Sunday, August 09, 2015

Charcoal from Namibia

The popularity of barbecues has soared in recent years. The UK is now the barbecue capital of Europe, the setting for about 120 million outdoor cooking sessions a year. Britain imports more than 80 per cent of the 60,000 tonnes of charcoal it burns each year, and Namibia is by far the biggest source. Supermarkets and major retail chains only sell charcoal certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a process that requires social and environmental inspections. But much of the UK’s barbecue fuel is sold through smaller, independent outlets, many of which stock little or no FSC-certified product, experts say. The wholesale price of charcoal produced in the UK is about £1,400 a tonne, compared with just £76 a tonne in Namibia, making it much cheaper for retailers to buy, even after the cost of transport. The UK imports more of Namibia’s charcoal than any other country, with some estimates suggesting it accounts for half of the total burnt, according to Fern campaign co-ordinator Saskia Ozinga. “Whatever guarantees of sustainability FSC does give, it’s undermined by the large amount of non-FSC charcoal entering the EU, including the UK,” Ms Ozinga said.

Fern, an NGO that represents forests and the people who live and work in them conducted an investigation into the UK’s primary source of barbecue fuel – the Namibian charcoal industry – and discovered that pay, working conditions and environmental considerations are sadly lacking across large swaths of the southern African country.

The Outjo region, about 250km north of the capital Windhoek, is dotted with rusty steel drums used to make charcoal by burning the bush. Lining the edges of the roads are makeshift dwellings of black plastic sheeting and bits of wood, homes for the charcoal burners. The Fern investigation found evidence of trees being illegally harvested on a vast scale, with workers typically paid a pittance and living without access to toilets or running water. Many workers are given little or no protective clothing, according to the report. The work is punishing: trees are chopped down, sawn into small pieces and left in the makeshift kilns for a few days. “Although it is tough, we have no other choice. There is no other alternative,” one worker told the researcher who compiled the Fern report.

Last year the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Alpheus Muheua, told the Namibian Sun that charcoal workers continued to toil under horrible conditions, being paid starvation wages and not being recognised as employees. He said he was working on an agreement to address the issues as part of a process that began in 2003, when his ministry began to investigate the issue.

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