Firewood and charcoal – environmental and socio-economic impacts
FIREWOOD consumption and charcoal production are among the main drivers of deforestation in Zimbabwe. More than 96 percent of rural households depend on firewood for all their cooking and other energy needs such as tobacco drying and brick molding.
The use of charcoal is also increasingly popular among urban households due to rapid urbanization and insufficient supply of alternative fuels at affordable prices for consumers. This emanates from an increased demand for firewood in response to an unreliable power supply and new suburbs that are not connected to the power grid. As a result, fuelwood, firewood, and charcoal have become a suitable substitute as it is widely regarded as cheap and plentiful.
Firewood and charcoal stalls are now common in urban areas and highways. Research has shown that more than 25 percent of urban households use firewood as the primary source of energy for cooking, while 70 percent use it as a substitute for electricity due to increased power cuts. and high electricity costs.
Consequently, the demand for fuelwood in urban settings has caused significant deforestation in urban areas, peri-urban areas and even now areas seemingly remote from cities where trees are still considered infinitely abundant. The negative effects of this situation are already clear but will increase if the trend continues. These impacts include land degradation, soil erosion, loss of grazing for livestock, loss of fruit (affecting food security), loss of non-timber forest products and climate change.
While the production and sale of charcoal is illegal in Zimbabwe, the benefits for urban consumers are clear; its low cost and high energy per unit of weight make it lucrative for traders. However, the practice of charcoal production must be curbed before it decimates the country’s forests.
The law allows the use of firewood for domestic purposes only at the source. It is the transport and marketing of wood fuel that is of concern because it causes deforestation. Of particular concern in Zimbabwe is the increase in illegal large-scale charcoal production due to its destructive nature for the environment, the devastating threat of deforestation, land degradation and climate change.
While it may sound like a lucrative industry to some people, the economic benefits for a few people have far-reaching consequences for the environment, the structure and function of ecosystems, and the social economy.
The current price of charcoal ranges from US $ 5 to US $ 10 for a 50 kg bag. This price does not in principle include the cost of raw materials (trees, grass and soil) because they are simply obtained and not paid for. When the cost of labor, raw materials and opportunity costs are taken into account, the net present value (NPV) of charcoal is on average negative (USD 1,200 per ha). This means that profit is made at the expense of other potential uses and services of trees and forests. The assumed benefit is attributable to very low capital expenditure, “free” raw materials – wood, soil and grasses, and lack of concern for the associated external costs.
The process of charcoal production is wasteful, labor intensive and harmful to health. Current methods of charcoal production require vast amounts of resources for a relatively low yield. It is usually made in traditional earthen and pit kilns (ovens) with a wood-to-charcoal conversion rate of around 20 percent, which means that for example 5 tons of firewood are needed to produce 1 ton of firewood. charcoal.
The unregulated actions of charcoal producers cause the poaching of huge volumes of wet wood from trees. These areas are often grazing areas of communal areas, farms and protected forests.
The wood is stacked compactly in a pit or in the ground. The pile is covered with grass and then buried under a layer of earth to form the “oven” or oven. This oven is then lit with hot embers introduced at one or more points at the bottom of the chimney, allowing carbonation in limited air. When the oven has been turned on, it requires continuous attention for five to 14 days depending on the size.
Extreme temperatures combined with volatile chemicals including carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide create an extremely dangerous environment for all humans, especially those without adequate safety protection. Growers are often known to spend all day and night within feet of a burning oven to ensure that any gaps are quickly plugged. Thus, the production of charcoal is dangerous for human health and also contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases and eliminating the carbon sink.
While charcoal traders claim they have no choice but to engage in gainful activity, it remains illegal. Their strong point is based on poverty and the means to earn a living. People use forest resources as safety nets due to difficult situations such as lack of employment and failure of agriculture. However, the trees have yet to be conserved because if they are not, it will create a host of other problems that will have a huge effect on people’s livelihoods and biodiversity.
The loss of trees and other plants leads to desertification, soil erosion, land degradation, reduced agricultural yields, increased natural disasters and increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that cause climate change. Communities also depend on forest resources for a range of livelihood activities such as providing essential nutrients, raw materials and medicines that cannot be replaced without trees.
Deforestation destroys essential ecosystem services that are important in agriculture-based rural economies, such as the provision of clean water and fertile soils, resulting in the loss of agriculture and other livelihood opportunities.
In addition, deforestation is detrimental to the ecotourism industry because it leads to a loss of biodiversity.
Therefore, considering the overall effect of the increased use of wood energy, there is a need to balance environmental sustainability and livelihoods. It requires multiple stakeholders to come together and find solutions such as alternative livelihoods and cheaper energy supply in urban areas.
The results of multi-stakeholder engagements at the end of all of this should demonstrate consistency with internationally recognized principles, objectives and relevant international regimes, such as environmental rights and sustainable development goals. In this way, forests can contribute significantly to livelihoods, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability for future generations.
-Fortunes Matutu is a forester at the Forestry Commission and is particularly interested in social forestry.