KAMPALA, Uganda -- The machete-wielding men lodge themselves deep inside forests for weeks at a time, felling trees that will be incinerated into pieces of charcoal. Because they often work at night and target seemingly idle public land, they operate with relative impunity while decimating forests in parts of Africa.
The world's poorest continent, home to over 1.2 billion people, has long struggled to protect its forests amid a population explosion that fuels demand for plant-based energy sources seen by many as cheap, especially charcoal.
Some 25% to 35% of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions come from so-called biomass burning, which also includes seasonal fires intentionally set to clear land for agriculture, according to the European Space Agency. The majority of those fires occur in tropical regions of Africa.
Reliance on charcoal or firewood is highest in Africa and Asia, according to a 2018 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, with some African cities almost entirely dependent on charcoal for cooking. In Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, 90% of residents rely mainly on it, the report said.
In Somalia, ravaged by extremist violence, the cutting of trees to sustain an illicit charcoal trade is so widespread that the U.N. has warned that desertification there threatens stability.
The value of the charcoal export trade from the Horn of Africa nation to the Middle East and elsewhere — though banned — is estimated at over $360 million per year. Some 8.2 million trees were felled for charcoal between 2011 and 2017, according to U.N. figures.
In Uganda, an East African nation whose lush vegetation once inspired Winston Churchill to call it "the pearl of Africa," authorities have long warned about the unsustainable nature of the charcoal trade, which persists despite the extension of the power grid deep into the country. Hydroelectric power remains too expensive for many people even in the capital, Kampala, as middle-class families run charcoal stoves to keep electricity bills down.
Edwin Muhumuza, an environmental protection activist who runs the Kampala-based civic group Youth Go Green, said demand for charcoal has turned it into a precious commodity much like gold or coffee.
"We are really concerned," he said. "What annoys is they cut down the trees but they don't replace them."
Now the National Environment Management Authority, a government agency, is urging authorities to remove consumption taxes on liquid petroleum gas, an alternative source of cooking energy, to save forests from the charcoal business.
Figures show a dire situation. Uganda's forest cover as a percentage of total land stood at 9% in 2015, down from 24% in 1990, according to government data.
But authorities in northern districts such as Gulu, which provides much of the charcoal entering Kampala, are fighting back in a campaign that has yielded scores of impounded charcoal trucks since 2015.
Gulu chairman Martin Mapenduzi organizes raids in hopes of arresting charcoal burners.
"Illegal logging has gone down but the destruction of forests for charcoal burning is still high," Mapenduzi said. "It's something that is giving us a lot of headache, but we are fighting."
The price of a bag of charcoal, which can sustain a small family for several weeks, has been rising steadily in Kampala, reaching about $28 in August largely because of reduced supply from places such as Gulu. A whole bag is unaffordable for many who instead buy it daily in smaller quantities.
The expense is still far too much for families, said Rose Twine, an entrepreneur who sells her version of an eco-stove while warning against what she calls the unsustainable reliance on charcoal.
One eco-stove, which comes with volcanic rocks that can last for up to two years, costs $110. Yearly charcoal expenses for a typical family, at about 80 cents a day, can exceed $300, she said.
"Charcoal is actually not cheaper," Twine said. "People are just stuck in their old ways."
Since 2011 only 55,000 eco-stoves have been sold to households in a country of over 40 million people, she said, underscoring the challenges of selling alternatives to charcoal.
Rampant forest degradation has inspired campaigns in some African countries to take action.
This week Gabon became the first African country to receive payments for verifiable efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from deforestation, the U.N. Development Program said, calling the deal worth $150 million over 10 years "historic in many ways."
In July, Ethiopia's prime minister led an effort in which over 350 million trees were planted in one day across the drought-prone country whose forest coverage declined to 4% in the 2000s from 35% a century earlier, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
A similar greening initiative has been launched in Kenya, where a plan is underway to forcibly evict about 60,000 people from the Mau forest ecosystem — the country's largest — that authorities say is threatened by massive deforestation.
Yet some activists and conservationists say tree-planting alone may not be enough to save Africa's forests and they urge governments to invest more in alternative energy sources for the poorest people.
Mapenduzi, the Ugandan official campaigning against charcoal burning, called for punitive legislation and urged authorities to make electricity cheaper. Officials in some northern districts have passed laws protecting certain tree species from harvesting for timber or charcoal, he said.
"We cannot succeed in running after them in the forest all the time," he said of charcoal burners.
Others believe only urgent action such as a ban on the charcoal trade would suffice.
"A total ban," said Muhumuza, the campaigner against deforestation. "One hundred percent."
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