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COVID-19 makes it harder for charcoal producers and traders to make ends meet

Study explores ripple effects of the pandemic on forest livelihoods
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Producers from Yanonge prepare a charcoal shipment
Producers from Yanonge prepare a charcoal shipment to be sold in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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In Kisangani — Democratic Republic of Congo’s third-largest city — COVID-19 has had an impact on the charcoal industry that its more than 1.8 million inhabitants rely on to meet their daily energy needs, putting forests at greater risk.

The additional challenges affecting the supply and transport of essential charcoal during the pandemic has made it harder to promote sustainability in the sector, according to a new report from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

“Charcoal traders and producers should be supported throughout this time and thereafter to safeguard livelihoods and ensure that communities’ energy needs are met, ” said CIFOR-ICRAF associate and lead author, Jolien Schure. “This is key to enable sustainable outcomes for the region’s woodlands.”

Kisangani’s markets are supplied by charcoal producers in nearby forest landscapes, such as the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, via waterways and roads. Typically, charcoal is produced by harvesting trees in fields and bushes and using unregulated traditional carbonization techniques, but new sustainable initiatives promote improved carbonization that requires less wood, as well as planting fast-growing trees for this purpose.

For communities that often combine subsistence shifting cultivation with charcoal production, the charcoal trade is one of the only ways to earn a cash income, which pays for basic needs such as food, education and health care. Yet, the industry is largely unregulated, meaning there are few social supports in place to ensure families’ basic needs are met during a crisis.

Since the first case of COVID-19 in DRC was reported in March 2020, the charcoal industry has had to navigate shifting regulations, markets and labor availability. The CIFOR-ICRAF report found that the strain of these new uncertainties affected every level of the charcoal value chain in some way — from producers, to vendors and buyers.

Interrupted livelihoods

From the start, government lockdowns restricted the ability of producers and sellers to transport charcoal via the Congo River. This reduced the supply from river-adjacent basins that was able to reach markets in Kisangani and led to higher charcoal prices. Bags of wood fuel that typically sold for 500 CF (0.25 USD) and 1,000 CF (0.50 USD) now contained less charcoal than before. At the same time, the travel restrictions meant that cost of food and other essentials increased, creating a pincer effect on the personal finances of all charcoal-value-chain actors.

Although charcoal is essential to meet the region’s daily energy needs, vendors were securing fewer sales than before because customers preferred to buy in bulk and avoid public gathering spaces, respondents said. Additionally, vendors reported increasing incidents with controlling officials who imposed “unofficial fines” of 5,000 CF ($2.50) for not wearing a mask at market.

Production in the Yangambi supply area decreased during this time period because of labor shortages. The physically demanding job of producing charcoal is typically done by large, self-organized groups who share the work in rotational shifts. Since the coronavirus outbreak, both government regulations and personal caution have resulted in fewer people participating in work crews, leaving individual producers to manage the heavy workload by themselves or in small groups.

Despite these strains on the industry, only 18 percent of the buyers surveyed actually reported changes in charcoal supply compared to pre-pandemic levels, meaning they did not notice any changes due to COVID-19 and could keep supplying themselves as usual.

This means that when the charcoal supply from the usual sources was reduced, other smaller scale producers stepped in, transporting charcoal from other sources on bikes or in pirogues via smaller rivers. Trade thus shifted to other routes with fewer controls, according to Schure.

“During COVID-19, it has been difficult for the more regular charcoal producers in main production areas along the Congo River to maintain production and quantity, but that gap in production was soon filled by others — those who may have lost their jobs or students who could no longer attend school,” said Schure. “This increase of new and ‘random’ charcoal suppliers is not helping sustainable practices, as the new labor force lacks experience for efficient carbonization and is less likely to invest in managing future tree stock.”

In addition, households that did report decreased access to charcoal faced serious consequences. Around 54,000 people in the city, experienced food insecurity as a result of the increased charcoal prices and dwindling supply. They reported behavioral changes which included reducing the number of meals cooked, reducing the amount of certain foods consumed and reducing the amount of charcoal and firewood used at one time, according to the study.

Protecting informal industries

While the impacts that COVID-19 had on the charcoal trade in DRC varied from individual to individual, depending on their location and personal circumstances, the disease exposed the vulnerabilities of the informal sector overall.

“Charcoal producers in supply areas and vendors in the city of Kisangani have not received any support from the government during the pandemic,” said research consultant and study co-author, Lwanga Kasereka Muvatsi. “There is no responsible entity in Kisangani to monitor or mitigate effects of COVID-19 at the level of production and markets.”

Through the European Union-funded Governing Multifunctional Landscapes and FORETS projects, CIFOR has been working since 2019 to promote sustainable charcoal production in the communities around Kisangani. Because charcoal makers are more likely to engage in unsustainable wood harvesting and inefficient carbonization practices during times of instability, improving their organization, tree management and carbonization skills is key to avoid forest degradation, the study concludes.

The instability resulting from COVID-19 threatens these efforts, according to Schure. “When charcoal producers and traders are having difficulties making ends meet, and new ‘random’ producers fill this gap, it is very difficult to engage in more sustainable activities.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact Jolien Schure at j.schure@cgiar.org.
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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