Rapid urban population growth and acute insufficiency of reliable and affordable forms of energy in Malawi have greatly increased the domestic demand and use of charcoal for energy. The resultant devegatation and other impacts on the environment have been wide and damaging. On its part, government, reiterating its growing concern, is contemplating legalising charcoal production by licensing all producers. The idea, though still in its infancy, has already been massively criticised. Many fear that the step amounts to authorisation of deforestation in the country. But considering that Malawi’s deforestation rates rank first in southern Africa and second in African and that currently there are thousands of, mostly underground, charcoal producers, the need for the country to revisit its current ineffective policies on charcoal cannot be overemphasised. This work is basically crafted in support of government’s current proposal.
In the first place, the introduction of a licence system will greatly minimise the challenge of monitoring and control. Being a banned practice, the thousands currently involved in it do their business behind the scene by among others engaging in night time production and transporting the product through carefully negotiated routes. This makes the industry slippery in the hands of the enforcing agents thereby precluding any attempts to impose control over it. As a result, collection and management of valuable data becomes challenging. Currently, the industry is characterised by destructive harvesting and carbonation methods, which have prominently contributed to the current environmental devastation. Licensing is, thus, a timely intervention. It would make all producers accessible hence easy to conform them to standards and expectations stipulated in the reformed policy.
In addition, since licensing will make charcoal traders accessible, reaching them with support and innovative technologies will be easy. There’s a general outcry that the traditional carbonation system, currently in wide use, is very wasteful. Innovative interventions to minimise biomass loss are needed. For instance, there is need to expand the utilisation of modern carbonising kilns as well as researching extensively on the possibility of value addition to the produced charcoal and charcoal-efficient burning stoves. The huge volumes of by-products at the carbonation stage also need to be properly recycled. All these require a steady interaction between the stakeholders in the industry, which is currently so minimal given its banned status. Turning the charcoal industry into a fully regulated system by licensing will, therefore, connect stakeholders making it possible for them to exchange vital information for the industry’s sustainability.
Although charcoal production and selling is a source of livelihood for thousands of people, it unfortunately, remains a largely disregarded sector. Its banned status only emphasises the wide perception that charcoal is ‘forester’s enemy’. This overlooks the industry’s current economic weight and its contributive potential towards national development. The proposed licencing system will unlock this economic value turning charcoal production into a sector useful in alleviating some of the country’s major economic woes. It has the potential to create jobs, and if charcoal can attain the official status of a ‘business commodity’, it can really help lift many families out of dire poverty. The revenue generated from licenses will help beef up the country’s enforcement capabilities which are presently feeble owing largely to under-resourcing. Once formalised, government would be looking at ways of addressing the industry’s infrastructural challenges such as roads to link production sites and markets. Government and other stakeholders would also be able to intervene in spheres such as pricing mechanisms and equipping of producers and retailers with business loans and marketing skills such as cooperative trading system. With such business support, it would be possible for charcoal traders to diversify their businesses beyond charcoal, which would be a significant milestone. So, as can be seen, formalising the charcoal industry has benefits far much beyond environmental conservation.
Finally, as a country, we are in a situation where we have already lost large volumes of vegetation. As such, we need to couple conservation with restorative efforts. One of the approaches that can be considered is the ‘individual reforestation approach’ of destroyed lands. Currently in wide use in with many success stories in Madagascar, licensed charcoal traders in Malawi can also fit in this schema. It really makes sense to target those involved in deforestation, such as charcoalers, in forest restoration initiatives. With the proposed intervention, each of the licensees would be expected to develop a personal plantation on which charcoal will be entirely produced. This would thin dependence on natural and protected forest lands. This is not possible in the current set up where charcoal producers are not formally known. If this is achieved, the charcoal-deforestation link will be shattered since most charcoal will be produced from special energy plantations owned by charcoal licence holders. That is why this work puts its weight behind the idea of licensing charcoal producers.
However, if we are going to avoid the repeat of the chaos caused by license holding harvesters in the ‘then’ Chikangawa forest, significant amount of care needs to be taken by those superintending discussions on the proposal. Sticking to the current business-as-usual model robs future generations of their ability to supply their own energy needs. That is why we all need to support the proposed reforms.