the Democratic Republic of Congo
Case Number: 498
Case Mnemonic: Charcoal
Charcoal plays an important role in most African countries. However, the inefficiencies inherent to the production and use of charcoal, rapid urbanization, and the preference of urban dwellers for charcoal place a heavy strain on local wood resources. This has severe environmental consequences. Referred to as "makala" in the former Zaire, charcoal is available in Kinshasa's markets or can be purchased by roadside vendors along roads linking the city and the forest. Makala's importance to Kinshasa can be deduced by the fact that a large district of the capital bears the same name. Traditional fuelwood gathering, while being a social institution, is a serious source of tree removal around Kinshasa. The forest has already receded by hundreds of kilometers from Kinshasa, hence the problem of deforestation in the DRC.(1)
Charcoal is traded in Congo between the charcoal producers who get their product from the diminishing forests in Congo, and sell it to the buyers in the cities. Charcoal production harms the environment in two ways: deforestation and CO2 gases. In order to produce charcoal, trees must be removed from the forest, hence the deforestation effect. In order to make charcoal, the wood must be burned in kilns, slowly, for long periods of time. During this process, CO2 is released into the air. The release of CO2 into the atmosphere attributes to the destruction of the ozone layer. Charcoal trade is linked to culture in that it is a part of life in the Congo, and in most other African countries and most developing countries. Please see the culture section for more information.
Fuelwood in the DRC
Fuelwood and charcoal are by far the most heavily consumed energy sources in the former Zaire, used primarily for household cooking. There is no organized supply of fuelwood in urban areas, and population growth in urban areas, such as Kinshasa, has contributed to deforestation. The price of charcoal has risen because it has to be trucked in to urban centers from ever-greater distances. The steady price increases have constrained growth in small-scale industries that use wood, such as fish smoking, and have put pressure on household budgets. Moreover, the use of wood exceeds regrowth of forests, and reforestation efforts have been slow.(2)
The value of the charcoal market for 26 Sub-Saharan African countries, for which there is known data, exceeds $1.8 billion per year. In energy terms, charcoal consumption in many African countries is higher than gross electricity consumption. Charcoal making provides a considerable amount of employment in rural areas; it allows for a quick return on investments and is often practiced in conjunction with agricultural activities.
Since the burning characteristics of charcoal and mineral coal are very similar, charcoal use results in high volumes of CO2 emissions. However, if charcoal were produced on a sustainable basis (without causing deforestation), it would be neutral to the carbon cycle; the burning of charcoal would simply release timescale CO2 back into the air. Environmentalists feel that charcoal production should be stopped altogether because of its destructive nature as presently practiced. However, urban dwellers in some developing countries have a strong appetite for charcoal, and attempts to ban the production or the use of charcoal have been mostly unsuccessful mainly due to the interplay of commercial interests. Since producers can use free raw materials (wood from natural forests) and turn them into a marketable commodity in high demand, they do not have much respect for the sustainability of the resource.(3)
The DRC's Natural Resources and the Environment(4)
Congo is the third largest country in Africa extending 2,344,885 square km. Arable land only represents three percent of the nation's area, and permanent pasture seven percent. No less than 74.5 percent of the DRC's total land is forested. Then annual rate of deforestation, estimated by the World Bank, was 0.6 percent in 1980. Congo's forests are quickly shrinking; only 4.4 percent of its national territory is officially protected. Sustained deforestation could eventually threaten Congo's biodiversity.
FYI: How Charcoal is Produced(5)
The carbonization of wood is brought about by heating it to temperatures high enough for it to undergo substantial thermal decomposition. Temperatures reached in the process are usually in the range 400500°C and a mixture of gases, vapors and a solid residue (charcoal) results. The temperature reached in the production process has a marked influence on the composition and yield of the charcoal produced.
The making of charcoal, literally the distillation of wood to its carbon content, was an important process during the first half of the nineteenth century. Because it burned hotter and cleaner, charcoal was considered superior to wood. It provided fuel for both the furnaces which produced the iron and the forges of the blacksmiths who shaped it. The first person to discover the seemingly magical properties of charcoal has long since been lost to human memory. What is known is that it may have been used in Europe as early as 5,500 years ago and was the "smelting fuel of the bronze and iron ages."
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Some additional information about the Democratic Republic of Congo
FYI: A Brief History of the Democratic Republic of Congo(6)
The earliest inhabitants of the modern DRC were probably Pygmies who settled in the area.
Sophisticated civilizations developed into what is now southeastern DRC.
The Portuguese began the forced emigration of black Africans for slavery. Other Europeans came to the area as the slave trade grew, but the interior remained relatively unexplored until the 1870s.
Henry Stanley explores the region for Belgian King Leopold II.
The country becomes the Belgian Congo, with Leopoldeville as the capital (known as Kinshasa today).
The Congolese National Movement (MNC), an independence movement/party, is formed with Patrice Lumumba as its leader. Rioting breaks out due to growing nationalist sentiment.
Independence for the Republic of Congo is obtained with Lumumba as Prime Minister.
Mobutu, a US sponsored army officer, seizes power.
The country becomes the People's Republic of the Congo.
After continued political upset and civil war between the US-backed Mobutu and the MNC, Mobutu declares himself the country's sole leader, and the country becomes the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The country becomes the Republic of Zaire.
Mobutu is in Europe for treatment of prostate cancer, so rebels, led by General Laurent Kabila, attack the Zairian army.
Mobutu returns from Europe.
Kabila and his troops take the capital, Kinshasa and Mobutu goes into exile. Zaire becomes the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is worldwide confusion about the politcal change.
Mobutu dies in Morocco.
By national law, only 4.4% of the national territory is currently officially environmentally protected.
The Democratic Republic of Congo
b. Geographic Site: Central Africa
c. Geographic Impact: Democratic Republic of Congo
The climate is equatorial, with hot and humid weather in the north and west, and cooler and drier conditions in the south and the east.
b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes, Wood
c. Not Related to Product: No
d. Related to Process: Yes, Deforestation
1993 2010 2020 Canada 6.8 7-8 8 USA 93.3 90-103 90 Latin America 304.5 312-329 357 Africa 493.6 635-727 738 Oceania 8.8 12-15 15 China 200.1 221-230 240 Japan 0.4 0.8-1 1 Other Asia 666.0 822-848 978 Russia 49.0 70 80 Eastern Europe1) 20.5 25 25 Western Europe 28.8 30 35 Nordic region 9.5 10 10 Others -- 30 30 World total 1881.3 2265-2426 2607 Zuidema et al. 1881.3 1500 1450 1994
Human beings have long affected their local and regional environments in important ways, but now we increasingly alter our global environment also. As hunters and gatherers, humans put pressure on, and probably exterminated, some food sources. With fixed agriculture, we began to alter the vegetation of sizable areas. Our reliance on wood for fuel and building materials and our conversion of forests to fields, has caused extensive change in woodland extent. Humans have yet to reverse the large-scale destruction, centuries ago, of forests in Lebanon (the famous cedars). In fact, large-scale deforestation may well be the first of the major global changes that humans made to their biological and physical environment. Between the initiation of significant agricultural activity and today, global forest area has fallen by approximately 50 percent(8). Concerns about deforestation have shifted from the more developed countries, where the process is stabilizing or reversing, to the less developed countries, and in particular to tropical rain forests in the Amazonian basin and in Africa. Shrinking rain forests destroy habitat for local species and can lead to their extinction. Rain forest loss may also change global climate patterns.
(thousands of hectares)
(thousands of hectares)
Low and Hundreds of Years
Fuelwood production is not the main cause of deforestation. There is also timber exporting which plays a large role in the deforestation of Africa. Concerning charcoal production, there is not a great sense of urgency to produce a solution since the availability of substitutes for fuelwood is limited.
There are substitutes such as electricity and gas, but it is difficult and expensive to get these substitutes to remote parts of the DRC where charcoal is used. Therefore, it is not likely that charcoal usage will be significantly reduced anytime soon.
Charcoal has been a part of African culture for hundreds of years because it has been a part of everyday life. Charcoal is essential to cooking and food production. Bush meat, such as small monkeys, is typically cooked over charcoal and thought of as a delicacy. Historically, charcoal has been used in African art.
Fuelwood gathering is a social institution in the DCR. Nevertheless, during colonial times, some indigenous cultures were forced to produce fuelwood for the European steamships. State officers would recruit young men as woodcutters in order to enforce the fuelwood quotas. Especially during World War II, wood supply became a high government priority. In 1942, all adult males living within ten kilometers of a wood station were required to bring fifteen cubic meters of wood per month.(10) This forced many people to move into Leopoldville and abandon their lifestyles in order to escape the woodcutting impositions.
This site has several links to articles about charcoal production and smelting.
Democratic Republic of Congo Online
This is the official website for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the information is in French, but some is in English also.
Sustainable Development DIMENSIONS
This is the website for the Communication for Development section of Sustainable Development DIMENSIONS, a service of the Sustainable Development Department (SD) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It includes a list of their projects in Africa, including one for Congo.
This is a website containing a thorough study about the problem of deforestation. The author, Sten Nilsson, also mentions charcoal/fuelwood production as one of the issues concerning this problem. The paper is entitled "Do We Have Enough Forests?"
Environmental Department of the World Bank
This is the website for the Environmental Department at the World Bank. This site addresses the problem that Sub-Saharan Africa depends more on its environmental resource base for its economic and social needs than any other region in the world. With its natural resource base seriously declining, the entire region, rural and urban, is being profoundly affected.
Central African Tropical Forests
This is a website containing a paper about "City Dwellers and the Central African Tropical Forest: resource use and perceptions," by Theodore Trefon (June 1994) Part of this paper discusses the use of forest products such as fuelwood and charcoal.
This is a website reporting on the use of P. patula for charcoal. It is common in many countries, though very few reports have been dedicated to this subject. In Uganda, charcoal made from P. patula was found to be suitable for iron-smelting due to the high hardness which results in fewer losses during transport.
This is part of the Kenya Web, describing charcoal burning activities in Kenya. Charcoal burning activities are also commit in the district. It forms one of the income-generating activities for the rural population. Such activities are common in the sparsely populated areas of the district like Kibwezi Division and pads of Mulala and Matiliku Divisions. The importance of these activities is declining due to the government policy on afforestation. The population is at present being encouraged to engage in agro-forestry.
This is a website for the "Senegal: Sustainable Energy Management Project." This site discusses the uses of charcoal in Senegal. Senegal faces many environmental issues, including soil degradation, salinization of agricultural land in low-lying coastal areas, and loss of forest cover. Total final energy consumption in Senegal for 1992 was estimated at some 1.5 million tons of oil equivalent. Of that total, forest-based traditional fuels (firewood and charcoal)--mostly for household cooking purposes--represent 57%, petroleum fuels 37%, electricity 5% and agricultural residues 1%. Total charcoal consumption in 1992 was estimated at 330,0000 tons (equivalent to 1.8 million tons of fuelwood), of which 76% is consumed in principal urban areas. The capital city of Dakar alone is responsible for an annual consumption of more than 100,000 tons of charcoal.
This is a website containing the paper entitled "What Charcoal Can Tell," stories of environmental change. For thousands of years firewood has been, and continues to be, the most sought after source of domestic energy in rural Africa. Wood provides fuel for cooking, heating, lighting and for more specialized purposes such as the firing of ceramics, metalworking, and from time immemorial, the chanting of rituals have mingled in its flickering light.
This is a website containing the paper "Toward Improved Indicators to Measure Desertification and Monitor the Implementation of the Desertification Convention," by Hartmut Krugmann. This paper briefly examines earlier work on desertification assessment and indicators. It reviews the framework of the Desertification Convention and what it says about the use of indicators in desertification monitoring and reporting, with a view to characterizing the kinds of indicators needed to monitor its implementation. A number of general characteristics of possible desertification indicators are listed and an example of the classification of potential local indicators are provided from research conducted by the author in Rombo Location in Kajiado District, Kenya.
Other sites concerning fuelwood issues in other parts of the world than Africa include the following:
Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica. Woodfuel is a tern used to describe all fuel wood types derived from forestry plantations, natural forests and natural woodlands. Almost instinctively a rejection of this fuel type comes to the minds of environmentalists and economists alike. Rejection by environmentalists because of connotations of deforestation, soil degradation and related effects. For the economist it is seen as a primitive energy source, being mankind's oldest form of energy.
The Woodfuel Scenario and Policy Issues in India. Field Document No.49, April 1997, by N.C. Saxena, Centre for Sustainable Development, LBS National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. Woodfuels play an important role in India as they do in many other parts of Asia. Annual consumption in the country as a whole is estimated at 220-300 million tonnes, worth some nine billion US dollars, and this amount is increasing. At present, woodfuels account for 20-30 percent of all energy used in India, and more than 90 per cent of this is in the domestic sector.
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