A DANGEROUS, ILLEGAL NECESSITY: CHARCOAL REFORM COMES TO VIRUNGA
- Like elsewhere in Africa, charcoal has become a big problem for Virunga National Park. Illegal production in the park has been high in recent years as producers try to meet the demand from the millions of impoverished people who depend on charcoal as their only source of fuel.
- This demand has led to the destruction of vast swaths of Virunga’s forest – as well as the deaths of gorillas and other wildlife that depend on it.
- Eco-Makala, a project funded through REDD+, is seeking to reduce the impact of charcoal on the park by establishing tree plantations around it and distributing cookstoves that burn charcoal more efficiently. In the process, the project hopes to ease deforestation-driven CO2 emissions.
For more than two decades, a violent civil war and its aftermath raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), leading to the deaths of millions of people. Forests were razed and wildlife slaughtered for fuel and food. While comparative peace has come to much of the country since then, violence and strife is still commonplace in the nation’s East. With most communities dependent on forest resources for survival, charcoal has become king – but at the cost of forests. Even Virunga National Park – famed for its mountain gorillas – is not immune, with vast tracts of forest lost to production of this “black gold.”
But efforts are underway to curb this pressure, with organizations establishing tree plantations around the park, as well as building and distributing cook stoves that burn charcoal more efficiently. More is needed to completely wean community dependence on charcoal sourced from Virunga, but those on the ground say they’re seeing positive results so far. In addition to helping communities and forests on the local level, proponents of the initiative say it is also reducing deforestation-related CO2 emissions and, thus, mitigating global climate change.
Virunga comprises 7,800 square kilometers (3,012 square miles) in the unstable eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) bordering Rwanda and Uganda. It is home to two active volcanoes and the continent’s richest biodiversity, including large concentrations of elephants, buffalo, and the highest number of hippopotamuses in Africa. Threatened species like mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii), golden monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), and okapi (Okapi johnstoni) are also found here. In fact, it was primarily Virunga’s mountain gorillas that led to its designation as Africa’s first national park in 1925, and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage Site in 1979. Listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, about half of the world’s 800-some remaining mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park.
The park is surrounded by communities containing more than eight million people, many of whom use forest resources for their way of life. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 97 percent of this population is dependent on firewood and charcoal as they do not have access to electricity, and 80 percent of Goma’s charcoal is sourced from Virunga National Park.
Charcoal is made by slowly heating organic material like wood to produce a combustible material with a high carbon content that burns more slowly and cleanly than firewood. Charcoal is often produced from trees, and is a major driver of deforestation in developing countries around the world where other sources of fuel are hard to come by.
For Virunga in particular, illegal charcoal production has been a big cause of forest loss – as well as leading to the deaths of gorillas.
“The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade,” Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, told National Geographic in 2007. “There’s a very strong incentive for these people to kill the gorillas.”
To lessen human impact on Virunga’s forest and wildlife, WWF’s Central Africa Office has been promoting the planting of fast-growing community forests around the park through its Eco-Makala project since 2007. “Makala” is the Swahili name for charcoal produced from wood. The project involves small-scale farmers and local organizations, with the aim of providing an alternative fuel source for surrounding communities.
In addition to community forests, WWF is also working to improve charcoal stove efficiency so residents don’t need to harvest as much wood. In 2009, the project introduced stoves that require half the amount of charcoal consumed by traditional stoves.
Paluku Vhosi Jean de Dieu, WWF’s Eco-Makala Project head forester explains that the project aims to expand forest cover around Virunga National Park while providing an alternative source of energy and building materials for communities.
“Environmental degradation is one of the most significant threats to the Park’s biodiversity and natural habitat,” Jean de Dieu told Mongabay. “This is because Makala and wood fuel are the only accessible sources of energy for communities in North Kivu.”
A dangerous, illegal necessity
The 1994 Rwandan genocide brought an influx of refugees and widespread migration to North Kivu’s capital city of Goma. This led to a high demand for wood fuel since most of Goma’s citizens lack electricity. “The entire North Kivu [region] requires about eight million [metric tons] of charcoal annually,” Jean de Dieu said. “Goma alone demands about one million metric [tons].”
According to Jean de Dieu, illegal charcoal burning was a significant source of revenue for armed groups during the more than 20-year civil war. As a result, forest has disappeared – and with it, the habitat of wildlife like elephants, hippopotamus, mountain gorillas, and chimpanzees.
Anifa Byanjira,* a charcoal burner from Rugari, makes a living producing charcoal within the park. Before the Institut Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) – a governmental partner that manages DRC’s protected areas – took over last year, he had to pay a fee to the militias to access the park. He said the militias would also sell charcoal to local business people for $15 per 50-kilogram bag.
“It’s very dangerous. We go at night and return at night. You risk death and arrest. About 20-30 bags require camping in the forest for two weeks until women transport it out at night,” Byanjira explained. “Charcoal from the park is strong and profitable. A sack of 50kg sells at $25 as we use particular indigenous trees compared to the charcoal burned from the tree stumps sourced from the farms which sell at $20” he added. Byanjira told Mongabay that the charcoal is transported by women because they incur fewer penalties than men do if caught by park authorities. The risk is reduced further reduced by traveling at night.
Often, according to Byanjira, militias would demand compensation from locals in exchange for not harming them.
“Before the government soldiers took over, we would pay a monthly protection fee of $25 to Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) to ensure our women transporters were not raped or murdered. The men were charged an additional $5 to access the interior of the forest every time we crossed their barrier,” Byanjira said.
FDLR is the leading illegal, foreign, armed group working in the DRC. It is primarily comprised of members of the Rwandan government and army that were overthrown in 1994, as well as Rwandan refugees that operate in the eastern DRC.
According to park director de Merode, the illegal charcoal business operating in the park is worth $35 million a year. He told Mongabay that park management tried to restrict charcoal burning in 2007 and 2008, but the price of charcoal skyrocketed in about a week with a tremendous impact on the livelihoods of people in Goma.
“We had to exercise a degree of tolerance with the local communities’ access to the forest and accept that some level of destruction was going to happen as we focus our efforts on providing alternatives,” de Merode said.
Rosalina Mwanajuma* a mother of six and widow living in Kimoke village in the Sake region about 25 kilometers from Goma, is the sole breadwinner for her family. For income, she used to carry charcoal from within Virunga National Park in the middle of the night. Today, however, she says that the Eco-Makala project provides her with an alternative source of revenue so that she no longer needs to transport charcoal from the park.
WWF provides tree-planters like Mwanajuma with a list of suggested species through local associations. Tree-planters can be either individuals or local community groups; Individuals must possess between 5 and 1,000 hectares of land, while those with smaller holdings (1 to 5 hectares) can be members of a group.
The trees planted include eucalyptus species (Eucalyptus saligna and Eucalyptus maidenii), black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), a mahogany species (Cedrela serrulata), silky oak (Grevillea robusta), Nile tulip tree (Markhamia lutea), and cassia tree (Senna siamea). The tree-planters choose which species to plant based on their land’s soil type and their wood requirements. Needs range from building materials like sticks and poles to charcoal, timber, and agroforestry.
Mwanajuma now owns a plantation of about 1,600 trees on a one-hectare piece of land. Her intention was to get a consistent supply of firewood, charcoal, building poles, and timber to sell on the lucrative Sake market.
“The building poles are constantly in demand primarily due to war in the area. Every time the houses are destroyed, people have to re-build,” Mwanajuma told Mongabay. “We sell one pole between $1 and $2 on the farm, and a three-meter piece of timber at $2.50 on the weekly market in Sake. The market attracts buyers from Goma and Bukavu.”
Mwanajuma has already harvested and carbonized about 120 trees from her plot. “I made 40 bags of charcoal out of it, which I sold at $25 per 50kg bag. It’s a blessing to no longer buy charcoal, and I no longer have to risk my life carrying sacks of charcoal out of the forest anymore” she said.
According to Jean de Dieu, over 10,000 hectares of trees have been planted around the park since 2007, with an aim to increase it to 47,000 hectares by 2022.
Console’e Kavira, project manager for WWF’s Improved Stoves project said that Goma experienced an influx of refugees after the 2008 conflict in Masisi and Rutshuru territories.
“Charcoal prices went as high as $35,” Kavira told Mongabay. “A family would consume up to four sacks of 50kg per month! We had to find an alternative means to reduce consumption while creating jobs for the high number of refugees and widows.”
Kavira and the team introduced the new Jiko Nguvu Nyeusi (Swahili for “black strong stove”) that consumes less charcoal and produces less waste compared to traditional stoves.
The stove goes for $5-$15 dollars depending on the size. It has become a status symbol among women in the area, the majority of whom were once refugees.
Eco-Makala customers range from schools and NGOs to vendors from Kinshasa and other parts of Congo. The motivation behind the partnership is to share production cost and increase the quantity produced.
Production of the stoves is currently controlled by Reseau des Producteurs des Foyers
Culinaires Ameliores (REPROFCA), a trade association consisting of 20 groups comprised of more than 300 people. Association president Adeline Kahindo Tsonga says the group produces about 3,000 improved stoves a month. Each member earns $0.45 per stove and a $5 monthly membership allowance. The team also grants loans to its members.
“The new Jiko Nyeusi stove has a ceramic lining in addition to the metal one,” Tsonga said. “It consumes less charcoal as compared to the traditional one made up of metal lining alone. This has reduced charcoal consumption per household from four sacks to two bags a month.”
Improved Stoves project manager Kavira says that the decreased demand for charcoal in Goma has led to a drop in the rate at which charcoal is burned – and, ultimately, has helped reduce deforestation.
“The assumption was that where a refugee had to cut two trees, it would reduce by one. Use of the efficient stoves has contributed to reduced charcoal demands in Goma and improved the social-economic livelihood, Kavira said.
Kavira adds that charcoal prices have gone down from $35 to $30 for charcoal sourced at Virunga National Park, and $25 a bag for the alternative charcoal produced at the individual plantations. Those affiliated with the project believe that if an alternative source of cheaper charcoal is readily available, people will be less tempted to enter Virunga and produce it illegally. And as the price of illegal charcoal falls, it will be less lucrative for producers to source it from the park. By 2022, the project aims to have planted 20,000 hectares of trees around Virunga National Park and completely sustain the charcoal needs of Goma’s populace through these plantations.
Data indicate that consumption of illegally produced charcoal has declined since the project started in 2007. A 2015 report on wood energy in North-Kivu by the international branch of France’s l’Office National des Forêts (ONFI) shows Virunga-sourced charcoal dropped from 80 percent in 2008 to 56 percent in 2015. Kavira says that Eco-Makala has replanted more than 15 million trees around the park while working with more than 7,600 small-scale planters and 600 farmers who have replanted around 910 hectares of agroforestry plots since 2007. More than 58,000 efficient stoves have been sold since 2009. They are gaining popularity in other regions of the DRC such as South Kivu.
However, while charcoal pressure may be going down in Virunga, satellite data from the University of Maryland show that deforestation has been trending upward both in Virunga National Park as a whole as well as in its southern portion near Goma. From 2001 through 2014, the park lost more than 23,200 hectares (90 square miles) of its tree cover, averaging 1,600 hectares lost per year over that period. But in 2014, the park lost nearly 4,000 hectares – the highest rate during the study period.
According to Thierry Lusenge, manager of the WWF Sustainable Energy Program, the level of deforestation could still be high due to other causes.
“Despite consumption of charcoal sourced from Virunga reducing from 80 to 56 percent….the report did not consider other drivers of deforestation such as uncontrolled agricultural activities, mining and illegal timber,” Lusenge told Mongabay.
Slowing climate change by keeping Virunga’s forests in the ground
The DRC is home to approximately 145 million hectares of forests, constituting two-thirds of the Congo Basin’s forested area. It is the second-largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon.
Tropical rainforests such as those of Virunga National Park remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lowering the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and thereby mitigating global warming.
World governments issued the Paris Agreement at last December’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), which recognized the vital role that tropical forests play in keeping global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – and thus staving off the worst effects of climate change.
However, forest loss is cutting into the ability of forests to sequester carbon. Research indicates deforestation is responsible for 15 to 20 percent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists say this is a major threat to combatting global climate change. Because of this, reducing deforestation was strongly emphasized during COP21.
Eco-Makala’s efforts to reduce deforestation in Virunga National Park is in-line with article five of the Paris Agreement, encouraging parties to implement and support positive incentives for activities relating to the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
“The idea was to enable carbon capture and storage and to avoid deforestation at [Virunga National Park]. This would in return improve community livelihoods through tapping into carbon funds to sustain the reforestation activities,” Lusenge said.
A major component of the global effort to mitigate climate change is a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). A mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, REDD+ offers incentives for developing countries to promote forest conservation, sustainable management and reduce emissions from forested lands. It also encourages investment in low-carbon pathways while creating financial value for the carbon stored in forests.
Eco-Makala got its start as a $2.8 million REDD+ pilot project funded by Norway, Canada, and the UK through the Congo Basin Forest Fund in partnership with the government of DRC and the African Development Bank. It aims to sequester about 460,000 tons of carbon dioxide between 2016 and 2020 through the establishment of tree plantations. The project also estimates that 544,000 tons of CO2 emissions were avoided from 2009 to 2016 through the use of more efficient wood stoves.
“We are working closely with the local communities since they are vital to protecting the ecosystem. Each smallholder farmer contracted for 10 years by Eco-Makala receives $100,” Lusenge said. “The local association receives $150 per planting season and free seedlings every planting season to ensure they care for the forests.”
However, more remains to be done. Head forester Jean de Dieu said that despite Eco-Makala’s progress in producing and marketing legal, sustainable, and high-quality charcoal for communities outside Virunga, it’s not yet enough to sustain the region’s charcoal demand. In addition to their goal of planting 47,000 hectares of trees by 2022, the group is looking at other ways to more immediately reduce pressure on forests.
“We are working on improving on the carbonization process, getting adequate finances and lifting illegal taxes [imposed] on the trade” Jean de Dieu said “We hope to create other energy alternatives, such as biogas, diversify on activities to include beekeeping, [and] growing of fruits which will generate community income through the micro-forest plantations.”
Sophie Mbugua is a Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which helped facilitate this story.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of sources.