Zambia is regarded as one of the highly forested countries whose forests cover accounts for about 60% of the total land area estimated at 64 million hectares. The total area of indigenous forest in Zambia is estimated at 44.6 million hectares, covering 60 % of the total land area.
However, Zambia’s deforestation rate is alarmingly high. According to recent data by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Zambia’s deforestation rate currently stands at between 250 to 300 thousand hectares of land per year.
In fact, Environmental experts have warned that Zambia’s forests risk becoming deserts in the next fifteen years going by the current rate of deforestation.
But why are people cutting trees indiscriminately? In Zambia, there are several reasons: clearing of land for farming is one factor, but logging for timber and cutting trees for firewood and charcoal making rank top on the causes.
A quick analysis of energy sources in Zambia reveals that about 90 percent of the population use charcoal related sources of energy, thereby making charcoal burning a lucrative business venture and major source of livelihood for many people.
A further analysis reveals that the reverse of the above argument is also true where only an estimated 25 percent of the country’s population is connected to electricity. This, compounded by erratic power supply through load shedding, forces even the most affluent communities to resort to charcoal as a source of energy.
Surely, the ground is fertile for a thriving charcoal business. After all, for many rural households, earning a living from farming and selling firewood and charcoal are essential to survival.
Jerome Banda, a farmer in Rufunsa, 150 kilometers east of the capital, Lusaka, has been dealing in charcoal burning for supplementary income to purchase farming inputs, pay school fees and other emergencies as they arise. Living miles away from the city, Banda’s business thrives on demand from the city dwellers who are major consumers of charcoal.
Banda, a father of five, recalls how he was forced to get into mass production of charcoal.
“At the beginning, I used to sell up to five 50 kg bags for a specific problem such as school fees for children or an emergency medical bill”, explains Banda.
“But one day, I was approached by a certain businessman from Lusaka, who told me to produce fifty bags of charcoal for him and the money I earned changed my perspective of the charcoal business such that I almost stopped farming but for my wife”.
Banda’s sentiments represent the realities of the problem of deforestation in Zambia. It is a double edged sword. At one level, Banda clears land for his farming activity while he needs another chunk of forest for his charcoal burning. For Banda and many others, it is about livelihood.
Zambia’s Immediate Past Minister of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, Wilbur Simuusa lamented this fact during his recent address to the country’s law making body, the National Assembly.
“Mr. Speaker, Charcoal production is the major driver of deforestation in our country. Cognisant of the fact that charcoal is the major source of livelihood for many of our citizens, and a source of domestic energy for over ninety percent of our population, we need to address the matter with care”.
From the tone of the Minister, it is clear that protecting forests/environment on one hand and facilitating better livelihood for all, represents a serious dilemma for the Zambian government.
Forest management, charcoal production, transportation, retailing and consumption are usually identified as the five key components in the charcoal value chain.
But how involved are the different stakeholders in decision making processes that affect their sources of livelihood?
“From time in memorial, our fore fathers taught us to defend and use forests for our benefit”, laments 65 year old Elena Banda of Nyimba district in Eastern Zambia.
“But our worry is that we see truckloads of timber poles trekking to the city in the name of government but we don’t see any benefit to us. That is why we also cut and burn charcoal for survival, after all government does not care for us”.
Grandma Banda’s blame on government’s alleged sidelining of the local people and lack of proper social support safety nets represents the frustrations of the local people on how they are neglected in the management and usage of local resources.
And the Immediate Past Zambian Minister of Lands acknowledges this poor interface between government and different actors who depend on forests for their livelihood and also at various stages of the charcoal value chain.
“We have realised that dealing with this issue only at policy level is not enough. It is for this reason that the Ministry will in September this year (2013), convene a national charcoal ‘Indaba’-(conference), to analyse the charcoal value chains and together, identify the points of intervention”, says the Minister.
It is the hope of all stakeholders that the Indaba will adequately address the key question of protecting forests on one hand, and facilitating for a better livelihood for all. Key questions surrounding accessibility of reliable clean energy sources by all would also present stakeholders a point of reflection.