Charcoal production: A threat to natural forests
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CharCoal is the main source of household energy in urban and peri-urban areas, and is mainly used for cooking purposes. According to available information from the Ministry of Energy and Minerals and studies carried out by Professor romanus Ishengoma; Mr Bariki Kaale, Eng Estomih Sawe and the World Bank as well as others not mentioned here, biomass fuels (mostly charcoal and firewood) account for about 90 per cent of the national energy balance.

In that context, charcoal is contemplated as an important forest product, but how this commodity is produced, traded, handled and utilised leaves a lot to be desired.

however, it is considered big business worth about one million US dollars annually and traded inside and outside Tanzania (though export of charcoal is not allowed by law but illegally done).

Although charcoal is an important commodity as far as life in the urban and peri-urban areas is concerned, it is the household energy that has not been properly handled with the national energy policies.

Whereas the state, through the Ministry of Energy and Minerals (MEM), struggles hard to improve sources of energy for the mainland, most of the efforts have mainly focused on about 10 percent of the national energy balance, leaving aside the 90 percent to take care of itself, thereby leading to excessive cutting of trees resulting in severe negative impacts to the environment.

The national energy policy for decades has been emphasizing on the expansion and improving energy supply and distribution from such sources as electricity gener ated from hydropower, oil, and natural gas.

To some extent, this also includes solar and some renewable energy sources (of which charcoal and firewood is included), but very little is done to improve charcoal supply as well as entire charcoal value chain.

Reading through the report by Mr Sauli Gillard in the ‘Daily News,’ Monday, July 24, 2017, it was encouraging to note that the president during his official visit in Tabora region decried indiscriminate cutting of trees for charcoal.

On this issue, President Dr John Pombe Magufuli said “allowing people to invade forests and clear some oldest and unique species of trees just to make charcoal for the sake of getting votes... but we are killing our own country” ‘Daily News,’ Monday, July 24, 2017.

Additionally, the president stated: “just imagine a 20-year-old man clearing a 150 year old tree just for charcoal... worse still, no replacement is done. I must tell you the truth, this is not allowed.”

According to the Forest act (Cap323 rE: 2002) and its regulations, no one is allowed to cut trees in a natural environment without a legal permit (licence or written authorization from the Director of Forestry or authorised officers on behalf of the Director or the Chief Executive of the Tanzania Forest Services (TFS) an agency operating on behalf of the central government.

Rampant cutting of trees and/or clearing natural forests/woodlands especially in reserved areas and public forest/woodland areas also in village lands has been taking place for decades due to inadequate capacities in government (central/local authorities) institutions and village councils to enforce the laws & by-laws and by making sure that the natural heritage such as the forests and woodlands including the wildlife resources are sustainably managed and utilised.

On the other hand, it has been a weakness due to inadequate political will, as the president cited while visiting some areas of Tabora region, including Kaliua District, where persistent and widespread destruction of environmental resources has been taking place for long.

Some time back when I was still in government service, I visited several villages in Kaliua area and faced the same challenges witnessed by the president. What he saw in Tabora (or in other regions), is the general picture of practices that have been taking place and still occurring throughout the country, with wanton destruction of natural forests in the context of political arena, particularly during periods of elections, with all political parties trying to win votes from the local communities living adjacent to forests and woodlands.

This practice, unfortunately, also happens in some reserved areas, set aside for environmental and biodiversity conservation while others conserved as very critical sources for water supply.

However, in the context of staggering political will, many of such important forest/woodland resources have been turned into ashes, settlements, grazing grounds, in addition to charcoal and timber for quick money making.

It was very unfortunate that government political and decision makers decided to abolish the post of Forest Guards (Walinzi Misitu): a decision that was enforced in the context of reducing the size of the government.

The criteria used hinged on understanding that natural forests and woodlands can always sustain themselves without being guarded by anyone, therefore the existence of the forest guards was considered irrelevant, and they were therefore removed from the Forestry and Beekeeping Division’s list of employees.

The decision was also effected in the context that forestry is not a priority sector as the case is for water, education, health, agriculture or infrastructure. This has indeed affected the wellbeing of our natural forests and woodlands due to lack of effective management, that is why human activities have been taking place in a manner regarded as free-for-all (Shamba la Bibi), with no authority governing its use.

The consequences of such uncontrolled human activities in natural forests and woodlands have been very detrimental to indispensable ecological, environmental services like sustainable water supply in streams/rivers; enhanced climate change; soil conservation and biodiversity protection including habitats to wildlife.

It is encouraging to note that the government top echelon, including the president, vice president, the prime minister, and ministers responsible for environment, lands, agriculture and natural resources and tourism have realized that as a nation, something must be done to stop indiscriminate destruction of natural heritage in order to revamp ecological services that are generated through existence of healthier and well conserved forest/woodland resources.

referring to the project of water sup ply from the Malagarasi river to neighbouring local communities, the president cautioned that the water project from may not be sustainable simply because the precious liquid (water) is drying up.

On that note, President Magufuli added by saying “if you flashback 10 years ago, the water in Malagarasi River is drying up, but this is because people are clearing trees. People are invading forest reserves to wantonly cut trees” reported Mr. Sauli Gillard of ‘Daily News,’ Monday July 24, 2017.

It is imperative that the position indicated by the president is, indeed, a vital political will that the conservationists and forest wildlife resources managers should capitalise on to upscale efforts to safeguard the national heritage for the good of all Tanzanians.

To attain effectiveness in conservation and sustainable utilization of natural forest and woodland resources, I humbly request our national leaders to seriously reconsider and reinstate the forest guards in order to reduce, to a great extent, indiscriminate clearing of forest and woodland resources for charcoal and other forest products as well as loss of critical forests/woodlands due to shifting cultivation and overgrazing.

Once this is attained, there will be significant improvements in ecological services, including sustained water supply in streams/rivers, enhanced habitats for biodiversity and wildlife resources, enhanced food security and nutrition, including favourable climatic conditions.

 Dr Felician Kilahama is the Chairman, Board of Directors, Tanzania Forestry Research Institute (TAFORI), in Morogoro, Tanzania.

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