LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A gray, rusty truck loaded with sacks of charcoal slowly rolls into a market in Mtendere, a township of Lusaka. Before it comes to a complete stop, a group of people swarm it and scramble to grab their share of the 100 or so sacks.
Before long, two more trucks arrive, and more people rush to claim sacks of the fuel, which they buy wholesale and sell in small batches to residents of their neighborhoods.
“Charcoal sells fast because almost everyone uses it,” says Benson, the owner of the gray truck. He asks that only his first name be used for fear of arrest because he doesn’t have the required permits. He started selling charcoal in 2020 after losing his job as a security guard.
Economic hardship and joblessness created by coronavirus lockdowns are forcing Zambians into illegal charcoal dealing, an act that threatens to severely degrade the country’s forests. Charcoal trading is legal in Zambia, but the government requires wholesalers like Benson to obtain permits from the forestry department that ensure the destruction of a limited number of trees.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Albert Banda, a forestry officer at the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment, says illegal charcoal dealers are motivated by the money they can make by evading government fees. Permit holders pay 28 Zambian kwacha (about $1.60) per 50-kilogram (110-pound) sack. For every truck of charcoal they haul to Lusaka and other urban markets, dealers like Benson evade at least 2,800 kwacha (about $160) in government fees. That’s a significant sum of money in a country with a 2020 gross domestic product per capita of $985, according to the World Bank.
Jane Mutayomba, a charcoal retailer who has been in business for five years, says she’s seen a significant increase in the number of charcoal traders in Mtendere, her neighborhood, since the pandemic began. “Thankfully, the demand is still very high, and prices have stayed the same.”
Demand for charcoal has remained high because most Zambians rely on it for fuel. Only about 67% of urban residents, and 4% of the rural population, have access to electricity. But the supply is inconsistent, forcing about 80% of the country to use charcoal and firewood.
The production of charcoal requires burning wood, a danger to Zambia’s already thinning forests. Even before the pandemic, the World Bank estimated the country’s forests were disappearing at a rate of 250,000 to 300,000 hectares each year.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Banda, the forestry officer, says rangers impound about 10 illegal charcoal trucks a week, up from two or three a week before the pandemic. “I’m certain there are many more getting away because we don’t have the resources that would enable us to patrol large areas,” he says.
Blessing Gondwe, a renewable energy specialist who consults with various companies, says Zambia needs to find long-term solutions to its energy problem. “We are in a vicious cycle,” he says. “Our dependence on charcoal is leading us to more problems.”
Deforestation could lead to drought and severely hurt the country’s electricity supply, 85% of which comes from hydropower, Gondwe says. Zambia has been experiencing extreme weather conditions, such as severe drought followed by heavy rainstorms and floods, which scientists attribute to mass deforestation.
Parliament passed the Forest Act of 2015 to provide a legal framework for managing forests, which cover 61% of the country. But Joyce Mutasha, the principal forestry officer for Lusaka Province, says regulating the cutting down of trees in protected forests has been difficult because of insufficient funding. The government allocated only 0.6% of its 2022 budget to environmental protection. Mutasha’s department can’t afford to hire enough rangers to adequately protect the country’s vast forestland, she says. The Forest Act mandates fines of 60,000 kwacha (about $3,500) or imprisonment for up to two years, or both, but that doesn’t seem to deter illegal charcoal dealers.
“People find ways to elude officers because they know the department is understaffed and officers can’t be everywhere,” Mutasha says. “We need to reinforce forestry staff but also find ways to provide affordable clean energy.”
Collins Nzovu, the minister of Green Economy and Environment, says the government acknowledges the importance of targeted funding for environmental protection. The first step President Hakainde Hichilema’s government took after assuming office in August, he says, was to remove the responsibilities of managing the environment from the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and create the independent portfolio he now runs to avoid competing for funding.
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“We’re still very new,” Nzovu says. “As we settle, I am sure we will get the necessary funding to carry out our mandate.”
Nzovu says the ministry is doing a comprehensive assessment to determine how to proceed with clean energy options. It’s also been supporting entrepreneurs who are trying alternatives such as turning waste into charcoal briquettes.
“We are aware that charcoal is a source of livelihood for people, but we would like to grow such ventures to make clean energy affordable and available,” he says.
As the government struggles to figure out how best to protect Zambia’s forests, illegal charcoal dealers continue to clear land to keep up with the demand. Benson’s business is booming, but he says he doesn’t intend to apply for a permit. “That would limit my profits,” he says.
Deep in the forest, in a rural district about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lusaka, Benson meets with four men he has contracted to make charcoal. They rake through a heap of ready charcoal to separate it from the mud they used to make the kiln, which carbonizes the wood by burning it in an environment starved of oxygen. They pack the charcoal into sacks, thread the ends and load them into the truck.
Benson waits for nightfall so that he can evade checkpoints on his journey to Lusaka. In the meantime, his team begins cutting down trees to make sure there is more charcoal when he returns from the city.