Sunday, December 24, 2017

Charcoal Capitalism

Charcoal from tropical forests has a terrible effect on the environment.  Nigeria is one of the world’s largest exporters — and some of it even ends up on Western countries barbecue grills.

Felling, transporting and piling up logs of wood is back-breaking work. "Sometimes we're in the bush for weeks before we've collected enough wood," explains Domingo Philip who heads the team of young men. They cover the two meter  high pile of wood with earth and start up a fire. The wood now needs to smoulder for about 11 days. Then the charcoal is ready.  Philip and his men live from this business. They sell the charcoal to local households, bakeries or traders that take it to the big cities. A 50-kilogram (110-pound) sack costs the equivalent of about €3 ($3.56). Traders in the city, however, get a lot more for the charcoal. They pack it in paper bags and sell it on to Europe and Asia. In Poland charcoal from around the world is repacked and then sold to neighboring countries.  A study found that 80 percent of the sacks they examined were labeled with incorrect information about the origin of the products. Some even contained wood from protected tree species.

The area where they cut the wood is Edumanom Forest Reserve. The 9,000-hectare tropical forest lies in the oil-rich Niger Delta in southern Nigeria. It's home to Nigeria's last chimpanzees. But the fragile ecosystem is in danger, not only from the oil industry but also from the woodcutting. The trees are cut down, and the burning process produces fumes that are harmful to the people and the environment. It poisons the groundwater and the surrounding soil. Moreover, immense carbon emissions are produced.  According to the UN, Nigeria exported 80,000 tons of charcoal for approximately €25 million ($29 million) in 2007, which makes it one of the biggest exporters of charcoal worldwide. Germany, on the other hand, is the biggest importer in Europe, taking in 250,000 tons (50 million pounds) of charcoal per year.

Loopholes in the European Timber Regulation makes such things possible. The regulation came into force in 2013 and was established to stop illegal wood and paper products from entering the EU. But while tropical woods are tightly regulated, charcoal does not even appear in the paper.

"Why certain wood products are not included in the regulation is a puzzle to me," Johannes Zahnen from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) told DW. "For several products it's basically up to the traders to ensure that their products are legal." "The marketing strategies are often sloppy or contain outright lies," says Zahnen. On closer examination, for instance, a sack that was labeled clearly as containing no tropical wood actually consisted entirely of tropical wood. "The consumer is practically left out in the cold and has no chance to do anything about it," Zahnen explains.

More than half of the world's felled wood is turned into firewood or charcoal, according to the UN. Three-quarters of the charcoal production takes place in Africa and about 98 percent of the charcoal stays on the continent. That is because while Europeans mainly use the charcoal for barbecues in the summer, African households use it for cooking every dayIn the Nigerian town of Bauchi, the business is booming. "Kerosene is so costly. That's the reason why people use charcoal," says charcoal trader Ibrahim. 

 Each year, Nigeria loses approximately 350,000 hectares of fertile land to desertification and soil erosion.According to Nigeria's National Council on Environment, the country's current forest cover is under 4 percent. In October 2017, the office recommended a ban on charcoal exports.

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