Eat your charcoal, child


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Many on this blog have written about the triple win of improved livelihoods, increased climate resilience and carbon capture. That vision of climate-smart agriculture and sustainable forest management is one of hope and necessity against a backdrop of food price volatility and climate extremes. Last week I was able to spend time studying the said “backdrop” – in the Eastern province of Kenya, where farmers who have last seen rain in March 2010 are cutting down trees to survive.

I spoke to farmers in Mboti, a community of about 100 families scattered in a world of thorny white bushes, red earth and isolated trees. Even in good times, they are brave people living on rain-fed agriculture in a region that gets much less average precipitation than Kenya's lush and populous highlands. They live on the edge – coexisting and sometimes competing with nomadic herders for salty water drawn from boreholes, one jerrycan at a time. 

But the farmers' endurance has been stretched to the limit. The heavy rains of November didn't materialize (it drizzled) and the April showers never did either. Priscilla Mwangangi, a 60 year-old widow, plowed her fields this spring hoping she could sow millet and sorghum, but instead spends her time minding a mound of charcoal which she feeds by chopping down acacia trees around her property. One big bag of charcoal sells for 400 Kenyan shillings – about $5.

While most of the men have left the village to look for elusive work as casual laborers, their wives and children are reduced to making charcoal to buy food day in and day out. Their larders are absolutely empty. The tough canvas bags they fill with charcoal and haul on their back to the side of the asphalt road are marked “World Food Programme” or “Food Relief” – recycled remnants of averted famine and a graphic illustration of what foresters mean when they talk about trees as "safety nets for the poor". So far, Priscilla has kept her single bony cow but many of her neighbors have already started selling their hungry livestock at deflated prices. (They are gambling that it is better to sell now, before their cattle die.)

It's not clear how long the land can be stripped of its vegetation before irreversible damage is done. No one is planting trees in this area to replace the ones that are chopped, charred or stripped by goats – or making sure they have time to regenerate. Exposed and eroded river banks translate into flash floods (when it rains) that leave little water behind to grow crops, grass and trees. Water runs off in gullies. Top soil is washed away, silting the dams on the Tana river that Kenya depends on for power. Farmers believe the gradual loss of forest cover in the last decades is somehow responsible for uneven rainfall. Whether it's true or not at the micro-climate level, the links between extreme weather, poverty and land degradation are all too obvious. Contrite but desperate, farmers are forced to attend to urgent matters, feeding the charcoal pit like a crying baby, turning trees into food as fast as they can.




Flore de Préneuf

Senior Communications Officer

May 24, 2011

In some ways, the same happens in Peru.

Kimbowa Richard
May 31, 2011

Thanks for this moving story from Eastern Kenya. Form Uganda, I sometimes wonder if anyone who minds is reading this stuff. There are numerous issues that this story raises (similar situation increasingly prevails in many parts of East Africa):

- National level: Climate variability in this region is real (no / poor rains leading to food insecurity and affecting livelihoods). But no tangible / minimal attempts to address this are available to this community. Instead they have to survive by mowing down the remaining trees!

- Local: No information no sustainable options in sight to cope with this set of challenges. Charcoal production remains the only way to make a living of one is to remain in this area.

Unfortunately, the end users of this charcoal do not know its life-cycle and hence being able to act. For me this is where the discussion on 'green economy' would start, if it is to be relevant to the South.

The story points out weak points that a 'green economy' should address:

- Sustainable small scale agriculture (rainfall dependent) - How to sustain food productivity and security without putting pressure on the already fragile ecosystems and soils?

- Rural energy: Getting the end users (urban areas and commercial institutions) to switch to alternative renewable energy options - based on policy triggers, international cooperation and technology transfer?

- Water supply: How to secure supply of clean and safe water to all at all seasons without antagonizing fragile ecosystems during the dry and extended spells?

June 02, 2011

The key information i gather from this article is the high dependance on a natural source of renewable energy. Trees.
Adaptation to rising oil prices, climate changes and variable market forces is currently underway in most communities in Kenya.
Replicating successful natural 'homegrown' energy production sources is key for long term "triple-win" situations. Cost cutting development measures through private sector driven environmental investment models such the one listed below will be critical in community adaptation to this generations challenges.

Flore de Préneuf
June 03, 2011

Thank you Kimbowa and Teddy. I think you're both right. Hopefully, the stress of rising food and oil prices will give a boost to sustainable agricultural practices that include trees for charcoal production AND trees that retain water and enrich the soil for improved yields in an unforgiving, fickle climate. This would create an ecosystem that can survive and provide decent livelihoods. The alternative is migration.

I was visiting the area with a private investor (Better Globe Forestry) interested in trees that grow naturally in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands: a local variant of mahogany, melia vulkansii (“mukau” in Kikamba, the local dialect), that produces beautiful red hardwood in 15 to 20 years' time. I saw mukau covered in fruit in the middle of barren, drought-stricken fields and worked into planks and expensive furniture by local craftsmen. If planted now in large numbers, it could enter the sustainable wood market just when its rainforest relative runs out.

Better Globe Forestry, a company backed by Scandinavian investors (motto: "Prosperity with Purpose"), is working to improve the mukau species through a concerted R&D effort, collecting seeds with the help of Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) from the rare high-quality trees that have not already been sawed down.

Large-scale afforestation holds many promises (healthier ecosystems, jobs, food security, renewable energy). But the research costs and planting uncertainties are huge for a private entrepreneur interested in indigenous, climate-smart species, and the policy environment is not always supportive of tree planting. Several development partners (the World Bank, IUCN, the World Agroforestry Centre, PROFOR, TerrAfrica and EcoAgriculture Partners) convened last week in Nairobi to try to identify and lift some of the constraints to private investment in trees and landscape restoration in Africa.

What do you see as the biggest constraints and opportunities in this area?

Audun Turoey
November 21, 2015

Dear Flore de Préneuf, I was searching for information about Better Globe Forestry when I came across this comment. I was wondering if you have had any more interaction with the company or knowledge about their operations and if so, what is your current thoughts about their approach?

Ernest Kreutzer
December 14, 2021

Many years ago and the situation is going worse in East africa and Madagascar . "I sometimes wonder if anyone who minds is reading this stuff ." (K .R) Let's pray it is soon Christmas .