FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
“HOW do we cook when the trees are gone? This is a question the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pauses in seeking ways of conserving the forests and promoting alternatives to charcoal.
Indiscriminate cutting down of trees has been one of the problems Zambia has faced in recent years and a number of stakeholders starting with Government have formulated measures to curb deforestation.
With time, it has been widely accepted that deforestation is one of the factors leading to disturbance of the rain circle and eco-system, resulting in changing climatic conditions with droughts and prolonged rain seasons in some cases.
In simpler terms; deforestation is the clearing or cutting down of trees, transforming a forest into cleared land for a wide range of activities such as conversion of forest land to farms, ranches, urban use for human settlement or indeed using the harvested forest materials for energy purposes.
A number of reasons have been advanced as being responsible for arbitrary cutting down of trees in Zambia, a country with a population of about 14 million people, out of which over 60 percent live in rural areas.
Forests and non-wood forest products such as mushrooms, caterpillars, honey, are sources of livelihood for many people in Zambia especially those in the rural areas who have limited access to electricity and cannot afford solar power.
According to the 2015 Living Conditions Monitoring Survey Report by the Central Statistical Office, only four percent of Zambia’s rural people are connected to the electricity national grid, while 7.4 percent of the rural population uses solar energy.
Zambia with a land surface area of 752, 618 square kilometres, is regarded as one of the highly forested countries in the Sub-Sahara Africa whose forests accounts for about 60 percent of the total land area estimated at 64 million hectares. Out of this, a total area of indigenous forest in the country is estimated at 44.6 million hectares.
Even so, the country’s deforestation is alarmingly high going by recent data provided by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicating that Zambia’s deforestation rate currently stands at between 250,000 and 300,000 hectares annually. This means that the country risks becoming a desert in the next 15 years if nothing is done, according to environmental experts.
Official statistics indicate that about 90 percent of the population in Zambia use charcoal, thereby making charcoal production a lucrative business and a main stay for those involved in the trade.
On the other hand, it is also said that only an estimated 25 percent of the country’s population has access to electricity, and most of these people are in urban and peri-urban areas.
The low access to electricity and solar sources of energy by people in the rural Zambia and peri-urban areas, has been one of the major excuses of indiscriminate cutting down of trees for energy as demand for charcoal is always high.
It is from this backdrop that the USAID Zambia is asking this question; “How do we cook when the trees are gone?”
The USAID Zambia, under its programme dubbed “Request for Information” says it is seeking to work with other organisations in averting deforestation in Zambia.
Dr Catherine Lwando-Tembo, USAID Zambia natural resources specialist, says according to an analysis conducted by her organisation, it was found that charcoal production is indeed one of the major drivers of deforestation and forest degradation.
In responding to a press query, Dr Tembo said the American Government was concerned and desired to partner with the Zambian Government and other organisations to preserve the forests.
She indicated that Zambia had one of the highest deforestation rates in Africa and that in Lusaka alone, for example, about 85 percent of urban and peri-urban households use charcoal to meet their energy needs.
“There is, therefore, a need to support affordable alternatives to charcoal. Conserving forested landscapes is also critical for wildlife habitat. As forests become depleted, people will encroach the protected areas such as forest reserves, national parks and game management areas,” she said.
USAID is currently in the process of understanding the alternative livelihoods that could be promoted to reduce the use of charcoal.
Nonetheless, Dr Tembo admits that there were a number of challenges in addressing illegal charcoal production which included a lack of enforcement through patrols and checkpoints, lack of reliable electricity, leading to an increase in charcoal demand, which stimulates supply and increases motivation to produce more charcoal.
The USAID Zambia natural resources specialist further stated that lack of alternative livelihoods coupled with lack of economic and employment opportunities to charcoal was among the many challenges.
She suggested that there were a number of alternatives to charcoal and value chains that could be used to meet household and industrial energy needs such as solar cookers, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and briquettes.
“We have to be mindful not just about today, but about tomorrow. The big question that begs an answer is how will we cook when all the trees are gone?” Dr Tembo said.
Through the “Request for Information” programme, USAID Zambia is putting together information to help inform interventions aimed at reducing deforestation and forest degradation through the promotion of alternatives to charcoal.
“Deforestation has a number of effects such as environmental, social and economic…Forests are more than just trees, forests are part of the ecosystem supporting human life and wildlife. Forests protect water catchment areas, which are sources of drinking water as well as hydroelectric energy,” she said.
Zambia intends to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions by implementing three programmes; Sustainable Forest Management Programme, Sustainable Agriculture Programme, and Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Programmes.
In addition, there is a draft charcoal-based Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) focusing on increasing efficiency in harvesting, processing, and use of charcoal in Zambia.
In recent years, Zambia’s forests have been endangered not only via deforestation for charcoal production and firewood use for energy but also by commercial related activities targeting specific species such as the mulombe, pine, mukwa and mukula, which are mostly being illegally harvested because of their value.
The mukula tree, for instance, has been described as Zambia’s ‘gold’ because of its valuable properties. The tree has medicinal properties and can be used for making gun butts and wooden interior decor for vehicles among other commercially viable uses.
Pieces of legislation have, however, been enacted to regulate or deter people from indiscriminate cutting down of trees either for energy use and indeed for illegal exports, but the vice seems to be still perpetrated across the country.
Some of the policies, structures and programmes that Government has put in place to ensure environmental sustainability include the National Conservation Strategy of 1985, the National Environmental Action Plan (1994), the Environmental and Pollution Control Law. The Forest Act and the laws Policy, both of 2015, are some of the statutes in this regard.
The major challenge in addressing deforestation in Zambia has been finding livelihood alternatives for charcoal producers, traders and even consumers who are the end-users. But with joint efforts from cooperating partners such as the USAID Zambia, the problem of deforestation can be mitigated.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka