By Salla Rantala
Driving along a narrow country road leading towards the Rubeho mountains in Central Tanzania’s Kilosa district, we come across bicycle after bicycle loaded with sacks of charcoal, heading towards sprawling urban centres.
Two weeks later, I write this to the loud churning sound of the diesel generator of our compound in Dar es Salaam, during another one of the programmed 16-hour power cuts across the city. The links between the two situations are multiple, with a number of implications for the success of a national initiative of mitigating climate change through reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
Over 90% of Tanzanians depend on wood fuels for domestic energy, and in the urban centers, charcoal is the fuel of choice. In Dar es Salaam, the proportion of households using charcoal as the primary source energy arose from 47% to 71% between 2002-2007. It is a reliable source of energy – unlike electricity – and does not require expensive appliances to use it.
On May 23rd 2011, in an event celebrating three years of climate change partnership between the governments of Tanzania and Norway, the Environment Minister of Tanzania, Terezya Huvisa, posed a question to the audience: how many of you do not use charcoal when cooking at home? Only three people out of the 50+ participants, consisting largely of urbanite government officials and donor and NGO representatives in the forestry sector, raised their hands. The myth of wood fuel as primarily the energy source of the poor and the rural was definitely debunked. Even those battling deforestation in the policy arenas are using it.
Policy discussions around forests and climate change frequently refer to charcoal production as one of the main culprits of deforestation and forest carbon emissions. This is explicitly articulated in the Tanzanian Draft National Strategy for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) published in January 2011. Future “business as usual” scenarios predict a worsening of the situation.
The demand for charcoal is projected to increase along with rapid urbanization and population growth. A recent study describes a deforestation ring expanding around Dar es Salaam in waves, the outer boundary of the charcoal production area having moved 30 km between 1991 and 2005 (2 km/y). As nearby forests are exhausted, increasing charcoal prices (from less than 3,000 Tanzanian shillings/sack in 2003 to over TZS 20,000/sack in 2007) offset the cost of transporting the product longer distances, and the boundary is pushed further.
The consequences of deforestation and forest degradation extend beyond CO2 emissions. In terms of environmental services, they include biodiversity losses and decreased water services. The inhabitants of Tanzanian cities have become accustomed to intermittent power cuts as water levels in the hydroelectric dams, which supply most of the country’s electricity, fall under comfortable levels. While citizens complain, then submissively shrug at the inconvenience, prolonged power rationing adversely affects especially small- and medium-sized businesses and causes economic losses.
The proposed measures to counter the charcoal driver of deforestation in the draft National REDD+ Strategy include supporting access to alternative energy sources and increasing the efficiency of both biomass energy production and utilization. Civil society actors commend the latter measure as a step forward from the idea of an overnight transformation of the whole energy sector by a complete abandoning of biomass fuels.
This “quick fix” solution has tended to dominate the public energy discourse in Tanzania, although deemed unrealistic by an increasing number of stakeholders. Yet, the broader political economy ramifications of the charcoal challenge are vaguely analyzed and not explicitly addressed in the national policy proposals.
The multi-billion Tanzania shilling charcoal economy is largely unregulated, and escapes government tax collectors. Most of the charcoal is derived from lands with contested tenure. As in many other sub-Saharan countries, in Tanzania there has been a push towards decentralized natural resource governance and devolution of forest rights to local communities since 1990s.
Yet in practice, skewed interpretation of laws by government officials undermines tenure by communities and individuals, who then have little incentive to sustainably manage their resources. Charcoal production is often the byproduct of clearing more land for agriculture – another frequently cited driver of deforestation. In Iringa region in central Tanzania, villages engage in sustainable community-based charcoal production.
The sustainable charcoal, however, has to compete in the market with illegal, unregulated charcoal, the cheaper price of which does not reflect the full value of the product with the raw material costs excluded. In addition, the shares from illegal charcoal that remain with local producers are a fraction of the final market price. The trade is dominated by a narrow band of powerful elites.
Empowering communities to access charcoal levies might enhance incentives for local enforcement, but it would also mean decreased revenue to central and district governments. Bringing the charcoal business under regulation and changing the current status quo would therefore require considerable political will.
There is a broad consensus among policy actors in Tanzania that it is crucial to address the charcoal question for REDD+ policies to be effective. But with the REDD+ discussion largely compartmentalized inside the forest sector, do they have the will and the adequate means to act on it?