Charcoal, at the cost of trees

Charcoal, at the cost of trees

negative consequences

Charcoal, at the cost of trees

When Julien Andrianiana started selling charcoal 14 years ago, he was just one of a few dealers around. Most households in Toliara, a coastal city in southwestern Madagascar, still used firewood for cooking. As the city’s population doubled, business became so brisk that he managed to send two of his children to college. It quickly became the product of choice in kitchens not only in Toliara, but also in other fast-growing cities across Africa. Charcoal — cleaner and easier to use than firewood, cheaper and more readily available than gas or electricity — has become one of the biggest engines of Africa’s informal economy. But it has also become one of the greatest threats to its environment.

In Madagascar, an island nation off the eastern African coast and one of the world’s richest nations in biodiversity, the booming charcoal business is contributing to deforestation. It is expected to exacerbate the effects of climate change, which has disrupted farming, fuelled a migration to cities, and pushed many rural residents into the one thriving business left: charcoal. Sellers now appear on street corners throughout Toliara, hawking charcoal made from trees from the surrounding forests, an ecologically rich and fragile area with plants and animals found nowhere else.

Procuring good charcoal
But acquiring high-quality charcoal made from hardwood trees has become increasingly difficult for dealers like Julien, 44, as a third straight year of drought has pushed ever more people into the charcoal trade. He now wakes up at 3 am and rides his bicycle an hour north to try to strike deals with charcoal producers before his competitors do. “Most of the trees have been cut down,” he said, hours after securing only 60 bags of charcoal.

“Within five years, all the trees will be gone.” Trees have been disappearing in a widening arc from Toliara in the past decade. As charcoal producers first culled trees in forests closest to Toliara, it left villages surrounded only by thickets. As a result, the business shifted to remote areas about 100 miles away, accessible by dirt roads and waterways.

About 100 miles southeast of Toliara, driving along National Road 10, I encountered Tsitomore, a 35-year-old cassava farmer, selling bags of charcoal by the roadside. Holding an axe, Tsitomore took me for a short walk into the forest to a spot where he had chopped off the branches of a large tamarind tree — a hardwood that is considered sacred in many communities in Madagascar, and cannot be legally used for charcoal. Early this year, he became a full-time charbonnier, as charcoal burners are called in this former French colony, after a disastrous harvest caused by El Nino, which brought the worst drought in decades to parts of Africa.

Climate change is believed to have intensified the weather phenomenon. “It rains less nowadays,” he said as white smoke rose from the dirt kiln in which he was making charcoal by burning the tamarind wood without oxygen. “That’s why I started making charcoal. No one’s going to help me, and this is the quickest way to make money.”Africa’s charcoal production has doubled in the past two decades and now accounts for more than 60% of the world’s total, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. Rapid urbanisation across the continent has increased the demand for charcoal; it has become the preferred way to cook in cities.

Many people have left rural areas where firewood, typically dead wood collected from the forest floor, is a largely sustainable source of energy for cooking. In a poor neighbourhood in Toliara one evening, housewives sat on stools outside their homes, keeping watch over pots on charcoal stoves. Monira Ferdinand, a 32-year-old mother, said she had used firewood back in her village, but the smoke would sting her eyes and the fire required constant fanning. In the city, she and her neighbours use charcoal, though she is careful to buy the high-quality kind made from hardwood trees, not the cheaper charcoal made from mangrove trees or softer wood. “The good quality charcoal lasts twice as long,” Monira said.

As Africa’s population is expected to swell and urbanise at an even faster rate, the continent’s demand for charcoal is likely to double or triple by 2050, according to the UN Environment Programme. The charcoal business, along with the expanding use of land for farming, is expected to increase deforestation and worsen the effects of climate change on a continent poorly equipped to adapt to it. “It’s all interconnected, this long-term trajectory and the long-term effects on climate change,” said Henry Neufeldt, an expert on charcoal and climate change at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. “In the next 30 years, a lot of forests and landscapes are going to be degraded because of charcoal demand, and because of the lack of policies to counter it.”

A fading past
Though charcoal is one of the most widely used sources of energy in Africa, regulations regarding its production are rarely enforced, experts say. In the region surrounding Toliara, an estimated 75% of charcoal production is illegal, said officials at the World Wildlife Fund, which runs projects encouraging the sustainable production of charcoal. Randria Zigzag, the government official responsible for overseeing zones of intensive charcoal production near Toliara, said 45% was illegal.

A dry region used to periodic droughts, southern Madagascar has become even drier in the past two decades. The spiny forests in the region are blanketed with low-lying vegetation and dotted with several species of large trees. People have gravitated to cities where the population has risen 50% in the past two decades, said Col Jules Rabe, chief administrator of the Toliara region. In a self-reinforcing movement, the migration to cities has led to a greater demand for charcoal from rural areas. In Antevamena, a village of cassava and corn farmers, poor harvests have pushed more and more people into the charcoal economy as tree cutters, charcoal burners, transporters, middlemen, agents.

Things are far different in Befoly, a village not far from Toliara. Befoly supplied Toliara with charcoal until it ran out of trees. “Everybody was involved in the charcoal business,” said Reginike Faralahy, 26, a former charbonnier who, in the boom years, made so much money that he was able to invest in goats and chickens. More than 20 other former charbonniers had left the village, some to work as petty traders in Toliara, he said. The village chief, Evomasy, 48, said he believed that the trees’ disappearance had caused the recent severe droughts. “We cut down everything,” he said, looking at the shrub land now surrounding his village. “We used to have trees all around us.”