A tree on its way to be chopped
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.
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.
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.
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
Supervising the charcoal making process
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.
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