23 January 2023

Charcoal and poverty fuel deforestation in Tanzania


Deforestation is a result of the national and international economic scenarios, British newspaper The Guardian writes. Environmental policies are ineffective. And the problem affects many African countries

by Matteo Cavallito


The trade of charcoal, which is made from burning logs and branches, fuels deforestation in Tanzania. A phenomenon which is also fostered by the push of black market, according to the Brtish newspaper The Guardian.

The country’s persistent poverty and the current international economic scenario, are still crucial factors behind the exploitation of forest resources. Forty-five percent of Tanzanians live on little more than $2 a day, and 90 percent routinely use charcoal and firewood for cooking. Rising gas prices on the international market also spur growth in demand resulting in tree cutting.

Charcoal and deforestation result in profits for the few

Fuel production is a particularly lucrative business for middlemen, who are the main beneficiaries of this trade. “Loggers can earn about 8,500 Tanzanian shillings (£3) for a large bag of charcoal from brokers, who then sell it to wholesalers at a profit,” says The Guardian. “But it’s the wholesalers who make the most money”. As they can sell the bag “for up to 82,000 shillings in Dar es Salaam: almost 10 times the price it was bought for.”

Also benefiting from this activity is the government, which has long obtained a significant revenue stream from forest exploitation. “In 2019, earnings from the forestry sector – which includes trade in charcoal, firewood, logs, poles, honey, seeds and seedlings – contributed about 3% to GDP, with charcoal accounting for 44% of that figure”, The Guardian says. “As such, the government gives out permits to loggers and has set targets on the number of bags each area of the country needs to produce each year.”

Illegal trade thrives

According to the FAO, the British newspaper recalls, Tanzania lost nearly 470,000 hectares of forest per year between 2015 and 2020. Global Forest Watch, a project of the Washington-based nonprofit organization World Resources Institute, estimates that the country’s total tree cover has declined by 3.82 million hectares or 11% from 2000 to 2020. The government had officially intervened in 2006 by banning charcoal production and trade. However, the operation failed: prices rose and the black market grew. Two weeks later the ban was lifted.

The expansion of the parallel market, resulting in lost revenue for the government, never stopped. Local authorities have been accused of conducting few checks on the actual number of plants cut, and widespread corruption contribute to the perpetuation of illegal operations.

Tanzania’s situation finds relevant similarities with other African countries. Prominent is the case of Somalia, where poor access to electricity is offset by the extensive use of charcoal. Added to this is the boost in demand from foreign countries: poor nations like Yemen or rich ones like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The permanent political instability that has characterized Somalia since 1991, when the bloody and never fully ended civil war began, frustrates any attempt to counter exports, which were formally banned as early as 1969.

Environmental policies don’t work

In Africa, writes The Guardian, wood harvesting for charcoal production is responsible for nearly half of the continent’s forest degradation. And the trend is set to be confirmed in the future. According to the nongovernmental organization The Charcoal Project, in particular, the dependence of some African countries on this resource which is a major contributor to national tax revenues ends up virtually invalidating environmental protection policies.

“Countries can legislate charcoal out of existence but they’re only creating more problems,” the organization writes. “The reality is that charcoal consumption is expected to increase over the coming decades.”

Until the nations affected by this trade are wealthy enough to embark on an energy transition, the NGO continues, “Imposing severe restrictions on production and sales of charcoal only hurts producers and consumers, lines the pockets of black- and grey-market traders, and reduces legitimate income for local, regional, and national authorities.”