Charcoal Production: A Source Of Income Or Environmental Hazard?

By Tashi Manasseh

In a State like Nasarawa with many rural settlements, there will always be a reason for charcoal production. The poor rural dwellers see it as a means of making ends meet. But this seemingly lucrative business for rural dwellers has a depleting effect on Nigeria’s forest resources, with far-reaching consequences that range from soil degradation and desertification to climate change. For the urban poor, charcoal provides a cheap source of energy for cooking.

Speaking in an interview, Theresa Igbyawase from Tsohon Tunga, Awe Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, stated that she sells charcoal and makes one thousand naira from each bag, and she could produce up to 10 bags per week.

Theresa, who spoke in her native language, added that she produces the charcoal from burning wood gotten from felled trees. The resulting charred material is what is sold as charcoal.

In her words: “I started this business last year when there was a delay in the rainy season. In my community, the rainy season did not come quickly, not until mid-June, when serious rainfall started. You cannot plant anything. So while we were waiting for the rainfall, we engaged in charcoal production.” According to her, the charcoal business even gives more money than farming.

Speaking further, Theresa Igbyawase said that when she started, almost every household in her community were also in the business of charcoal production saying they saw it as a source of regular income compared to farming because it is all year round. Farming, meanwhile, is a seasonal work and it takes longer time for farmers to earn an income from it.

Some further probing revealed that to produce at least 20 bags of charcoal, between 10 to 15 trees have to be cut down. This is a rather large number of trees that are lost especially considering the fact that many of the people involved in the business do not plant any trees to replace what is lost. These hardwood trees even take decades to grow.

The question of the moment is whether the forest guards are actually doing their work or if they are sleeping on duty.

Charcoal is one of the main types of wood fuel. While most people in rural areas use firewood, people in urban areas prefer charcoal because it is more convenient and produces less smoke. But charcoal, just like firewood, produces indoor air pollution, a leading cause of deaths in the country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 95,300 Nigerians die annually from indoor air pollution.

A study based on evidence from the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS 2013) shows that approximately 0.8% of neonatal deaths, 42.9% of post-neonatal deaths, and 36.3% of child deaths could be attributed to the use of solid fuels (charcoal, firewood, crop wastes, sawdust, coal, and dung).

According to WHO, the inefficient use of solid fuels for cooking is responsible for the deaths of 4.3 million people annually around the world. And about 3 billion people globally still depend on these dirty energy sources for cooking and heating their homes.

The number of trees wasted for the production of charcoal is extremely high. The producers revealed that no single tree yields up to four bags of charcoal, and these hardwood trees take decades to grow. The interaction with charcoal producers reveals that they are ignorant of the negative impact of their activities on the environment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Nigeria is one of the leading countries with the highest rates of deforestation. As of 2005, Nigeria had the highest rate of deforestation in the world. The rate of deforestation in Nigeria is estimated at 400,000 hectares annually.

Charcoal production has far-reaching consequences, including soil degradation, desertification, and climate change.

This is why Abdulhamid Tashir Hamid, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Environmental and Climate Conservation Initiative, expressed displeasure that people are felling trees to make income from charcoal without considering the long-term negative effects on the environment.

“The consequences are beyond the indoor air pollution from burning charcoal,” says Kolawole. “The problem is the forests they are destroying to get the charcoal. Some of the trees have been around for 50 to 100 years before they can give you the quality you need. Now we are cutting down trees, but we are not planting. Even if we are planting, we will not get the benefit until 20 to 30 years.”

When people go into the forest to cut down trees, they are reducing the ability of the earth to maintain its own temperature, which is why we have global warming and its attendant effect of climate change. One of the effects of whatever evil we do to the environment is that sometimes the impact is not localised. You cut down the forest here; people feel the impact in another place.

We can’t live without the services that the trees provide. They are our support system. The trees give us oxygen. In other words, they take carbon dioxide and give us clean air. They give us beauty and shade from the sun.

Trees are like shade to the soil, such that the intensity of the heat is not hitting directly on the soil. When the intensity of the heat is directly on the soil, it dries up moisture in the soil, and when there is no moisture, nothing can grow.

Speaking during the North Central Nigeria Youth Post COP26 Conference, which was held recently at the College of Agriculture, Science and Technology in Lafia, Dr. Alhassan Usman, Dean, Faculty of Agriculture, Federal University Lafia, disclosed that the problem is ignorance.

Usman laments that logging for charcoal is causing soil infertility in places where the commodity is being produced.”The same local people who left farming because it was no longer productive as a result of climate change are now going to fell trees to use for charcoal production. They earn some money but go back again to use that money to buy food at an expensive rate.”

The government’s indifference to the reduction of charcoal production shows a lack of commitment to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 15 stresses the urgency to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss, while SDG 13 also demands urgent action on climate change and its impact.

Usman added that the government is not taking decisive actions in combating climate change.

He added that “One would wonder why many people, in a country like Nigeria, with all the abundant sources of decent and much better environmentally friendly cooking energy, have over the years been resorting to cutting down trees for cooking fuel.”

The previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan initiated the national clean cooking scheme to stop the use of firewood and charcoal for cooking and prevent the depletion of forest resources through indiscriminate felling of trees. Through this scheme, the government aimed to distribute over 20 million clean cook stoves across the country by 2020, but along the line, the program could not continue.

Speaking with the charcoal producers in the community, when asked if there is any task force who questions them when cutting down the trees in their communities, they replied no. Tersoor Akombo added that we can go anywhere at any moment to cut any tree of our choice. It was not until around December last year that if you are caught with charcoal in a large quantity, you will be questioned, but still people do it secretly.

The Nasarawa State Government had in December 2021, announced a ban on the use and sale of charcoal for whatever purpose in the State and the State Commissioner for Environment, Hon. Kwanta Yakubu had paraded some suspects that were caught in possession of bags of charcoal. It is hoped that the enforcement of this ban along with continuous sensitization will bring an end to this ugly practice.

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