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Is charcoal the key to sustainable energy consumption in Malawi?

UNITED NATIONS, UNEARTH News – Malawi’s illegal charcoal trade employs 92,800 workers and is the main source of heat and cooking fuel for 90 percent of the nation’s population.  Yet, unregulated charcoal production that relies on inefficient methods and tools has taken its toll on Malawi’s once-lush forestlands.

Currently, Malawi has one of the highest rates of deforestation in all of southern Africa, mostly due to the local charcoal trade.  Combined with an estimated 13,000 deaths of women and children that occur each year in Malawi due to inhaling the thick smoke when preparing food, charcoal production poses a serious risk to both the environment and the well-being of Malawi’s rural inhabitants.

Charcoal producer in Makunje village just outside Blantyre, Malawi. Photo credit: Travis Lupick via Creative Commons

Charcoal producer in Makunje village just outside Blantyre, Malawi. Photo credit: Travis Lupick via Creative Commons

Acting Public Affairs Officer Thomas Hull of the United States Embassy in Lilongwe told UNEARTH News that the US government is currently working with President Joyce Banda and the Malawian government to implement a clean cook stove program that promotes helps protect both the forestland and the health of women and children.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the government of Malawi and other development partners to protect the health of those Malawians who are most disadvantaged, protect their livelihoods, and protect the environment upon which they depend in the face of health, climate, and economic struggles,” Hull said in an email to UNEARTH News.

The cook stove, expected to be in 2 million Malawian homes by 2020, uses less firewood or charcoal to burn and thus eases “pressure on deforestation and lessens the burden on women and children who spend many hours gathering fuel wood,” according to a press release published by the US Embassy in Lilongwe.

While the cook stove project is an important means to reduce the amount of charcoal used to cook food, implementation in the local communities remains a challenge. A 2013 report of the United Nations Forum of Forest stressed that “despite concerted efforts over several decades” including the efforts to implement cleaner burning cook stoves and other environmentally friendly community based programs, ”forests continue to be lost and degraded at an alarming rate, threatening the achievement of sustainable development and poverty eradication.”

This is in part to due to a lack of cultural acceptance of the new style of cooking demanded by the stoves as well as a dearth of educational opportunities that emphasize the positive impact of the stoves on the environment and public health. In a study commissioned by Concern International, investigators found that a reliance on traditional three-stone fires and kitchen rituals thwarted the impact of the cleaner burning cook stoves.  Women, the primary users of the stoves, also had received little information of the dangers of inhaling charcoal smoke.

Overcoming these cultural and educational obstacles, while possible, is just the first step to helping build a more sustainable future in Malawi, says Duncan MacQueen, Principal Researcher–Forest Team, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). MacQueen told UNEARTH News the best way to stop deforestation is to target efforts at regulating the charcoal industry rather than focus on home consumers.

A forest that has been destroyed in Kasungu district as poverty drives people to sell firewood and burn charcoal to sell. Photo credit: Oxfam International

A forest that has been destroyed in Kasungu district as poverty drives people to sell firewood and burn charcoal to sell. Photo credit: Oxfam International

“Since most people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on charcoal or wood for fuel, banning it is completely counter-productive,” MacQueen said. “It forces traders to harvest illegally and covertly and makes any prospect for management impossible. Governments should embrace, legalize and promote forest restoration for charcoal production.”

Malawi charcoal production, valued at $41.3 million  a year, has been illegal since independence in 1966, but producers usually only have their bags and tools confiscated.  The trees lost to illegal charcoal production, approximately 15,000 hectares of forestland each year, are most often taken from public reserves and are rarely replanted.

MacQueen pointed out that if legal, the profits made by the charcoal industry could help replant and regrow Malawi’s lost forests, employ people legally in the energy sector and help Malawi build a stronger, more sustainable future.

“Most western nations are now investing heavily in the use of wood fuels – principally wood for heat and wood chips for electricity generation – precisely because they help to reduce net emissions, are employment intense (many jobs per unit energy),  and competitive with other energy sources,” MacQueen pointed out.

Since trees grow much faster in tropical Malawi, MacQueen points out that, so long as trees are replanted to help absorb the carbon output of burning charcoal, charcoal does not have to be seen as “dirty and old-fashioned.”

According to MacQueen, responsibly managed charcoal production includes educating and equipping households with safer cook stove technologies. With those steps in place, charcoal could be considered a renewable forest product from Malawi that “would give their people clean efficient energy – and their energy industries a strong competitive advantage.”

© 2012 UNEARTH News

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