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Socio-Economic impacts of Charcoal business

01 January by Lydia Guda

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Guest blog by Lydia Guda
Lydia is the author/creator of Ecolife254 which is an environmental blog focused on environmental awareness, promotion of clean and green practices and promotion of sustainable living. The site also aims at restoration and regeneration of natural resources in Kenya.

Deforestation is one of the main contributors to climate change and it does not only occur in forested areas, but also in semi-arid areas which have fragile ecosystems. The main drivers of deforestation and degradation in arid areas are the charcoal business and livestock keeping. The business has been on the rise due to increased energy demands.

Charcoal business is always very lucrative at the start, in that, it is not only a source of income/employment, but also a source of income and a cleaner fuel source compared to wood fuel/firewood. Use of charcoal is also very widespread, a study by RAEL Research project, shows that over 80% of urban population in Kenya uses charcoal as their primary source of domestic energy and over 30% of rural people also use it to meet their needs. This clearly indicates the widespread use of charcoal and hence the extent of the business.

The positives are that; charcoal burns more cleanly than unprocessed wood fuel hence less respiratory illnesses compared to firewood and also less harmful emissions into the atmosphere that cause air pollution. It also requires use of cheap and affordable apparatus i.e. jiko and hence is very popular among homes and businesses such as restaurants. The business is also a major source of income as it contributes greatly to the country’s economy as well as providing a massive avenue for employment and income generation i.e. charcoal burners, the vendors both small and large scale.

However, the business is not all rosy, the negatives include; massive deforestation and this is not only restricted to forested areas but also semi-arid areas, the few acacia species found in these areas are being cut down for charcoal production. The most common method used in the tree harvesting is clear-cutting, in which the whole tree is cut at the base. Another method used though not popular is selective harvesting in which a few trees are left behind. This results in bare lands prone to erosion, habitat destruction of the species that depended on the trees and therefore biodiversity loss. Loss of or a reduction in the number of trees also translates to spread of desert like conditions, climate change and global warming.

When there is a change in environmental conditions then this directly impacts on the social lives of the people. Currently the rains are erratic and unpredictable, this brought about by climate change due loss of tree cover. This results in drying up of rivers and for rural populations this translates to water scarcity, poor water quality and therefore increase in waterborne and water related diseases such as cholera and diarrhea. This in turn leads to use of limited money and resources in hospitals and treatments. The urban population also deals with increased cases of non-communicable illnesses arising from pollution and a decreased supply of tap water.

The pastoralists communities also have to move more often and travel longer distances in search of water and pasture for their livestock, spending more time and energy. Additionally the increased cases of ethnic clashes due to the limited number of environmental resources, water being the main one; is attributed to the climate change which has majorly resulted from deforestation. The situation is worsened by overgrazing that has resulted from the large number of livestock kept/owned.

Since it difficult to immediately eradicate the practice, there has to be a balance between the positives and the negatives; sustainable practice. There has to be collaboration between the pastoral communities, government and all involved stake holders. There has to be a way to stop the illegal charcoal traders in order to have a controlled system. The method used in harvesting should take into consideration the slow regeneration time of trees, clear cutting should not be an option. 

Also, other green affordable energy options should be explored; these may include biogas, kerosene, petroleum gas, solar and wind energy. Each of these options should be tailored to meet the unique needs of the various communities. For pastoralists, due to their constant movement, biogas cannot be an option. However, use of kerosene or solar energy will work since there are cheap, portable kerosene stoves as well as portable solar cells that can be used for lighting purposes. The agricultural communities can use biogas for both cooking and lighting needs. Biogas production is easy and cheap especially for these communities where animal wastes and plant wastes are present. 

Additionally biogas production will also result in high quality organic manure increasing agricultural production and hence another income source. For small and medium businesses, LPG should be the alternative it is a faster and cleaner option and also affordable.

Another alternative is the use of charcoal briquttes which burn longer and cleaner and do not require clearing of trees. Also use of energy saving jikos to reduce amount of charcola needed.

For all these to change there should be a collective effort starting from you the individual, the government and all stakeholders. Charcoal and economic development is important but not as important as trees and a functioning ecosystem, for these two are our very life line.

What is your opinion? Feel free to engage.

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