Charcoal is processed wood that is mainly used for cooking.
But in the East African nation of Uganda, charcoal making is causing conflict with local people in the country’s north and police. People who say they are concerned about the environment are acting as police to drive away charcoal makers.
In the poor northern part of Uganda, making charcoal is one of the only ways people can make money. Charcoal is very important for cooking and heating in Africa south of the Sahara Desert.
But for years, local people and government officials in Uganda have been concerned about the effects of charcoal. While there are still many trees in Uganda, deforestation is a problem. In 2022, the International Monetary Fund said Uganda has lost nearly one-third of its tree cover over the past 20 years.
The environmental concerns prompted the Ugandan government to pass a national climate change law in 2021. The law permits local officials to make rules to restrict activities that hurt the environment.
But there are still many trees in northern Uganda and people who make charcoal see the area as a good source of wood.
A conflict has developed between people who make charcoal and Ugandan officials. People who do not support the charcoal business are getting involved in chasing away charcoal makers and tree-cutters. They are called vigilantes.
Before the charcoal ban, a vigilante group in the Gulu area attacked a truck carrying over 300 bags of charcoal. Odanga Otto was one of the attackers. He was charged with robbery, but Uganda’s top justice called him a hero.
Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, who is from northern Uganda, said this year: “I have not heard anybody who is destroying our environment being charged.” He went on to ask, “If you steal from a thief, are you a thief?”
One week after Owiny-Dollo’s statement, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni issued an executive order banning the commercial production of charcoal in northern Uganda.
Charcoal making is still permitted in other parts of Uganda, but the tree cover in the north makes the area attractive for illegal charcoal production.
Shortly after the president’s ban, reporters from the Associated Press went into the forest with officials from the Gulu area. They were 335 kilometers from Kampala, the capital.
Patrick Komakech is a local official from the Patiko sub-county. When he heard people running away, he chased them, but all he found was a recently cleared area. He saw tree stumps, still wet.
Komakech was upset and almost started to cry when he saw the missing trees. The cut trees had been piled up in one part of the clearing. Smoke came from another group of trees that were burning.
Charcoal makers collect the dust from burned wood, mix it with a material to make it stick together, and then press the mix into small balls or squares. They fill large bags, load them onto trucks and bring them into Ugandan cities for sale.
Komakech said the people who cut the trees and make the charcoal are outsiders. “They do this thing without the mercy of leaving any vegetation.”
He kicked at the logs on the ground and said they were from the shea tree, which can provide both fruit and oil if they are farmed.
After a time, the charcoal workers came back from hiding and spoke with Komakech. They said they were only trying to keep up with demand and earn some money.
Recent numbers from the World Bank show that Uganda’s population is growing by about three percent each year. The organization says it will grow from about 46 million today to over 100 million by 2060.
As a result, the nation needs fuel that is not costly. Some homes have gas, but most people in cities still use charcoal for cooking meals.
Peter Ejal was one of the people making charcoal. “Even those policemen who are coming to beat us, they are cooking with charcoal,” he said.
Another charcoal-maker said: “When we finish this place we will go on to another place.”
A number of groups make money on each bag of charcoal. Landowners in the north sell charcoal rights by the hectare. In northern towns, the cost of one bag is about $14 but closer to Kampala, prices are higher.
Both President Museveni and Otto, the vigilante, said some members of the Ugandan military make extra money by protecting the charcoal trucks as they drive into the cities.
Otto said he and other vigilantes are working to make the charcoal business “risky.” He said vigilantes helped police take control of many trucks.
“As of now,” he said, “you drive 100 kilometers, and you will not find any single truck carrying charcoal.”
With the success of the vigilantes, it has become harder to make charcoal. But, the price will go up. That will make more people want to burn trees to make charcoal close to where they live.
Without the trucks to carry the charcoal bags, activists opposed to charcoal worry the producers will just give the bags to a large number of drivers on motorcycles who would then take them to a waiting truck somewhere else.
Alfred Odoch is an environmental activist in northern Uganda. He supports the vigilantes. He says they are preventing large numbers of trees from being cut down. He wants to limit charcoal making to families who want to sell two or three bags per week.
“The fight for environmental justice,” he said, “is not only for one person.”
I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Caty Weaver.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a story by the Associated Press.
Words in This Story
prompt –v. to start something
executive order –n. a rule made by a leader or president that does not go through the usual political process
commercial –adj. describing something done as a business
vigilante –n. a person who does not have authority but tries to catch and punish criminals
thief –n. a person who steals
attractive –adj. good looking or appealing
stump –n. the part of a tree that remains in the ground and connected to the roots when it is cut
mercy –n. kindness or forgiveness
vegetation –n. trees and plants that cover the land
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