Illegal Charcoal

Great Ape Forests Go Up In Smoke

A deadly and devastating form of deforestation, causing serious great ape habitat loss, is illegal charcoal production. 

An estimated 83 % of people in the Congo Basin rely on charcoal and firewood for their cooking and energy needs. The trade is a major contributor to deforestation – a driver of climate change – and at the same time, those involved are vulnerable to changes in the climate.

The charcoal is mostly made inside the forest by small-scale producers. Large trees are cut down, the trunks, and medium and large branches are then stacked into a dome, which is covered with mud and soil. The mass is set on fire. The mud makes the wood “cook” or smolder instead of burning, creating charcoal.  In 48-72 hours the dome can be uncovered and the charcoal ready for the journey to market.

The producers are organized into local associations, which park officials claim are often controlled by Congolese military officials or mafias. The corrupt parties exact a tax on both the charcoal’s production and its transportation, based on a new report by the Enough Project. It highlights the severity of the problem and the heretofore oversight on the part of governments and global agencies to recognize the critical impact on the region’s forests.

Equatorial Africa, the very heart of great ape habitat, is hardest hit. Africa governments are losing at least $1.9bn a year from charcoal, to the benefit of criminals earning up to $9bn – three times the value of drug trade on the continent. “This number is likely to triple in the coming decades and we believe that the scale of logging in Africa alone would be equivalent in a few decades from now to what has been logged in the Amazon, just to sustain charcoal trade,” said Christian Hellemann, who led the UN Environment Programme assessment, said the scale of the illegal timber trade “has been totally underestimated and is now being regarded as very significant”, beyond concerns over deforestation, destruction of animal habitats.”

  • charcoal market wholesale yard in Nairobi, Kenya
  • slash and burn deforestation great apes
  • charcoal being hauled to market, Musanze, Rwanda
  • charcoal being hauled to market, DRC
  • charcoal being hauled to market, DRC

With well over one million inhabitants, Goma alone consumes above 105,000 tons of charcoal every year, at a total cost of about US$55.9 million.


VIRUNGAS: Mountain Gorilla Home Up In Smoke

Headquartered deep in the remote southwestern sector of Virunga, the illegal charcoal trade is lucrative. Some have estimated it has an annual value of up to $35 million. Charcoal production and sales have fueled wars, war crimes as well as lining the pockets of corrupt military, politicians and mafia in the region.

“The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade,” said Virunga park director Emmanuel de Merode, “There’s a very strong incentive for these people to kill the gorillas.” Over the past decade gorillas have in fact been murdered as well as the rangers trying to protect them and the park.

“Charcoal made from the park is particularly valuable—rare higher-density wood yields longer-burning, higher quality charcoal, and can sell for over 60 percent more than lower-quality charcoal. An estimated 92 percent of charcoal used in North Kivu comes from Virunga. The trees are cut and turned to cooking fuel inside or near the parks, then transported to markets in nearby communities or larger cities. While demand for Virunga’s charcoal is concentrated in Congo, the business is also regional, with smugglers transporting illegal charcoal from Virunga into both Uganda and Rwanda, where old growth forests have nearly disappeared.” Read the report: The Mafia in the Park

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For external resources on the Illegal Charcoal issue: Black Gold a CIFOR film; and Deforestation of Mountain Gorilla Habitat Slowed – But Not Stopped; and Mafia in the Park; and the Virungas Charcoal Cartel.

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