Growing up in a small village on the slopes of the Aberdares Mountains in central Kenya, I witnessed lots of conflict between forest rangers and charcoal producers, who produced charcoal on their own farms for trade. The unwritten law was simple: “Unless it’s for domestic consumption, it’s illegal”. Every household used charcoal every day, as it was the only known source of energy for cooking and heating besides firewood.
There was general fear of trading in charcoal, leaving it to a select few, who either did their production at night or paid illegal ‘taxes’ to the village authorities. The latter was mostly the case for everyone engaged in the charcoal value chain, most of whom were men with either large families, little land or little alternative sources of income.
The coffee and tea industries are usually depicted as Kenya’s biggest industries, earning the country the most revenue and employing the most people, both directly and indirectly. But what is little known is that the charcoal industry is as big as the tea industry and employs as many people as the Teachers Service Commission in its value chain.
The picture portrayed by conservationists is that the charcoal industry is a nasty, forest-degrading, informal industry that needs to be stopped. In most environmental literature, charcoal production is described as a major driver of deforestation and forest degradation, and that the solution is to reduce production.
This attitude leaves little space for positive, practical solutions. For a long time the industry has been left informal and at the mercy of forest authorities whose only job is to enforce laws. This approach leaves the industry rather informal, with selective logging of charcoal producing tree species, leading to degradation. Furthermore, actors in this industry have formed cartels, where charcoal producers pay illegal “taxes” to the authorities in order to keep operating the lucrative business. These bribes would have otherwise been government revenue, had a different approach been taken for countering the challenge.
Turning around this image of the industry requires all actors – researchers, government officials and communities – to take a more positive attitude and adopt more positive interventions, involving community members as partners and not victims. Policies geared towards banning production are too naïve for such an important industry; more sustainable and well-thought policies need to be put in place. Measures such as licensing and educating the producers on tree species to plant, harvesting regimes, use of efficient kilns among others would go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of the charcoal industry.
Countries with a proper legal framework like Rwanda and Sudan have demonstrated that the industry can be an important livelihood source, and forests in those countries have been sustainably managed. As majority of the producers are illiterate and with no chances of formal employment, the industry is ideal for them as it requires no formal education. Addressing charcoal production as an integrated approach is a win-win solution, with the potential to change the image of the industry and halt the tension between those in its value chain and the authorities.
Blogpost and photos submitted by Caroline Gathoni (Kenya) – firstname.lastname@example.org
The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.
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