🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

Charcoal use burns up Africa’s forests

Gretchen Wilson Mar 11, 2009

Charcoal use burns up Africa’s forests

Gretchen Wilson Mar 11, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was on Capitol Hill today. He’s asking Congress to draft new laws on climate change. He wants to get the United States on board early with a global agreement the U.N. is going to try to hammer out later this year. Nearly 200 countries will be talking about curbing carbon emissions.

Part of the problem, and there are many parts of course, is deforestation in Africa. The U.N. says Africa’s losing forests twice as fast as the rest of the world and one reason is the continent’s constant need for cheap energy. Gretchen Wilson reports from Tanzania.

GRETCHEN WILSON: On this street corner, men covered in black dust and sweat unload giant bags of charcoal from a truck and onto their shoulders. This charcoal has just come in from the bush, where it was made from fire, sand and local trees.

GEORGE TAIMAVORA: We must pack our bags like this — full, full, full, up to the top!

Charcoal vendor George Taimavora loads chunks of burnt wood into plastic shopping bags. One bag sells for about a dollar.

TAIMAVORA: The vast majority of Tanzanians don’t have electricity! So 90 percent of us use charcoal because it’s cheapest, and it’s easy!

Charcoal burns longer and hotter than wood alone. It’s what fuels many African homes and businesses to heat buildings and to cook and boil water. At Innocent’s Restaurant, Maolidi Ali makes french fries over a charcoal flame.

MAOLIDI ALI: I buy a little at a time because that’s all I can afford. I need to buy more to make a big business.

But charcoal’s production is unsustainable. Brad Smith is with Greenpeace.

BRAD SMITH: Originally there were about 7 million square kilometers of forest in Africa. And about a third of that is gone already.

A lot of it was used to make charcoal, according to the United Nations. Smith says the implications are huge.

SMITH: Scientists are now in agreement globally that about one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions actually come from tropical forest deforestation. We really will not be able to get control of climate change unless we can address tropical deforestation.

That’s no easy task. There’s a rudimentary electricity grid. And most poor countries haven’t developed alternative energy sources like solar panels and wind farms. There are few jobs. Here, survival trumps sustainability.

Logging is illegal in Tanzania’s Ruvu South Forest Reserve. But only a few scrawny trees remain. The earth is covered in huge patches of black.

Illegal loggers have formed a temporary camp here called Changiri. The shelters are made from ratty sheets and sticks. Twenty-eight-year-old Ramadan Hamza Hamiz is a charcoal maker.

RAMADAN HAMZA HAMIZ: This job is too difficult to do. There is no one who wants to be here. ’cause we are here like animals, you know?

It’s dangerous and blistering work for $60 a month. Hamiz says he’d rather work a legitimate job. But first, investors need to create them.

HAMIZ: We wants to go to disco. We wants to have a good family. But because we have nothing to do, we decided ourself to be here for some money.

And the reality is Changiri and other charcoal camps are among the few economic engines around. But as science reveals the links between forests and climate change, Western countries are starting to throw millions of dollars at African governments. They’re hoping Africa’s leaders will better police protected forests and invest in energy alternatives.

In Tanzania’s Ruvu South Forest Reserve, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.