New energies against deforestation
Zambia bets on alternative sources of energy
Due to charcoal production, Zambia is losing its forests. Alternative energies, like briquettes made of sawdust, can prevent the deforestation.
The UN agency UNFCCC, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has recognized the relevant role played by the forests in the climate change challenge in terms of reducing emissions of Carbon dioxide (CO2) – the most important greenhouse gas emitted through human activity. CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation are estimated to be between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of annual global emissions from all sources.
Forests act as carbon sinks, so when they are cut down and their wood is used for either charcoal processing, firewood combustion or natural decomposition, additional Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
The impact of deforestation in Zambia
This is particularly a problem for Zambia. The country is covered by woodland – 66.5 per cent of the territory is forest – but coverage is decreasing year by year. The rate of deforestation is 1.5 per cent, with an area equivalent to the size of Luxembourg (2,500‒3,000 km2) being lost annually. Zambia is among the top ten producers of greenhouse gases linked to deforestation at the global level and the top ten in Africa in terms of forest loss.
Deforestation in Eastern Province, Zambia.
This article focuses on the causes and effects of deforestation and forest degradation. It is based on examination of existing literature, interviews of experts at the Zambian Forestry Department, the Meteorological Department of Mongu, and the Ministry of Health of Zambia, as well as interviews on the field during the period from January 2016 to April 2016 in Mongu, the capital of Western Province, Zambia.
The interaction with the institutions and local population has been vital in identifying the possible solutions to contrast the forest loss in Zambia. Indeed, the aim of this article is to illustrate why the use of alternative sources of energy can be the first solution to reduce the rate of deforestation and the climate change effects.
This analysis also continues the discussion on deforestation that was raised in the context of Somalia by Abdiqani Farah and Olavi Luukkanen in Afrikan Sarvi 2-2015, and it focuses on the correlation between deforestation and the use of charcoal in Southern Africa.
The drivers of deforestation in Zambia
The most important cause of deforestation in all seven Zambian provinces is charcoal production and harvesting of firewood, which together are the most used sources of energy for household consumption. Reliance on these sources is partially linked to the fact that 75 per cent of the population does not have access to electricity – with a clear urban-rural divide in terms of consumption rates. In the rural areas of Western province, each person consumes 1,025 kg of charcoal every year, while in the urban areas (where electricity consumption is more prevalent) the per capita consumption is 240 kg every year.
Women cooking with charcoal at the market, Mongu.
The challenge to offset the use of firewood and charcoal for fuel therefore remains far greater in rural areas where most of the population live. The amount of charcoal used is even more than in other African countries such as Somalia, which has been discussed in previous issues of this Journal, meaning that the energy production covers a key role in the analysis of deforestation future trends.
The second leading cause of deforestation is the shift in land use: Zambians are reducing the forest cover in order to increase the activities of the agricultural sector. This trend is exacerbated by the custom of burning the wooded area before cultivating, preventing any possibility to regenerate the forest in the future: after burning, plants and their roots are irremediably damaged.
This practice is supported by the fact that land is used generally for the common good, without clear property rights and with serious shortcomings in sustainable forest management: generally, Zambians use the natural resources without asking any permission or paying for the wood they are cutting.
Finally, additional factors such as urbanization, the creation of new roads and copper mines (in particular in the Copperbelt province) contribute more and more to deforestation in Zambia.
It is necessary to analyze these drivers in their social, economical and environmental context. Zambia is ranked at the 139th place out by 188 countries under the Human Development Index, which summarizes the level of human development for each country. 60 per cent of the population is living under the poverty threshold and 42 per cent are living in extreme poverty. These data are constantly going up due to the population growth: in 1991, Zambia counted 6 million poor people, but in 2010 the number increased to 7.9 million, in particular in rural areas.
However, despite the high levels of poverty, it nonetheless remains in the best interests of Zambia to address the problem of deforestation, in particular for the local populations. People interviewed for this analysis showed a high level of concern for the effects of deforestation, since increasing poverty, changing rain patterns, loss of biodiversity and erosion of the soil were mentioned as the most relevant consequences of forest loss due to charcoal production.
The local consequences of deforestation
Deforestation does not just increase carbon emissions and hinder the fight against climate change, but it also has catastrophic environmental and social consequences for local populations, destroying their livelihoods and exacerbating the cycle of poverty in communities.
In Zambia, one of the most evident consequences of deforestation is erosion of the soil: without the shade, soil lies under direct sunlight, which leads to rapid evaporation of rainwater, while the absence of aerating tree roots reduces the soil drainage and water absorption capacity.
Deforestation in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
This means that during the rainy season, the baked ground is more directly impacted by run-off, the washing away of the fertile top-soil caused by the inability of the ground to store water. The cumulative result is often desertification of once fertile soil and the partial or complete loss of agricultural production.
Soil erosion caused by deforestation has become one of the most critical problems facing developing countries. When agricultural crops fail, local populations become increasingly reliant on external support or have to resort to negative coping mechanisms to survive. For instance in Zambia, starting from March 2016, the Western Province has suffered from a shortage of maize flour and water due to a short rainy season.
Then, there is the impact on the hydrological cycle. Trees catch water from the soil with their roots, and release it through the leaves thanks to the transpiration process. Forest loss therefore limits the release and recycling of water vapour in the atmosphere and is already having an impact on the rainfall patterns in Zambia.
In Mongu, the Western Province capital, the rainy season usually gives 903 mm of water, but the past rainy season (from October 2015 to April 2016) registered only 667.2 mm. This will have an impact on both people and wildlife, as agricultural crops fail and animals and plants compete for increasingly scarce water resources. Species that are not able to migrate will face a serious threat of extinction.
The ecosystem services provided by forests
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the report financed by the United Nations in order to check the state of the ecosystems and define their future trends, classifies the benefits provided by the environment to the humankind in four categories.
The forests provide:
Provisioning services: the resources that can be extracted from the forest, such as wild foods, crops, fresh water and plant-derived medicines;
Regulating services: they regulate the life on the Earth, for example, the filtration of pollutants by wetlands, climate regulation through carbon storage and water cycling, pollination and protection from disasters;
Cultural services: intangible services, such as recreation, spiritual and aesthetic values;
Supporting services: the services necessary to obtain the other three, for example, the soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling.
The market of wood, Mongu.
All these benefits are naturally provided by trees, but rarely financial evaluations are made to calculate their value. However, an economic analysis should be taken into account among the policy makers. For example, it is estimated that the costs for supplying clean water to the residents of New York, through the purification of forests and wetlands, reach up to $1.5 billion over ten years. It is much less than establishing a water treatment plant, which would cost at least four times more, without counting the maintenance costs.
These services are necessary for the life on Earth, but in the tropical region, and Zambia in particular, forests are mainly exploited for wood harvesting and charcoal production, in order to generate income.
Existing proposed solutions and their limitations
In Zambia, and at the global level, there is no mandatory Payment Ecosystem Service (PES) mechanism, which would provide the economical recognition of the benefits derived by the ecosystem services and the payment for those who guarantee their existence. Indeed, PES is only a voluntary economical mechanism intended to provide financial incentives to continue supplying the ecosystem services.
Imagining a scenario in Zambia with a compulsory PES, payments could be provided through taxation from Zambian citizens to a landowner for planting trees and conserving wooded areas. As a consequence, landowners would be paid for preserving the forest and providing the ecosystem services.
Unfortunately, PES is only a voluntary mechanism. The only existing payment is for the wood extraction in forests under the control of Zambian Forestry Department, the state body responsible for the management of forest resources. In that case, it is possible to pay to obtain permits for the wood harvest.
However, only big companies that operate in the building, fishing or tobacco sectors are able to pay for the service. The ordinary population is not able to afford the cost for the licence – and local communities continue to illegally deforest the environment to produce charcoal. Unless PES for all ecosystem services provided by trees is not immediately established and adopted, in Zambia all efforts in the short term should be focused on cheap and affordable sources of energy.
Indeed, this financial mechanism, along with increasing electricity supplies to rural areas through renewable energies, is a good medium to long term solution for supporting sustainable forestry. There are other alternative sources of energy that could be implemented in the short term, because the country is decreasing the rate of deforestation too slowly. At the same time, it is also necessary to create income generating activities, other than charcoal production, for all people that are currently depending on tree cutting.
A solution based on alternative sources of energy
The use of briquettes can be a reliable solution during the short-medium term. Briquettes are blocks of sawdust that are compressed at high pressure with a machine. They are entirely made of wood, without glue and chemical elements. They are used in the normal stoves and braziers for domestic use, in the oven for the bakeries, or for industries that need high temperature for drying, like tobacco firms.
Building and furniture sectors use only 40 per cent of the trees cut to obtain the plank ‒ the remaining 60 per cent is waste and sawdust. Development projects implemented in partnership with local stakeholders, such as sawmill and local communities, can reduce the deforestation rate caused by the charcoal production.
Charcoal briquettes on the left and normal charcoal on the right.
Briquettes can be made out of sawdust and wooden waste, which are available for free. This would decrease and eventually stop the deforestation caused by obtaining sources of energy, at the same time protecting the natural heritage and the ecosystem services necessary to the human wellbeing.
Local communities responsible for the charcoal production can be involved in the production process. They can collect the left over branches and sawdust, and implement an income generating activity that may improve their economic condition. A briquette producer will pay for the job done.
Indirect beneficiaries are the consumers: a laboratory analysis made by the School of Engineering, University of Zambia, confirms that briquettes heat more and last longer than normal charcoal. Thanks to these features, communities can be incentivised to start using charcoal briquettes. In case of large consumption, three benefits will come out:
1. The reduction of the deforestation rate;
2. The creation of new jobs and economic benefits for a part of the community currently involved in the deforestation process;
3. The commerce of an alternative source of energy that is compatible with the current habits of the consumers.
Currently the Zambian enterprise Daj-oy Manufactures is implementing in Ndola, in the Copperbelt province, a briquette production activity in partnership with local sawmills. This project is supported and financed by the Youth Investment Trust of Zambia (YAPYA) and UNICEF.
Development and cooperation programs, implemented with local institutions such as the Forestry Department; the Ministry of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection; and the Ministry of Mines, Energy, and Water Development, could guarantee the environmental, economic and institutional sustainability.
Forests are multifunctional resources: they provide firewood, food, and oxygen; they regulate the water and carbon cycles; and they protect the biodiversity. Since it is hard to quantify economically all the values of the ecosystem services, forests in African countries are depleted. More than 90 per cent of the deforestation at the global level happens in the tropical region, and Zambia is one of the leading countries.
The definition of the economic value of the forest should be the ideal answer to this problem, but it is necessary to find out a quick solution for the forest degradation. In Zambia, like in other African developing countries, the use of briquettes, made of sawdust obtained from the wood production scraps, can reduce the deforestation caused by the production and use of charcoal. As a consequence, also the greenhouse-gas emissions will decrease, responding to the climate change challenge.
The briquettes can be a suitable alternative to the traditional charcoal, since they are burnt with the stoves commonly used. But there are three main challenges that must be faced:
1. Producing and selling the briquettes on a large scale, in order to guarantee a reliable and available alternative to the traditional charcoal;
2. Involving private partners, such as sawmills, and creating a profitable business: this will help the creation of income generating activities and green jobs for local communities;
3. Replicating the briquette project, in order to facilitate the low-carbon transition.
Large efforts should be invested in the awareness campaigns focused on the importance of the ecosystem services and the use of alternative sources of energy. In this way, the local community can understand the vital role played by the forests.
Zambia and the Horn of Africa share the same effects of climate change. They are experiencing an alarming rate of soil erosion, rainfall decrease and biodiversity loss, mainly due to forest cutting. Zambia is searching for renewable energy sources such as hydropower and solar energy that can be used both for heating water and producing electricity through photovoltaic panels, to reduce the reliance on wood and charcoal energies, as well as alternative sources of energy, such as the sustainable use of biomass.
A large scale production and use of briquettes could be adopted also in the Horn of Africa region, in order to limit the climate change effects. Perhaps Somalia could look into this good practice implemented in Zambia, a country that faces similar environmental challenges. This might be a suitable incentive to start investing in alternative and renewable sources of energy, such as briquettes, also in the Horn of Africa.
The author graduated in Environmental Economics and Politics at the Turin University. During his research internship at UNESCO Forest Programme, he wrote the master dissertation on financial mechanisms used to contrast deforestation and climate change. He collaborates with Italian magazines on environmental economics and geo-economics issues. Currently he works in Zambia on a renewable energy and forestry project.
Photos: Serena Richard
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