The return of charcoal? State rethinking ban to spread gains

Boda boda rider transporting Charcoal along the Baringo - Nakuru road on August 5, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Despite its documented role in deforestation and forest degradation, policymakers are slowly coming around to the idea of embracing charcoal production and trade in the country to fully harness its economic potential but also to sustainably regulate it.

The move to "decriminalise" charcoal trade and to build on its multi-billion value chain is gaining steam within top echelons of Kenya Kwanza administration, as much as it's a hot potato. In July, President William Ruto publicly lifted a moratorium on logging raising hue and cry in the country. The High Court later temporarily suspended the President's move, saying the process leading to the lifting of the moratorium lacked public participation, and was, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void.

Around the same time, Kenya Forest Service announced a resolve to resurrect the "shamba system" in a bid to establish 54,000 hectares of commercial plantations in the unstocked areas within degraded natural forest areas.

Under the scheme, forest-adjacent communities are allowed to cultivate agricultural crops during the early stages of forest establishment. Coming hot on the heels of these two related developments, a re-think on the charcoal trade is likely to stoke public outcry.

A recent "freedom cafe" to discuss a policy paper on combating charcoal, firewood trade and illegal logging was told that under the Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda (BETA), Kenya Kwanza administration is committed to turn the fortunes around charcoal.

The "freedom cafe" is a regular platform under the Friedrich Naumann Foundation where Kenyans gather to freely discuss topics of interest, usually revolving around a policy initiative.

"Whether we like it or not, demand for charcoal will continue to rise as population and energy needs grow. Appreciation of charcoal as a source of energy has not happened, and all along we have been engaged in anti-policing the trade," said George Tarus, the head of the Forest Conservation Directorate at the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Forestry.

According to Tarus, charcoal has a serious impact on Kenya's economy, but its benefits are lost through corruption and a disjointed value chain. People involved in its production end up getting the short end of the stick, the state gets almost nothing while middle-men run with the most.

A year into a moratorium on logging in 2019, State House advertised a tender for a supply of charcoal. It was an ironic twist for a government that was committed to green energy solutions, but Tarus saw it more as a moment of truth for a country that loves to bury its head in the sand.

"It's the same case with logging. This morning we all woke up in beds made of wood, and are probably sitting on chairs made of wood, but we want to pretend that logging is, in and of itself, bad," Tarus said.

He said when trees are not harvested upon maturity, it's a loss to the country which translates into millions of wasted money. For instance, the exotic trees planted for commercial purposes- pine, cypress and eucalyptus- have a maturity span of 25 to 30 years.

When the five-year window for harvesting them lapses, they develop a condition called heart rot and begin releasing carbon, and eventually fall. Younger plantations that replace them are reputed for sinking more carbon.

A 2020 paper on charcoal value chains in the country published by the World Agroforestry Centre predicted that due to increasing urbanisation of the middle and lower-income groups along with rapid population growth, the demand for charcoal in Kenya will rise in the coming decades.

Wanjira Maathai, chair of the board of Wangari Maathai Foundation, told the cafe that a more innovative solution that also accommodates the preferences of local communities is what will turn the tide, and not ill-thought fiats. She too decries the continued demonization of charcoal.

"We need to be very patient, thoughtful, very local and granular in how we intervene. The statistics show us that the demand for charcoal as energy source will continue to grow in the next 60 years, even as we shout loud against it," she said.

For her, the most important question is how to restructure the trade to run it in a formal, sustainable manner that accords justice to all players, including those at the bottom of the chain. Wanjira offers another alternative, and which involves empowering local communities to adopt alternative energy sources.

In Karura, where her mother staged an epic battle to save the forest in late 80's and early 90's, the demand for collection of deadwood has reduced over the years. The communities around the forest have transitioned into other sources of energy after making greater use of forest resources to improve their lives.

"You all go to Karura for morning runs and weekend walks. The forest has created jobs for the young men, women and community members who guide people around and draw a lot more other benefits," she says, citing the role of poverty in the promotion of charcoal trade.

Amos Wamenya, a Senior Advisor at Power Shift Africa, said a more empowered local community is likely to make better decisions for themselves and the country, warning against knee-jerk reactions to complex conservation questions.

"You cannot watch your child die when you can sell charcoal to feed and save them. The story is different when you have an alternative to save them. We need to analyse this from a system perspective where we make energy a human right issue," he told the forum.

According to the study funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation's Global Partnerships Hub and authored by Edward Wanyonyi, the paper recommends enforcement of clear rules for sustainable charcoal production in specific areas "to ensure responsible forest resource utilization, including establishing specific forest designated for charcoal production, creating sustainable supply while preserving natural habitats."

The author is a senior programme manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom