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Unsustainable wood fuel and its impact in coastal Kenya

 

In Kenya, and in particular in coastal Kenya, fuel-wood is the major source of household energy in most rural communities and urban centres. Wood fuel comes in various forms but in Kenya a significant amount of wood is transformed into charcoal. Demand for charcoal is high and keeps rising, but its source – the forest – is dwindling.

Charcoal is the preferred type of wood fuel. Unlike other forms for energy, it does not require complex or expensive equipment to be made or used, and it is seen as part of the traditional way of life. Only a few people use gas or kerosene stoves.

In Lamu County, particularly within the Witu ecosystem, the main species of tree used for charcoal is the indigenous Dalbergia melanoxylon, locally known as mpingo. There’s a local preference for this because of its high quality, but other species are also used such as Prosopis juliflora – known locally as mathenge. Worryingly, these species take many years to reach maturity and so over-use poses a big risk.

This tree species is a popular choice for charcoal.This tree species is a popular choice for charcoal. Credit John Bett

Wildlife and Environment

Charcoal making involves cutting down trees. This removes vegetation cover and leads to a loss in nature and wildlife. In particular, it alters plant community structures in terms of the variety of species, their distribution and density. This often has knock-on negative impacts on wildlife as critical habitats become depleted or degraded.

There are also negative impacts on the other ecosystem roles that forests play. For example, water cycles may be affected as a result of deforestation. Likewise, soil erosion may increase as deforestation accelerates; with soil being washed away as there are no longer a network of trees there to capture the water. And, of course, trees play an important role in carbon capture – reducing the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere.

Charcoal on roadside awaiting distributionCharcoal on roadside awaiting distribution. Credit John Bett

People and Communities

People’s livelihoods are also affected as millions of people rely directly on forests for small-scale agriculture, hunting and gathering, and the harvesting of forest products such as rubber and medicinal plants. Because people’s lives are so closely entwined with the forest, deforestation can even lead major social issues like violent conflict.

In Lamu County there are many small-scale sellers of charcoal. Spread across the county, collectively these sellers handle big quantities of charcoal and firewood. Whilst we know that, it’s been very difficult to regulate these small-scale sellers and therefore the actual quantities of charcoal produced and traded have not been fully estimated. Originally, charcoal production was practiced by peasant farmers to increase their income, but now traders are cashing in on this lucrative venture. We also know that significant quantities of wood fuel are transported out of the county by small- and large-scale traders to towns such as Malindi, Mombasa and Nairobi, but again monitoring efforts have not been adequate.

Sustainability

Unregulated wood fuel production poses a big risk to our coastal environment, particularly in terms of depletion of tree cover. There is an urgent need to improve monitoring and regulation to ensure, for everyone’s long-term benefit, that wood fuel production is sustainable. Production of wood fuel should ideally be matched in equal measure by the planting of trees and reforestation efforts.

Stacks of charcoal and firewoodStacks of charcoal and firewood. Credit John Bett

There are alternative energy sources, both renewable and non-renewable, but affordability and accessibility can be difficult. Renewable energy is potentially abundantly available, but needs investment, technology, research and development. In my colleagues Elias’ blog, you may have read about the work we’re doing in the south of coastal Kenya to pilot some clean energy solutions.

In parallel, we’re looking at ways in which to increase the sustainability of charcoal production. Adoption of modern charcoal making methods, for example, can dramatically enhance the efficiency of charcoal production. When paired with messaging about social and environmental impacts, this can help us to improve sustainability. We’re also working with tree growers to boost tree planting and wood supply by encouraging agro-forestry farming and establishing community woodlots.

Charcoal awaiting transportation. Credit John Bett

At the same time, we’re raising awareness of alternative source of energy such as the production and use of briquettes. Briquettes are compressed blocks of fuel materials and they can be made from local materials like twigs, leaves, charcoal dust, husks, crop residues, and coconut waste. As such, they are a much less destructive fuel source than charcoal.

WWF’s work in the Lamu-Ijara-Tana landscape is part of WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme, which is gratefully supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and Size of Wales. We are very grateful for the continued support.

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