Congo Charcoal, An Environmental Disaster In The Making

Making charcoal requires cutting down trees and burning them in the ground, destroying in the process not only trees but also the fertility of the land. Farming output is on the decline, and environmentalists are signaling the need for change.

A Congolese woman carrying a basin full of coal
Jean Thibaut Ngoyi

BRAZZAVILLE â€" In the vicinity of Brazzaville, thousands of woodland hectares have been decimated by charcoal producers over the course of many decades, destroying not only the trees but damaging the land itself. Powerless, farmers are noticing that their crop productivity has fallen dramatically.

François Xavier Mayouya, head of a local charity, has raised the alarm. He says charcoal production in the villages around Brazzaville will have disastrous consequences. To make it, producers cut down trees and burn wood slowly in ground pits, called coal stoves, and extinguish the fires just before the wood turns to ash.

"Several farmers have complained about a decline in their output, unaware that it's because of coal stoves that emit heat in the ground on a more than 20-meter perimeter," he says. "Fire destroys the land. It's no longer possible to plant manioc here."

Idriss Mbouka, a geomorphology specialist, agrees. "The use of coal stoves causes the clearing of the forests and the deterioration of the grounds. The heat emitted by these stoves destroys mineral elements. That's clay, silt â€" everything that contributes to the cohesion, the richness of the ground."

During the Nov. 29 National Tree Day in Brazzaville, Forest Economy Minister Henri Djombo quoted the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, saying, "About 17,000 hectares of forest are destroyed every year in the Republic of the Congo, because of the clearing caused by slash-and-burn agriculture, the gathering of firewood and the production of charcoal."

No change in 20 years

This concern isn't actually new, which makes the lack of progress more staggering. In 1994, Jean-Pierre Banzouzi, an anthropologist and doctor in social sciences at the Free University of Brussels, wrote a book in which he warned of forest devastation. "The Pool region destroys an average of 125,000 tons of wood every two years," he wrote, amounting to the deforestation of about 3,000 hectares. "The firewood and coal trades alone bring in 7.6 million euros to the region," he continued. "At this rate, if we are not careful, the Pool region could be decimated in the next 50 years and become a desert."

Twenty years have already passed and almost nothing has changed. Yolande Malonga, a farmer from Linzolo, a small village 30 kilometers southwest of Brazzaville, is well aware of the problem. "Of course, the use of coal stoves destroys the forest, but because there's no work in Linzolo, young people survive thanks to this," Malonga says. "If we tell them to stop, we'll have problems with them. We're currently being affected by the consequences, but we can't do anything about it."

Coal fire in Kashbere, North Kivu, Congo â€" Photo: MONUSCO/Michael

Marthe Konda, another farmer from Linzolo and a mother of four, has observed the same thing in her crops. "The manioc we plant doesn't grow anymore because of the damage caused by the heat from the coal stoves," she says.

Cooperatives, cultivation, livestock

Some people such as Michel Bienvenu Dianzenza, who has been selling coal for 12 years, are at least aware of the damage they're causing. Like his colleagues, Dianzenza buys forest space from landowners, cuts down the trees, then places them in burn pits in the ground that he covers with soil before setting fire to them. After a week, he comes back to retrieve the coal from the stove and gets ready to sell it.

A father, Dianzenza hopes to change jobs as soon as possible. "I provide for my family this way," he says. "But if I find a job that earns me 75 euros per month, I'll give up charcoal. This occupation not only requires money, but it's also very hard."

According to Emmanuel Vital Makoumbou, head of Linzolo village, this practice wasn't as common in his region before the 1997 war. He's now asking the state to "revive cooperatives, train young people on agricultural and livestock farming techniques, fund them, help them find a way out." Failing that, the youth will keep on thinking producing charcoal is the only way to make a living.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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