The DRC contains the bulk of the Earth’s second-largest intact tropical forest (after the Amazon). So far, deforestation here has been lower than rainforests in the Amazon or Indonesia; in 2000, 61 percent of the DRC was still covered in intact primary forest. However, between 2000 and 2010, more than 10,000 square kilometers (almost 4,000 square miles) of tree cover were lost.
The primary cause of forest clearing is for agriculture. After forest plots are cut and burned to make way for crops, logs are stacked in large ovens made of wood and clay, where high temperatures transform the wood into charcoal. Urban areas including the mega-city of Kinshasa, home to at least 11 million people and growing fast, are driving demand, as charcoal burns hotter than fuelwood and is easier to transport. As forests closest to Kinshasa disappear, the city’s residents must look further afield for the fuel to stoke their stoves.
Rising demands have turned the country’s charcoal trade into a multimillion dollar industry—and there are plenty of people looking to cash in. Even considering transportation costs, charcoal producers can double their profit in the capital, compared with the local market. A recent field survey on charcoal production conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society in northeastern DRC found that selling charcoal provides substantial household income, allowing families to pay medical bills and school fees.
The cutting and burning of tropical forests is estimated to account for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And as forests disappear, so will the species (such as great apes and forest elephants) that inhabit them, as well as the natural resources that millions of people depend on. The desire to open up more land to charcoal production even appears to have been a factor in the killing of mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species found nowhere else in the world.