SPECIAL REPORT: Charcoal… feeding the poor, killing the environment

For the urban poor, charcoal provides an affordable source of energy for cooking. As rural farmers turn to charcoal production to meet urban demand, CHIKEZIE OMEJE reports that this seemingly lucrative business is depleting Nigeria’s forest resources, with far-reaching consequences that range from soil degradation to desertification and climate change.


From the vantage point of her home, Esther Iliya darts towards a van that pulls up at Kampani Mailaba, a village along the Keffi-Akwanga Road in Kokona Local Government Area of Nasarawa State. The vehicle is parked where plenty bags of charcoal are displaced by the roadsides.

Iliya, a mother of five, produces charcoal, which she sells by the roadside. She has five bags on this day and makes N1,300 for each. The charcoal is a charred material she makes from cutting down trees and burning the woods through a local technique.

Jesus gets the trees,” says Iliya when the ICIR asked her who owned the trees that she felled for the production of the charcoal.

In her community, production of charcoal is causing rapid deforestation, men and women alike having become charcoal entrepreneurs. But there are more women, she adds. “It gives more money than farming.”

FAMILY BUSINESS

The agrarian community has embraced a flourishing business of charcoal production. Almost every household in Kamanii Mailaba produces the commodity. It gives a more regular income than farming because it is produced all year round. Farming, meanwhile, is seasonal and takes longer time for the farmers to earn income from it.

“We make more money from charcoal but the money doesn’t last,” explains Dorcas Daniel, who joined Iliya in rushing to make a sale to the van that made a stop where they displayed their goods.

“This money I have now,” says Daniel as he opens her palm to show the N2,600 she made from selling two bags, “if I take it to the market to buy things, I won’t come back with N1. We’re still doing our farming but we’re making charcoal to get quick cash.”

When charcoal production started in the community more than a decade ago, it was done by men. Now, women and their children have outnumbered the men in the production of charcoal.

“We use the money we make from charcoal to buy foods, pay schools and help our children,” says Tina Barau. Her household farms groundnut, yam, and rice, which are cultivated during raining season. This dry season, she is busy with the production of charcoal, along with her children who are on school holiday.

The farmers are turning to charcoal production to meet a growing demand for affordable energy in urban areas. For many urban poor, charcoal provides a convenient, reliable, and accessible source of energy for cooking.

CHEAPER THAN GAS

Iliya poses by her charcoal 

About 25 years ago, Abacha stove was invented in response to the scarcity of kerosene during the early years of the administration of Sani Abacha, the late military dictator. The local cooking stove uses charcoal. Since this invention, charcoal has become the main source of domestic fuel among the poor people in urban areas.

Gas and electricity are the most recommended clean energy for cooking but the poor can neither afford these energy resources nor buy the devices to use them. Therefore, the majority of the households in urban settlements resort to kerosene and charcoal. But since kerosene has become expensive with a litre costing N210, charcoal offers a cheaper option.

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“Charcoals last more than gas,” argues Faith Jato, a charcoal retailer at Mpape, one of the biggest slums in Abuja. She buys a bag of charcoal at N2,000 from the dealers and sells it in smaller quantities of N50 and N100.  From this retail, she makes between N300 and N500 per bag.

“This N50 iron charcoal will cook a pot of rice,” she adds, pointing to a stack of charcoal wrapped in black polythene bags and displayed on a table in front of her shop. In addition to charcoal, she sells Abacha stove for N2,000.

Charcoal is one of the main types of wood fuel. While most people in rural areas use firewood, people in urban areas prefer charcoal because it is more convenient and less smoky. But charcoal, just like firewood, produces indoor air pollution, a leading cause of deaths in the country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 95,300 Nigerians die annually from indoor air pollution.

“When you are burning charcoal, it smokes; and the smokes come with different types of dangerous gases,” says Emmanuel Unaegbu, an environmental activist. “They are poisonous gases that cause different kinds of problems when you inhale, such as respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer.”

Unaegbu adds that apart from the diseases, charcoal has an unpleasant odour. “The smell from it disrupts ambiance air quality.”

A study based on evidence from the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS 2013) shows that approximately 0.8% of neonatal deaths, 42.9% of post-neonatal deaths, and 36.3% of child deaths could be attributed to the use of solid fuels (charcoal, firewood, crop wastes, sawdust, coal, and dung).

The inefficient use of solid fuels for cooking is responsible for the deaths of 4.3 million people annually in the world, according to WHO. And about 3 billion people globally still depend on these dirty energy sources for cooking and heating their homes.

LOGGING FOR CHARCOAL

Two covered heaps of wood and one uncovered for charcoal production

Unchecked felling of trees without replanting is causing alarming deforestation in Mandara, Mararaba Angwan Itache and Kompani in Nasarawa State and Ogbe in Kogi State, which the ICIR visited. These are just a few of the locations in the country where charcoal is produced in large, commercial quantities.

For each production cycle, Ankali Joseph says she cuts down between 20 and 30 trees but makes less than 70 bags of charcoal. If the trees are in a person’s farmland, she pays about N200 for each tree. Thereafter, she pays a chainsaw operator N3,500 to fell the trees and cut the trunks into sizes of about three metres long.

With the help of her five children, the logs of wood are gathered in groups and arranged into rectangular heaps. She then allows the wood lose moisture for at least a month before burning them for charcoal, but sometimes she makes charcoal from the fresh wood.  All she needs is to have access to water, grass and moist soil.

Like other producers, Joseph uses earth mound kiln to control the intake of air during the burning of the woods. The woods are stacked in heaps. The piles are covered with a layer of dry grass and wet soil. About two or three holes are made in the covered heap to ensure smooth burning. This method enables her to control air intake to ensure incomplete burning, otherwise the woods will burn to ashes if they are exposed.

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“If they are dry wood they will burn in four days, but fresh wood take up to one week,” says Joseph. She explains that when the burning duration is completed, she uses water to extinguish the fire. The resulting charcoal is harvested and bagged.

BAD RECORD FOR NIGERIA

Earth mound kiln

Joseph and other charcoal producers are ignorant of the negative impact of their activities on the environment. However, the forest guards, who are employed by the government to protect the forests, collect money from the charcoal producers and never check indiscriminate felling of trees.

The number of trees wasted for the production of charcoal is extremely high. The producers told the ICIR that no single tree yields up to four bags of charcoal and these hardwood trees take decades to grow.

Nigeria is one of the leading countries with the highest rates of deforestation. As of 2005, Nigeria had the highest rate of deforestation in the world, according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The rate of deforestation in Nigeria is estimated at 400,000 hectares annually.

DAMAGE HERE, IMPACT ELSEWHERE

Joseph bagging charcoal with her children in the bush

Charcoal production has far-reaching consequences, including soil degradation, desertification, and climate change.

This is why Oluwatosin Kolawole, President of Climate Aid/Initiative, is unhappy that people are felling trees to make income from charcoal without considering the long-term negative effects on the environment.

“The consequences are beyond the indoor air pollution from burning charcoal,” says Kolawole. The problem is the forests they are destroying to get the charcoal. Some of the trees have been in existent for 50 to 100 years before they can give you the quality you need. Now we are cutting down trees but we are not planting. Even if we are planting, we will not get the benefit until 20 to 30 years.

“When people go the forest to cut down trees, they are reducing the ability of Earth to maintain its own temperature and that is why we have global warming and its attendant effect of climate change. One of the effects of whatever evil we do to the environment is that sometimes the impact is not localised. You cut down the forest here; people feel the impact in another place.

“We can’t live without the services that the trees provide. They are our support system. The trees give us oxygen. In order words, they take carbon dioxide and give us clean air. They give us beauty and shade from the sun.

“Trees are like shade to the soil such that the intensity of the heat is not hitting directly on the soil. When the intensity of the heat is directly in the soil, it dries up moisture in the soil and when there is no moisture, nothing can grow.”

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David Terugwa, founder of Global Initiative for Food Security and EcoSystem Preservation, told the ICIR that the problem is ignorance. He laments that logging for charcoal is causing soil infertility in places where the commodity is being produced.

“The same local people who left farming because it is no longer productive as a result of climate change are now going to fell trees to use for charcoal production,” says Terugwa. “They earn some money but go back again to use that money to buy food at an expensive rate.”

GOVERNMENT INACTION

A retail charcoal shop that also sells Abacha stove at Mpape, Abuja

Government indifference to reduction of charcoal production shows lack of commitment to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 15 stresses the urgency to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss while SDG 13 also demands urgent action on climate change and its impact.

Ogadinma Iroka, a development practitioner and consultant, says Nigeria is not taking decisive actions in combating climate change.

“One would wonder why many people, in a country like Nigeria with all the abundant sources of decent and much better environment-friendly cooking energy, have over the years been resorting to cutting down trees for cooking fuel,” says Iroka.

The previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan initiated the national clean cooking scheme to stop the use of firewood and charcoal for cooking and prevent the depletion of forest resources through indiscriminate felling of trees. Through this scheme, the government aimed to distribute over 20 million clean cook stoves across the country by 2020.

In November 2014, the Federal Executive Council approved N9 billion for the purchase of 750, 000 clean cook stoves and 18,000 wonder bags to rural women. Unfortunately, more than three years after, the clean cook stoves have not been distributed.

The contract for the supply of clean stove was given to Integral Renewable Energy Services Limited but the Ministry of Environment later cancelled the contract in June 2015 after it complained that the contractor failed to deliver the required quantity despite receiving a mobilisation fee of N1.3 billion. Following the cancellation, the contractor sued the Ministry of Environment.

The contractor already imported a certain quantity of the clean cook stoves before the contract was terminated. Follow the Money, a non-governmental organisation, confirmed that the contractor imported only 45,000 clean cook stoves, which were kept at the Velodrome of the National Stadium, Abuja.

“Corruption killed the clean cook stoves initiative just the same way corruption kills good things in this country,” says Terugwa.

He argues that the clean cook stove initiative is the still the best means of preventing excessive felling of trees for charcoal production, adding that people resort to charcoal because they do not have alternative sources of energy for cooking.

“Sometimes you still don’t blame them,” he says. “They must cook and eat.”

Smart Amaefula, President of Climate Transformation and Energy Remediation Society, urges the Federal Government to revive the clean cook stove scheme to prevent further depletion of forest resources.

“We have to start introducing alternatives,” he says. “If government distributes the clean cook stoves freely, people will begin to appreciate these alternative sources of energy. It will lead to awareness and mass production of clean cook stoves in the country.”

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