Charcoal production is a major driver of deforestation and forest degradation in Zambia. Increasing demand from urbanization and power cuts have in recent years have led to a greater dependency on wood fuel to meet urban households’ energy needs, largely at the expense of the country’s forests and woodlands.
For farmers, charcoal making has become an important coping mechanism to earn additional income during the lean season after crops have been harvested, especially in light of the recurring droughts that have been affecting the country since 2018. Overharvesting of wood, however, is putting their activity at risk. In many degraded areas, tree species such as Jubernardia globlifora and Brachystegia spiciformis, which are particularly suitable for charcoal due to their density and calorific value, have become scarce over the years.
“This used to be a forest with a lot of tall trees, but as you can see, the place is now bare”, said Patricia Ndoti, who has lived in the Ngala Forest Reserve in Zambia’s Copperbelt province for nearly two decades. “Because of the charcoal trade, the forests are now empty,” echoed Mary Samujimu, also a resident of the area.
In Zambia, as in many countries throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, the most straightforward measure by policymakers was to restrict and ban charcoal production and use in order to protect the environment. Due to a lack of energy alternatives, however, these policies have proved inadequate in curbing demand, driving production and trade to the informal sector.
Challenging this approach, test interventions carried out by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) with the support of the European Union, have found that charcoal makers can instead become part of the solution. According to Jolien Schure, associate researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, with the engagement of communities it is possible to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of charcoal production and increase its social and economic benefits.
A new paradigm in resource management
CIFOR-ICRAF has been engaging communities in sustainability efforts since 2018, when it started developing participatory forest action planning (PFAP) in three districts in Zambia, Mufulira, Mushindamo and Nchelenge, which are located in three different provinces, namely Copperbelt, North-Western, and Luapula. All of them are important charcoal production sites that supply Zambian cities and cross-border trade with the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Community members were invited to use their collective knowledge to develop actions aimed to improve forest management and support their livelihoods. Examples of agreed actions include tree planting, assisted natural regeneration, and suppression of bush fires.
Early findings from these experiences show that communities can plan PFAPs and more importantly, that the process effectively encourages them to better manage forests and increases their sense of self and community responsibility. “Communities are interested in sustainably managing resources for their own well-being,” said Schure, “but formalizing participatory processes and translating initiatives into actionable plans is key to attain results.”
The expert acknowledges that in initial stages PFAPs remain strongly reliant on external partners, which means that support is needed to train, guide and provide backstopping before communities can self-reliantly implement forest actions. “The required initial investment, however, shouldn’t discourage policymakers from supporting PFAPs as a long-term management option,” she said.
Informing national policymaking
According to Davison Gumbo, scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF, there is a growing realization in Zambia that consensual communication and participation between local communities, forest managers and other stakeholders, is crucial for successful forest management. This understanding must turn into action, he said.
For instance, Zambia’s Forest Act of 2015, which is the country’s top legal instrument overseeing forest management, allows for community forestry management groups to engage in in forestry management activities that are based on and respect traditional forest user rights of local communities in accordance with sustainable practices. This framework is also highlighted in the Zambia Integrated Land-use Assessment (ILUA), which was designed to support planning, monitoring and evaluation of land cover, management and use.
“These are important steps towards recognizing the positive role that communities can have in forest management,” said Gumbo. “Now we need a shared long-term vision and concrete strategies can help focus and guide all those who have a role in shaping the future of forest.”
Zambia is currently drafting new charcoal regulations, which should help operationalize the Forest Act of 2015. Gumbo currently serves as an advisor in this policy processes, and he aims that the field experiences of CIFOR-ICRAF will help PFAPs become a central part of this new regulation.
“We need to link rules for charcoal producers to more sustainable practices and incentives,” said Gumbo. “We want our experiences with communities to inform policy.”
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