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

BRAZZAVILLE — 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 — 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."

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Coal fire in Kashbere, North Kivu, Congo — 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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