie Mollins | Video: Gabriel Mulenga | Graphic design: Juan Pablo Ramos | Web design: Gusdiyanto
 
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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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