Burning the Future into Charcoal

Uganda’s overdependence on charcoal means the country is heading for an energy crisis unless Government regulates its use, Cornelius Kazoora, an expert in environmental economics has predicted in a new study. What do charcoal burners, environmentalists, politicians think about this? Gerald Tenywa found out.

Moses Assimwe, a resident of Bugolobi in Kampala does not like what he sees.

Every time he goes back to his motherland he encounters more bare patches than the eye catching lush green landscape that used to cover Nakasongola. Not only has it turned into a sanctuary for charcoal burners with devastating effects, but it is also a poverty haven.

A few kilometers away from the Kampala-Gulu highway, David Samanya, a resident of Migyera, Nakasongola, a father of three, knows well the trouble that comes with charcoal burning. He can’t give up charcoal burning because he does not have an alternative source of income.

Without it, Samanya says it would be hard to put his children in school.

“It is my bread and butter,” says Samanya adding that they are caught between a hard place and a rock so they have resorted to charcoal burning as a way of survival.

The State Minister for Environment Flavia Munaba during the launch of Earth hour organised by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Kampala noted that the damage being caused by charcoal burning is overwhelming.

She also pointed out that a ban on charcoal burning is being considered.

“The situation is so bad that some charcoal burners have resorted to cutting down fruit trees,” says Munaba adding that this is unacceptable because such trees provide nutritional and medicinal values. She also pointed out in case of famine such trees act as a source of food.

Samanya is opposed to Munaba’s proposed ban. “Burning charcoal is a source of income and imposing a ban would hurt rural livelihoods. I would abandon charcoal burning if I had an alternative.”

Munaba’s fears are well founded because Nakasongola has run out of trees and what have been left behind are thickets and evasive weeds such as lantana camara also known as kapanga or kayukiki.

Currently desperate charcoal burners are now going back with for remnants that were regarded as inferior trees for charcoal years ago.

Asked what will happen when all the trees get depleted, Samanya replied, “Government should do something. We know Government cannot run out of options.”

Mugenyi, a forest ranger in Nakasongola says Government should develop alternatives to charcoal because it is the demand from urban areas that is pushing charcoal burners to cut down trees.

As I talk now, there are about charcoal dealers camped at Nakitoma waiting for charcoal, but charcoal is in short supply.

Charcoal worth sh876billion annually, but Uganda reaps massive deforestation

Uganda produces charcoal worth sh876 billion and employs more than 20,000 people, according to a new study, Dr. Cornelius Kazoora, a private consultant.

But this is eating away at Uganda’s forest cover. The country, according to Robert Ddamulira, the manager on energy and climate change at the WWF is losing 92,000 hectares every year.

Uganda’s forest cover was in 1990, estimated at 4.9 million hectares covering 24% of the total land area. The State of Environment Report (2008), indicated that by 2005, the forests had reduced to about 3.7 ha (18%) of the total land area of Uganda. This indicates a loss of about one quarter of the country’s forest tree cover in less than two decades.

Currently, biomass fuel is becoming scarce threatening people’s nutrition as they avoid certain food such as beans that take a long time to get ready during cooking.

The galloping trend of deforestation is leading to depletion pushing some charcoal burners to migrate to northern Uganda and western Uganda.

Charcoal production too wasteful, unsustainable

The wastefulness in the charcoal burning industry is unbelievable, according to Ddamulira. The trees are chopped in pieces and then covered with the earth before fire is introduced from one side of the traditional kiln.

This technology, according to Ddamulira is inefficient and is part of what is behind the galloping rate of deforestation.

“It converts only 10% of the trees into charcoal,” he says adding that this means that for every bag of charcoal produced, 9 bags are lost in the process of production.

The consumers have also not helped matters as only 8.5% of the people who use charcoal do not have improved saving stoves. This, he points out means that most people run out of charcoal faster than those who use energy saving stoves pushing charcoal burners to supply more.

Even when charcoal prices are rising, most of the urban residents cooking with charcoal do not use improved cooking stoves that are more efficient compared to the traditional metallic stoves (sigiri).

About half of the head produced on a sigiri is lost, according to Richard Kisakye, an expert on biomass energy. “Only 8.5% of the users of charcoal use improved stoves for cooking,” says Richard Kisakye, a biomass expert.

He says wasteful technologies at production and consumption makes people to run to the forest to burn charcoal more often than when they become armed with efficient technologies.

Charcoal production should be regulated

Better known as dirty energy or poor man’s energy, charcoal still lacks the necessary visibility for support. This, according to Cornelius Kazoora, a private consultant is the biggest problem because charcoal is despised as a source of energy.

He also points out the national policies and laws on energy, forestry and tree planting do not provide for sustainable charcoal production.

In the charcoal producing areas, environment managers told New Vision that even when districts get money from charcoal they do not plough money back into restoration or replenishment of the environment.

The councilors in such districts have turned charcoal into a “cash cow” and the councilors get the bulk of the money in allowances, according to Moses Sekagya, the district environment officer for Nakaseke.

At the end of the day orderly charcoal trade has failed because of national policy weaknesses, according to Kazoora. “Nobody is taking a bold step to overhaul this,” he says.

Paul Mwambu, a programme Manager at UNDP agrees with him pointing out that the ministry of energy is concentrating its efforts on a small part of the population.

“Can you imagine that the bulk of the Government resources are being spent on energy resources like electricity serving less than 5% of the population?”

He also says the biomass energy (charcoal and firewood) on which about 90% of the population depends does not have a budget and is like an orphan in the ministry of energy.

Globally, charcoal can no longer be ignored, according to Kazoora because it is linked to degradation of the fragile ecological systems in the cattle corridor that covers parts of north eastern Uganda running across central Uganda to western Uganda.

Charcoal trade estimated at 6% of the total energy consumption is expanding at the same rate as urbanisation, according to Kazoora. He says Uganda should borrow a leaf from her neighbours. Kenya’s law is recent, but they have regulations on charcoal production with better investment in the charcoal trade, according to Kazoora.

“We want to get a regulatory framework so that we bring big players into the business in order to stimulate the small players,” he says adding that making of products like briquettes creates employment, income, environmental benefits and also money from financing mechanisms merging from negotiations on climate change.

As charcoal prices increase, call for sustainable charcoal production as well as the use of briquettes as alternative source of energy and tree planting is becoming louder, says Kazoora