Africa

Charcoal a burning issue in Zambia

Nastasya Tay

Zambia's hardwood forests are falling prey to poor villagers who are chopping down trees and surviving off the proceeds from selling charcoal.

Though illegal, the burning of hardwood forests is common in a country with few jobs and resources. (Sydelle Willow Smith)

Amid the hacked tree stumps and dry scrub undergrowth, Dambwa forest has a distinctive aroma: a bottom note of mukusi, or Zambezi teak, rich and cloying, a scent reminiscent of ceremonial endings, of cremation mounds in the Far East. There is a middle heart of mopane, malty and warm, of toasted rice and a touch of salty caramel, topped with a sharp head note that makes its way to the roof of your mouth, stubbornly plastering its particles of acrid white smoke into your throat until it catches.

The pervasive scent created by arboreal perfumiers is a by-product of their main trade: charcoal.

A narrow plume of heat heads skywards from the mound of dirt, its passiveness belying its destructiveness.

Zambia's southern hardwood forests are falling prey to small-scale charcoal producers – mostly poor, jobless local villagers who have little opportunity to support their families.

The United Nations estimates that up to 300 000 hectares of forest were being cleared each year by 2005. Now the rate of destruction could be almost twice that, said the UN development programme's Excellent Hachileka, a climate change specialist. It is one of the world's highest rates of deforestation in a place where the rainy season has already been cut in half.

Disturbance
In a country in which unemployment among its rapidly growing population is a major election issue and, according to Hachileka, less than 20% of its citizens have access to electricity, charcoal is lucrative.

Zambian conservationist Benji Mibenge kicks the earth with his boot. Burning sand just beneath the deceptively lukewarm surface runs down the slope at the disturbance. The logs were placed in a grid, mostly big ones on top, little ones on the bottom, he said. Once the fire is lit from below, the westerly wind at this time of year acts as a fan.

The government has made vain attempts to curb the destruction. It has forbidden the production of charcoal without a licence, the felling of trees in nature reserves and the export of any charcoal beyond its borders. But with next to no resources, its good intentions have been matched only by frustration.

Shadrick Sapwe, a community officer from the forestry department in neighbouring Central Province, shifts uncomfortably as embarrassment momentarily causes his smile to flicker. There is usually only one vehicle per province to patrol the reserves, he hastens to explain. And the one for Southern Province – which includes swaths of Dambwa's forests – is at the mechanic.

From the top of the red dirt kiln, one can see trucks on the tar road to Lusaka. Its proximity to the site chosen by the kiln constructors is a demonstration of their nonchalant defiance of the law.

Sooty air
The fragrance of caramelised, frying sweet potatoes floats across the quacking ducks and dry okra of Dambwa central market. It is joined in the sooty air by the slightly ascetic scent of drying bream and bubble fish from the Zambezi River. But below the mingling aromas the smell of charcoal smoke is pervasive.

Here, charcoal delivery takes the form of dusty men heaving sacks from the train station where the weekly load arrives every Friday.

A 25kg sack of the black kindling goes for 25 000 kwacha (R45), a substantial sum for something produced at little to no cost. And once it makes it to market, the threadbare sack can be divided into smaller piles, tucked into translucent pastel plastic bags, selling for 3000 kwacha (R5) a pop.

Zambian charcoal is particularly popular in the region because of its renown for burning cleanest and longest. Overland safari truck drivers stock up on it for their cooking fires as they pass through, saying it is superior to any neighbouring equivalent. That is because it is made from the country's precious hardwoods.

Activist tree planter Kebby Kambulwe – wearing a sweaty paisley shirt – is indignant, even as he helps to dig a hole with visiting South African environmental organisation Greenpop. "It's illegal," he said of the burgeoning underground charcoal trade. "But," he said, "that's why they disguise it at the border."

Biblical eponym
The charcoal was driven to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the other side of the Victoria Falls along a meandering route, he said, to be sold at a premium.

Alex, the farming manager in the Sons of Thunder missionary community, is as earnest and opinionated as his biblical eponym. Gazing out over the barren, fire-darkened land that falls within his purview, he draws the back of a grimy hand across his forehead in resignation. It is called chitemene, the style of slash-and-burn agriculture that has evolved over decades of toil because incinerating the bush is believed to help life to return with the rains.

But the rains do not come anymore. "They are gone," Alex said. "Instead of starting in November, you find it starts in December and goes early. Even if we protect our fields, people come and burn them. Outsiders, the hunters. They burn and come at night to hunt our rabbits, our duikers."

There was hope, said Hachileka, with Zambia earmarked to be the site of several pilot projects under the contentious UN Redd+ programme – reducing emissions through deforestation and forest degradation. The initiative, debated in the air-conditioned halls of two sets of international climate change negotiations,  means rich nations can pay poor ones not to cut down their forests so they can serve as sinks, soaking up carbon and guilt.

Tentative shuffling
But it is not the government that is sanctioning the felling of the mukusi. Gertrude Mwansa is making her cup of sweet mid-morning tea at the market, prodding the coal embers beneath her kettle. Charcoal did not leave nasty black soot beneath her pots, she said. Her stall, with its symmetrical piles of lollipops, packets of powdered milk and soap, is testament to her love for things clean and tidy. She looks dubious as a Greenpop volunteer speaks to her about solar cooking.

"You can't ask people not to cut down trees and not give them an alternative," said Greenpop director Lauren O'Donnell.

Surveying the volunteers around him at the Greenpop camp, Mibenge's weather-worn face creases into a smile. "You need a big enough group so that people will dance," he said.

Knowing that others outside Zambia are speaking the conservation language helps it to start tentative shuffling steps in that direction.

Nastasya Tay was in Livingstone, Zambia, as a guest of environmental organisation Greenpop, where she spent a week camping in the Zambian forest while the organisation embarked on a reforestation and education programme, aiming to plant 5000 trees in three weeks. She kept an audio and Instagram diary. For more, look for the "Trees for Zambia" link on: http://ewn.co.za.

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