Informal trade in charcoal and firewood in Africa creates need for sustainable approach

Demand for wood fuel highlights importance of cross-border cooperation
Charcoal shipment leaving for Kisangani, DR Congo. Photo by Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR
Charcoal shipment leaving for Kisangani, DR Congo. Photo by Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR

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As demand for charcoal and other wood energy soars in Central Africa, with wide-ranging consequences for biodiversity and local communities, a new brief from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) calls for governments and others to develop strategies to ensure coordination of policies and enforcement. The lack of alignment between governments on official policies also leaves small-scale traders — particularly women — vulnerable to exploitation.

“There is a need to actively develop a roadmap for sustainable charcoal production and trade, with neighboring countries coordinating their efforts,” said Jolien Schure, a CIFOR-ICRAF associate and co-author of the brief. “This can build on, and feed into, regional natural resource management strategies.”

For now, regulation of wood fuel in Africa has mostly focused on bans and restrictions on exports and complex legal requirements for imports. Many governments, including those of Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, have outlawed the commercial exportation of charcoal. But rather than slowing the trade, bans and restrictions have instead catalyzed an informal economy of small-scale traders and sellers. Often, this activity takes place at night and on weekends, with bicycles and motorcycles carrying small loads of unsustainably harvested wood to markets across national borders.

In one example, mining towns in northern Zambia and the southern Democratic Republic of Congo have fueled a booming charcoal industry while depleting nearby protected forests and other woodlands.

As Joffrey Nyanga, a charcoal-maker in northern Zambia, told Forests News“We can’t even find a tree anymore for charcoal making. We destroyed everything and now we have no trees left.”

Many other African countries are also seeing substantial amounts of charcoal and firewood crossing borders. In Kenya, for instance, one study found an estimated 64,345 tonnes per year of charcoal, valued at over USD 10 million, entered the country along its Busia border. Similarly, USD 211,000 worth of charcoal was imported from the Central African Republic into Cameroon, while over 22,000 tonnes were exported from Cameroon into Chad and Nigeria, with a value of USD 2,731,185.

With charcoal and firewood comprising roughly 60 percent of the energy needs for cooking and heating in Sub-Saharan Africa, this trade is likely to increase. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050.

“Energy and supplies are failing to keep up with population growth, so this trend of increasing wood-fuel demand is not about to change,” said Schure.

While the informal wood-fuel economy supports livelihoods and meets energy demands, it comes with larger costs. In Kenya, Cameroon and Zambia — the focus of the brief— those costs include the loss of forests critical to mitigating climate change and supporting biodiversity, air pollution and health hazards from poorly manufactured briquettes and lost tax revenue from unofficial trading. The absence of coordinated policies has also led to cartels of wood smugglers and corrupt practices, such as bribes paid to authorities.

“We need to extend the conversation across the border, engaging stakeholders from our neighbour Uganda so that we can allow the cross-border charcoal trade to continue and help the Kenyan people,” said Walter Mungála, coordinator and secretary of the Charcoal Cross-Border Traders Association in Kenya.

Mungála’s comments underscore the need for trans-national solutions that differentiate between large- and small-scale producers. These solutions could also help address land degradation and reduce the possibility of cross-border conflicts over increasingly scarce resources.

“This brief provides options to change this dynamic and inform and catalyze a reg”onal dialogue for sustainability in the East, Central and Southern African regions,” said Schure. “There are ways to regulate without marginalizing small-scale traders. In doing so, we can ensure sustainable charcoal production, which is critical for broader efforts to manage forest and agricultural landscapes.”



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