Across Africa, men carrying tools for cutting down trees spend weeks deep inside forests. They cut down the trees to burn them in order to make fuel for fires known as charcoal.
Because they work at night, mainly on public land, they operate without fear of the law while destroying forests in many countries.
Fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest have brought attention to the difficulties of protecting the Earth’s forest lands. The Congo Basin tropical rainforest is about the size of Western Europe. After the Amazon, it is the world’s second largest rainforest. Some people call it Earth’s second lung.
Africa is home to over 1.2 billion people and poverty on the continent remains a problem. Many nations have struggled to protect forests as growing populations demand plant-based energy resources that are considered low cost. Charcoal is widely used.
The European Space Agency says that 25 to 35 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gases come from biomass burning. Biomass burning is natural or manmade burning of organic material, including seasonal fires people set to clear land for farming. Most of this kind of burning happens in tropical areas of Africa.
A 2018 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found dependence on charcoal or firewood to be highest in Africa and Asia. Some African cities are almost completely dependent on charcoal for cooking. In Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of the Congo, 90 percent of residents depend on it, the report said.
In Somalia, the U.N. has warned that cutting down trees to support an illegal charcoal trade is so widespread that desertification there threatens stability. The country is already suffering a wave of extremist violence.
The U.N. report said that the estimated value of the charcoal export trade from East Africa to the Middle East and other places is over $360 million a year. This is the case although the trade is banned. About 8.2 million trees were cut down for charcoal between 2011 and 2017, the U.N. said.
Ugandan government officials have warned about the charcoal trade for a long time. The trade continues although the electrical power system now extends deep into the country. Hydroelectric power is still too costly for many people even in the capital, Kampala.
Edwin Muhumuza is an environmental activist who runs the group Youth Go Green in Kampala. He told the Associated Press that charcoal has become a valuable product, like gold or coffee.
“We are really concerned,” he said. “They cut down the trees but they don’t replace them.”
Now the National Environment Management Authority, a government agency, is urging officials to lift taxes on liquid petroleum gas. It is another cooking fuel that could be used instead of charcoal.
Africa’s forests are shrinking, researchers warn
Research shows a difficult situation. Uganda’s forest cover as a percentage of land area was nine percent in 2015. Government data shows that is down from 24 percent in 1990.
But officials in northern parts of Uganda such as Gulu, which provides much of the charcoal entering Kampala, are taking action. Their campaign has seized many charcoal trucks since 2015.
Gulu chairman Martin Mapenduzi organizes raids in hopes of arresting charcoal burners.
“Illegal logging has gone down but the destruction of forests for charcoal burning is still high,” Mapenduzi said. “It’s something that is giving us a lot of headache, but we are fighting.”
The price of enough charcoal to support a small family for several weeks has been rising in Kampala. In August, it reached about $28. That is largely because of reduced supply from places such as Gulu.
The cost is still far too much for families, said Rose Twine. She is a business woman who sells a cooking device called the eco-stove. Twine says one eco-stove comes with volcanic rocks that, she said, can last for up to two years. It costs $110. Yearly charcoal costs for an average family, can grow to more than $300.
“Charcoal is actually not cheaper,” Twine said. “People are just stuck in their old ways.”
Widespread destruction of forests has led to campaigns to take action in some African countries.
This week, Gabon became the first African country to receive payments for provable efforts to reduce greenhouse gases resulting from the destruction of forests. The U.N. Development Program said payments would reach $150 million over 10 years. It called the payments “historic in many ways.”
In July, The U.N. Environment Program said that Ethiopia’s prime minister led an effort in which over 350 million trees were planted across the country in one day.
But some activists say tree-planting may not be enough to save Africa’s forests. They urge governments to spend more on alternative energy sources for the poorest people.
Mapenduzi, the Ugandan official campaigning against charcoal burning, called for laws against it and urged officials to make electricity cheaper.
Others also believe only urgent action, such as a ban on the charcoal trade, will help.
“A total ban,” said activist Muhumuza, “One hundred percent.”
I’m Anna Matteo.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Pete Musto adapted this Associated Press story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor. We want to hear from you. How does your country protect its forests? Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
tropical – adj. of, relating to, occurring in, or used in the part of the world that is near the equator where the weather is very warm
continent – n. one of the great divisions of land, such as North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or Antarctica, of the Earth
greenhouse gas(es) – n. pollution that causes the Earth’s atmosphere to warm
desertification – n. the process by which an area becomes a desert
hydroelectric – adj. of or relating to the production of electricity by using machines that are powered by moving water
replace – v. to put someone or something new in the place or position of someone or something
log(ging) – v. to cut down trees in an area for wood
headache – n. a difficult or annoying situation or problem
cheaper – comparative adj. costing less money than something else
alternative – adj. offering or expressing a choice