Friday, July 2, 2010


A charcoal-man on his way to Lusaka Market

Whenever we go on a safari heading out of Lusaka or driving early in the morning, there are two things that are common to the landscape, the stunning sunrise and the charcoal-men bicycling towards town.
Foreigners love to take pictures of both, one for the beauty and the other for its originality – you don’t usually see in developed countries a medium size man carrying almost three times his own wait on a bicycle, especially when what they carry is one bulky load (175 Kg) of charcoal…
These anonymous men begin their daily trip to the city markets at around 4 am, the distances they bike to reach the marketplaces vary from 40 to 20 km, which takes an average of 4 to 5 hours biking under the mercy of harsh weather. It doesn’t matter whether it is cold, hot or heavily raining, their living depends on selling charcoal, so there is no other choice than making the trip.
Each charcoal bag sells at 25,000 Kwacha (5 dollars), each man carries on his bicycle approximately 7 bags full of charcoal weighing 25 Kg each. A charcoal-man cuts an average of 15 trees per month.
Old and thick hardwood trees are the ones targeted for chopping, since they provide longer and hotter burning charcoal than any other tree. The trees are estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old.

A tree on its way to be chopped

Trees are being cut indistinctively from the natural reserves or from private land. The most common practice for farming is the slash and burn process, where the forest is cut and the remaining vegetation is burned to prepare a temporally rich soil for planting crops (most farmers can’t afford to buy fertilizer). Both processes end up clearing large amounts of indigenous forest that will never be recovered as none saplings are planted as a corrective measure.

Last month, during one of my trips to the bush, I had the chance to meet some of the charcoal-men, who, with pleasure, showed and explained me the charcoal process. To do so I went with them deep into the forest to the very place they were cutting and burning trees. As I was getting closer to the place I couldn’t stop feeling overwhelmed by the disheartening contrast – on one side a beautiful ancient indigenous forest, full of light and energy, on the other side the naked land. The fact of knowing that a few weeks before that very same terrain was a glorious forest filled my heart with desperation and helplessness. I could feel the lamentations of the fallen trees while the smoke from the charcoal earthy-oven collapsed my senses.
For a while I couldn’t control my urge to slap the three men responsible for such crime, but then, their honest straight look – of goodhearted people – brought me back to my senses, as I couldn’t refuse to acknowledge their hard work and the fact that they were doing their best to earn an honest living.

A sad picture of the nude land - what is left...

With pride one of them walked me to a very old tall tree, and then explained to me how they knock down the them with almost no tools and technology; all they use are some shuffles to dig around the tree until all its routes are exposed and weakened, and then they start swinging the tree until it loses its stability and falls down. Once the tree is down the charcoal-men begin to cut it into manageable logs that will be later moved into the big hole where the slow burning process will take place. Once the fire is on, the hole is covered up with soil and the vigil begins; close monitoring is essential to ensure the charcoal doesn’t turn into ash.

Ground-oven and a charcoal-man at work

I asked many questions, as I wanted to understand why they chose to be charcoal-men. I also asked questions to assess whether they were conscious of the ecologic impact their actions have on earth. They told me that they have been doing it for more than 15 years; they don’t remember how many trees they have cut and burned so far.
Now, before we start pointing fingers and begin to call these people criminals, selfish, Earth’s enemies or whatever name we manage to come up with, there is a need to understand the reasons behind their doings.
To be or not to be a charcoal-man isn’t a choice; alternatives are scarce in the rural areas where poverty rules. Migrating to the cities searching for jobs requires some level of education, getting qualified requires money. Without a job there is no money, then education is out of reach… therefore cutting trees to make charcoal is the only honest option they have… It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of individuals' income in rural areas is earned from charcoal.
But the needs for charcoal doesn’t come from the charcoal-men only, almost 80% of the Zambian population uses charcoal as their main fuel source. Poor electricity supply, low income and lack of alternative fuel sources are the main reasons. The socio-economic problem of the country is having a devastating impact on Zambian natural resources.
This country used to be a major copper producer and one of the richest African countries, but after the world copper prices collapsed in 1975 Zambia became one of the world’s poorest countries. With a population of 12.9 million, a labor force of 5.3 million and unemployment rate of 50%, Zambia needs to develop sources of revenue to improve the current poverty levels, where millions of Zambians live below the World Bank poverty threshold of $ 1 a day. Several studies show that 70% of the poorest population is located in the rural areas, with almost no means to survive.
These statistics are a reality in almost every undeveloped country in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The main cause is the lack of proper socio-economic strategies targeting the development and empowerment of the underprivileged population.
Asia, Africa and Latin America account for 60% of the world’s population, out of which approximately 50% of them are living in poverty. High population growth is escalating the poverty levels of the developing world, where some countries’ populations are doubling and tripling every 30-50 years. This high growth rate is putting unprecedented and increasing pressure on vital natural resources which directly affects the economy and the development opportunities of the affected population.

Supervising the charcoal making process

The charcoal-men are just a very small sample of the limitations and struggles being faced on a daily basis by the unprivileged population of the world.
Their problems are our problems; the trees they are cutting are our trees. We can’t keep reading statistics, nodding our heads in agreement or disagreement and then continue with our own business as if the problem doesn’t exist.
A change is needed, actions must be taken. We must become part of the change.

© 2010 Gabriela Abalo


Kass said...

Gabi - What can we do? Are there any organizations that deal specifically with this problem?

Tag said...

As much as I would like to help I find myself floundering. This question and these problems are too big for me Gabi. The world is both too small and too big. Maybe others have something but this needs the resources of global good will to solve. I'm not up to that challenge.

Ed Pilolla said...

this is a terrific look at some of the challenges facing the global community. it's easy to have sympathy for these men. they are honest. they are earning a meager existence from this activity. it is sad to see 300 year old trees go down, but these men are knocking them down with basically their own hands. these tress are giving life to these men and for those who heat their homes with the charcoal made from the trees. it's really like the children's book, the giving tree, one of my favorites.

what a distinction between this life and lumber companies that clear cut trees in protected areas in the northwest us and no government agency will stop them. they use chainsaws and tree huggers that try to stop them are bullied out, or pushed out, by bought-and-paid-for local police. when the big trees fall from chainsaws, even the loggers say the noise the tree makes when falling sounds just like a deep scream.

i hope, i believe, this issue is going to get some resolution, one way or another.

thanks for rich view of life on the other side of the world.

Wine and Words said...

The "nude earth" was word picture enough. A complicated issue to be sure. Resources are not indefinite. I fear the path, I surely do.

sarah said...

I found my way here and am fascinated by what you're writing..'we must become part of the change...' Stay safe ok and strong. Sarah

Kirk Jusko said...

It's sad, but if this country were more westernized, and thus more prosperous, those trees would come down a lot faster and in much greater quantities. Maybe we should be grateful that they're ONLY using their hands to take them down.

Gabriela Abalo said...

Dear Kass, this is a very poignant question, the one you asked… I’m full of questions, pondering about so many things and above all that general lack of awareness. We need permanent solutions, that tackle the real problem: poverty (I’m not only talking about the financial one).
What can we do?
“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” ~Albert Einstein

Tag: the problem is too big for you, for me and for any other individual… that is why we must find a global solution – Raising awareness is a step forward, we can’t keep quiet in the believe that the battle is lost. We must become part of the change (all of us – it is our responsibility and our legacy to our children).
““As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: "With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas," or, "They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them."” ~U Thant, speech, 1970

Ed: I also believe that one way or another there is going to be a solution. “There is hope if people will begin to awaken that spiritual part of themselves, that heartfelt knowledge that we are caretakers of this planet.” ~Brooke Medicine Eagle

W&W: I’m with you, fearing the path, but I still have hope for a better TODAY.
“I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?” ~Robert Redford, Yosemite National Park dedication, 1985

Sarah: Welcome to the blog and thank you for your good wishes.
“The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.” ~Ross Perot

Kirk: so nice to see you back!
“We have to shift our emphasis from economic efficiency and materialism towards a sustainable quality of life and to healing of our society, of our people and our ecological systems.” ~Janet Holmes à Court

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this heartbreaking issue.


Paul C said...

Gabriela, I just wrote a post which links to your poignant essay here. It's a devastating activity. Thanks for your comment to my blog to inform me about your article.

Brian Miller said...

a fascinating post as the global community and our chalenges are heavy on my heart...we must be part of the change and i believe it begins with each small thing we do...

Friko said...

Although on the face of it this is destruction of the earth's resources and the environment, I don't believe that it compares with the huge-scale destruction of say, the rainforest in Amazonia by massive global corporations.
Sad as this is, it is still only individuals scraping a living.

Jingle said...

thought provoking post.
you think big, which is cool and unbeatable!

Bonnie said...

The problem is so deeply rooted (pun not intended) bandaid type help will not effect change. As you say, it is a change in the way we think in the West - a change in our values and behaviors - so that we are not gobbling up the world's resources and creating a place of have and have-nots. We have been talking about it for so long, and it is discouraging to see little change in the levels of poverty around the world.

A riveting post Gabriela.

MAria said...

About the only thing I can add to some great comments is, can we perhaps teach these men to plant trees, I know they will take 200 years to grow, however it could be a help....
Another thought is nature is much bigger and more powerful than us, it is us that will suffer from our mis doings
Love and Namaste

Bunda said...

Such a sad reality, but thanks for sharing this Gabi. And remember even one person can make a difference and your story has done just that,you've helped spread the word!

Jingle said...

Friendship awards.
Enjoy some!