The tightening of anti-charcoal laws has been received with mixed feelings and reactions. There are those who welcome the new penalties saying they will go a long way in the protection of the environment; then there are those who feel that government should not prohibit the use of charcoal until a feasible alternative is found and given to people. As usual, most commentators that have expressed their views have done so with some political leaning. Pro-government supporters mostly see nothing wrong with the new regulations while those who lean towards the opposition see everything wrong with them.
Issues of this nature are too important to be left to the ravages of politics. They need to be discussed soberly and honestly. The merits and demerits of each decision or option should be thoroughly examined to find the most feasible way forward.
Let us first discuss the implications of relaxing the laws in favour of charcoal producers and users. This, to all intents and purposes, is what the current status is. People can cut down trees as they wish and convert them to charcoal, for which there is a ready market in both rural and urban areas. The merits of this are that the population has access to a reasonably cheap source of energy and the charcoal traders have a source of income.
This option has two major demerits, which are linked, one to the other. The first one is that charcoal production, the way it is currently handled, is a serious environmental hazard. Many people know this but some turn a blind eye to it, hoping against hope that somehow things will miraculously work out fine. Our forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, a problem which, in its wake, causes other environmental problems: excessive soil erosion, siltation and eutrophication of our water bodies and aesthetically unpleasant natural sceneries.
Although charcoal is, strictly speaking, a renewable resource, the majority of the charcoal practitioners do not bother to conduct their trade in a sustainable manner. All they know is cutting down trees and proceeding to gasify them to get charcoal. Most of them have never planted a single tree in their life, much less replaced the trees they have felled. As a result, our forests are getting razed down and not replaced. This is what makes charcoal production an environmental hazard.
The second demerit is that the resource will soon disappear. This will happen a lot sooner than people imagine. Charcoal production will inevitably lead to what is known as “the tragedy of the commons”.
The commons are any natural resources that do not belong to an individual or a corporate body. The term “the tragedy of the commons” was coined by Garret Hardin in 1968. Referring to earlier work by William Foster Lloyd, Hardin brought to the attention of the world the plight of a common piece of pastureland where different herdsmen were at liberty to graze their animals. Each herdsman would start with a few animals but would later realise that he would realise more profit if he added a few more animals. Without restraints each herdman would add more and more animals to the land such that before long the entire pastureland would be overrun.
I once visited Chikuli, a trading centre north west of Chileka. When I arrived at the village I was visiting, I noticed that there was not a single young man in sight. They had all gone out to burn charcoal. At that time all the trees in the natural forests had been depleted, forcing the charcoal burners to dig the tree roots and instead.
Prohibiting the charcoal trade has its own merits and demerits too. I will mention the demerits first then switch to the merits. The demerits are that people will be deprived of a source of energy and that some people will lose their livelihoods. Lack of feasible alternatives is mentioned in this regard. The major merit is that our environment will be spared from the nexus of agents of irreversible degradation.
Going forward, I would like to suggest as follows: that use of gas should be vigorously promoted, especially among urban dwellers; that charcoal should still be produced but under regulated conditions by those licensed to do so. Only those that can show that they can produce charcoal sustainably should be awarded these licenses. Those that do not have trees may resort to bamboo species as the base material for charcoal production. Bamboos grow quickly, are far less labour intensive to grow than trees and have a high yield of wood meant for charcoal. Very soon the country will be inundated with legally produced charcoal