Charcoal Diaries

Energy, rural livelihoods, natural resources

Debunking charcoal myths: Part 1

One of the underlying drivers behind my research is the belief that ecosystem services require equitable governance in order to manage natural resources sustainably. This is essential to improve the provision of other ecosystem services, whilst protecting livelihoods from marginalisation and reduced wellbeing.

In my first blog entry, I introduced charcoal by saying that “the stigma of charcoal and environmental damage has led to laws and policies that illegalise the livelihoods of an estimated 13 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.”

So, before I start writing about my own research, I am going to debunk a few ‘myths’, and hopefully give you enough reason to doubt the stigma behind the prevailing approaches by which charcoal is governed.

The ‘myths’:

  1. Charcoal leads to deforestation
  2. Charcoal industry is controlled by a rich political elite
  3. Charcoal production is a ‘last-resort’ activity for poor, marginalised men
  4. Charcoal consumption will decrease
  5. Charcoal is a dirty energy that we need to move away from
  6. Charcoal is energy for the urban poor

Before I start I want to make this blog as easy to understand as possible. To do that, I’m going to define some key terms and provide you with some additional information if you wish to delve further into the world of scientific jargon!

Ecosystem services: Benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.

Non-timber forest product (NTFP): Any product or service other than timber that is produced in forests. For example, they include fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, wood fuel and charcoal.

Kate Schreckenberg (one of my PhD supervisors) co-wrote a great article about issues with commercialising NTFPs, and whether or not it can conserve ecosystem and species or improve livelihoods. You can read the paper here.

Deforestation and forest degradation: These are not the same thing! Deforestation is when forest cover is permanently lost. The land that once was a forest has been transformed into something else (such as a farm or a town). Forest degradation is when only some forest cover is lost. The forest still exists, but the forest’s ability to provide products and services is reduced.

Livelihood: A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living.

My research is structured by the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, which essentially is a theoretical tool to help understand livelihoods. I will discuss how this relates to my PhD in a later blog entry.

A small forest stand, perfect for charcoal.

A small forest stand, perfect for charcoal (own photo)

So let us begin…

This first myth buster blog entry is:


There is a pervasive argument that charcoal leads to deforestation. But on a global scale, charcoal production is actually very low down on the list of things that cause deforestation; the contribution of charcoal to deforestation is less than 7%.

It is incredibly important to know that there is never only one reason for deforestation. The direct causes and underlying drivers of deforestation are complex and interrelated, associated with limited data and understanding.

Urban areas are large demand centres for forest resources. Often, the pattern of deforestation and forest degradation occurs in successive waves that emanate from major demand centres and target high to low valued species in sequence.

Charcoal demand is an urban phenomenon. This means that around urban areas, significant demand for charcoal can be a major contribution towards local level forest degradation. However, charcoal production is not the only contributor.

Driving forces behind peri-urban deforestation are arguably from infrastructural development; even if woodfuel harvesting were to stop, peri-urban deforestation would still occur because ‘‘it is absurd to keep land under trees when it can be put to profitable uses”. Additionally, harvesting fuel wood (just normal, un-processed wood) and poles (for building) dominate cases of deforestation associated with wood extraction.

On a global scale, charcoal isn’t the largest threat to deforestation. But, if we narrow down on areas where charcoal is an important urban energy source, apparently Africa accounts for nearly 80% of charcoal-based deforestation in tropical areas (bear in mind that is 80% of the global 7%). But, often, charcoal production is not the real reason causing deforestation. Across Africa, charcoal production is a common way to make capital while clearing land for agriculture.

I don’t deny that the physical activity of chopping down trees and subsequently partially burning them to make charcoal leads to deforestation. But under this situation, charcoal production is not the real issue. The issue is demand for agricultural land.

This doesn’t mean that people only produce charcoal when they want to clear land. When we exclude cases where charcoal is a by-product of agricultural expansion, it is common practice to selectively harvest specific trees that are considered to produce ‘higher quality’ charcoal. In my case study area charcoal is not a by-product of forestland clearance for agriculture. People harvest trees in areas unsuitable for farming, up to 6 hours walk from their village. Instead, producers harvest specific trees, knowing that they would sell at a premium at market.

Charcoal production (rather than clearing land for agriculture) therefore leads to forest degradation as opposed to deforestation. The forest still exists, as it hasn’t been converted to another land use. However, as more trees are taken for charcoal, the productivity of the forest progressively decreases.

One cannot make the assumption that charcoal causes deforestation. The underlying drivers and causes of forest loss are complex, spatially variable and a combination of socio-politico-economical and environmental factors.

We still don’t yet understand enough about deforestation to justify grand sweeping statements that determine how we deal with activities like charcoal production. Claims of significant links between charcoal production and deforestation are not supported by current knowledge. Blaming charcoal for causing deforestation leads us to associate charcoal livelihoods as being terribly destructive and something that needs to be extinguished. In no way can this be a constructive approach.

If we want to have any real impact on improving the charcoal trade, the sustainability of the resources and the livelihoods of the people involved, we cannot continue to persevere with such a detrimental and false claim. Viewing the charcoal trade as a destructive activity prohibits any future intention and actions to deal with it in a realistic manner. It’s high time this attitude changed.

My next few posts will continue on the myth-busting theme. Please subscribe if you want to know more and if you have any questions/suggestions, feel free to post below!


One comment on “Debunking charcoal myths: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Debunking charcoal myths: Part 2 | Charcoal Diaries

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This entry was posted on April 13, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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