Blackouts, High Cost of Electricity Drive Zambians to Strip Forests for Cooking Charcoal

In a nation where each region endures a daily blackout, Zambians increasingly rely on charcoal to cook. Demand for the fuel, made from trees, exhausts permitted production and supports illegal production. With Zambians clearing more than 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of forest a year, the forestry department has requested funding to guard the nation’s vulnerable trees.

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Blackouts, High Cost of Electricity Drive Zambians to Strip Forests for Cooking Charcoal

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — It’s 5 a.m. and cold, but a few dozen women are already at the market in Mtendere, waiting for the most important delivery of the day. When a truck rolls in with a load of charcoal, they flock to it, eager to buy its contents.

“These days, the electric stove is not even an option because we mostly have no power,” says Lizzy Mulenga, one of the women.

Five or six charcoal trucks arrive at the market daily, she says.

Without charcoal, Mulenga, 42, and countless others across this energy-strapped nation would struggle to cook for their families. Mulenga has been cooking with both electricity and charcoal for as long as she can remember. But because the cost of electricity has been increasing, she has lately been using more charcoal than electricity, she says.

And since a power-rationing program that started in June darkens entire regions of the country for hours a day, even people who can afford electricity can’t count on getting it when they need it.

To cope, Zambians are rapidly stripping the nation’s forests for charcoal. They say they have little choice. As the forests shrink, the atmosphere loses the moisture recycled by trees. That reduces rainfall, which ultimately reduces food production.

Poor rainfall has already hurt Zambia’s power production and crop yields. The national average yield for maize, for example, decreased by 26 percent in the 2014-2015 farming season, according to Zambia’s Environmental Management Agency.

“If the indiscriminate cutting down of trees continues, the country will battle with even more serious effects of climate change,” says Irene Chipili, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Parliament is debating a bill that would send guards to protect forests.

Meanwhile, ZESCO, the utility company that serves Zambia, has frozen its electric rates this year to make electricity more affordable.

Charcoal and then electricity are the most common sources of cooking energy in Zambia’s cities. An estimated 66 percent of urban residents use charcoal for cooking, according to a 2013 report by the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Zambia.

Dependence on charcoal is driving mass deforestation. Zambians clear an estimated 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) to 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of forest every year, according to the UN-REDD Program, a U.N. initiative for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in less-industrialized countries.

Zambia has lost more than 13 percent of its forest cover since 1990, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The country’s deforestation rate is among the highest in the world.

Demand for charcoal supports unlawful production and trade. In Lusaka alone, police impound at least five trucks transporting illegal charcoal every day, says Geoffrey Nyirenda, a district forestry officer for the Ministry of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.

Zambians say they are using more charcoal because the cost of electricity has risen over the past few years.

In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, ZESCO raised the rate it charges residential electricity consumers by 41 percent. ZESCO applied for a rate increase in the 2012-2013 fiscal year but did not enact one that year. It raised its rate 25 percent in fiscal year 2014-2015, but a rate freeze is in effect this fiscal year.

Power shortages also motivate Zambians to use charcoal, even in cities.

Under a load-shedding program it began last month, ZESCO blacks out every part of the country for an average of six to eight hours a day.

The utility must ration power because poor rainfall during the 2014-2015 rainy season lowered the water level at Kariba Dam, a major source of hydroelectric power, ZESCO spokesman Henry Kapata says.

Demand for charcoal is high in Lusaka.

Mulenga, who sells charcoal in her neighborhood, has had more customers since the power rationing started. When she started selling small plastic bags of charcoal last year, she would go through a 50-kilogram (110-pound) supply in two days. Now she sells a bag every day.

The high demand has pushed up the prices of the commodity in Lusaka. A 50-kilogram (110-pound) bag of charcoal cost 50 kwacha ($6) when Mulenga started, she says. It now costs 70 kwacha ($8.40).

Albert Banda, another charcoal trader, says business is booming.

“Business is very good during the cold season, and now the load shedding has made it better,” Banda says. “Everyone is now buying charcoal.”

Banda used to sell 100 bags in two to three days, he says. He now sells 100 bags a day.

“I used to come to Lusaka twice a week, but since June, I have been coming here almost on a daily basis with 100 bags,” he says. “If I don’t come, then the charcoal is not ready, but we have increased our production capacity to meet the demand.”

Banda is aware that cutting down trees to produce charcoal harms the environment, but he says he must run his business to survive. Operating illegally, Banda transports his charcoal at night to avoid police roadblocks.

Even people who could otherwise afford to cook with electricity are using charcoal.

Erick Silwamba, a resident of the Lusaka suburb of Kabulonga, says he always has a bag of charcoal on standby.

“Load shedding has hit us badly,” Silwamba says. “We can’t avoid the use of charcoal anymore. I know the effects of cutting trees, but there is no cheaper alternative for cooking.”

The forestry department says it lacks the human resources to stop the wanton destruction of forests. To cut costs, the government laid off all forest guards in 1997, forestry officer Jackson Mukosha says.

The forestry department regulates the charcoal industry by issuing permits, but many people produce charcoal illegally in the unguarded forests, he says.

“The demand has gone up because even those that can afford electricity are not using it,” Mukosha says. “Half the time, they have no electricity because of load shedding, so the option that is readily available and cheap is charcoal.”

Lusaka residents say they would use less charcoal if electric rates came down and electricity was available all the time.

“No one takes pleasure in using charcoal that even cracks your palms,” Mulenga says. “If electricity can be cheaper and available, who would want to use charcoal?”

But ZESCO says Zambians were using charcoal even before the utility raised its rates and began rationing power.

“People are just accustomed to using charcoal,” Kapata says. “If you calculate how much they use on charcoal compared to electricity, you will actually find that they use more on charcoal.”

While ZESCO has increased its charges in recent years, Zambia still has one of the lowest electricity rates in the world, he says.

The load shedding is an indirect consequence of deforestation, Kapata says. Because rainfall has dropped, reservoirs can no longer produce enough power for the entire country.

To make electricity more affordable, ZESCO is not increasing domestic rates this fiscal year, Kapata says.

The power company had planned to increase its electric rates 13 percent in fiscal year 2015-2016.

The company is considering importing power from neighboring countries to ease load shedding, Kapata says. It also has launched a mass “Switch and Save” campaign urging customers to lower their usage by turning off lights and appliances whenever they are unneeded.

“We encourage our clients to save power because power saved is power shared,” he says. “If people can learn to save power, even with the deficit in power generation, we can have enough for everyone.”

Officials expect the load shedding will ease when the November-April rains begin.

A local company has introduced an alternative form of energy to end overreliance on electricity and charcoal. Emerging Cooking Solutions developed modern stoves that use biofuel made from agro and forestry waste.

Sales of the stoves, introduced in 2011, have been slow, but the company sold more than 500 stoves when power rationing started in June, CEO Mattias Ohlson says.

“You destroy six tons of virgin forest when making one ton of charcoal,” Ohlson says. “By switching from charcoal to pellets, we save six tons of forest, and drastically reduce carbon monoxide indoors.”

The Forestry Department has asked Parliament to reauthorize funding to guard the forests.

“Once the bill goes through in Parliament, we will have a new forest policy structure that will see us having the forest guards back,” Mukosha says. “We hope the policy will be well-implemented so that we can curb the illegal trade of charcoal and save our environment.”

Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.