Do you know the true human and environmental cost of the charcoal you’re burning on your barbecue?
Head north along the main B1 highway from Namibia’s capital Windhoek and you pass landscapes of hypnotic beauty: the expanse of one of the world’s least densely populated nations broken by haunting contours of distant rocks.
After about 250km, you enter Namibia’s charcoal heartland, otherwise known as ‘Black Gold’ territory.
The country’s charcoal industry has grown spectacularly in recent years. Namibia is the sixth biggest exporter in the world, and if you fire up a BBQ in Britain this summer, there are good odds the charcoal comes from Namibia’s arid savannahs, since the UK imports more of it from here than anywhere else.
According to whose estimate you accept, charcoal provides jobs for anywhere from 5,500 to 30,000 Namibians, in a nation wracked by high unemployment. It also pulls critical foreign currency into an economy heavily reliant on neighbouring South Africa. But along with these benefits, it has also been stalked by controversy.
Two thin young men in ragged clothes stop to talk in the mid-afternoon sun. They work as contractors for a farmer who supplies charcoal to a company which exports it to Europe.
Eighteen months ago, they journeyed south from Ohangwena, which borders Angola and is one of the poorest regions in the country. “We came to make a living at any cost,” says the more talkative of the pair.
Their work is punishing. Both carry the Katana machetes they use to chop trees, before hacking the wood into small pieces to burn, and letting it simmer in archaic steel-drum kilns and then, after a few days, removing the charcoal.
The farmer pays them N$700 ($55.46) for every tonne of charcoal they produce. They can make up to five tonnes a month, but usually produce less.
The problem, says the more effusive worker, is that they get their food ‘on account’ from the farmer: “After he deducts money for what we have eaten we are only left with a few hundred [Namibian] dollars.”
The living conditions the men describe are wretched: they say they sleep in black plastic shelters with their young children, and do not have access to even basic toilets or showers. “Although it is tough, we have no other choice. There is no alternative.”
The black plastic sheets propped up by poles, found scattered across commercial farms, are standard dwellings for charcoal workers, and a symbol of the industry’s well-documented troubles.
In 2003 a fact-finding mission to charcoal-producing areas by Namibia’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare reported that workers were being maltreated and their human rights ignored.
Two years later, another government-led investigation reached the same conclusion, with a briefing paper later describing workers’ living conditions as deplorable.
In 2010, a comprehensive study, Namibia’s Black Gold? Charcoal Production, Practices and Implications, by the Legal Assistance Centre, a local NGO, described workers’ dire circumstances and how protected trees were being harvested for charcoal. Since then, the local press has continued to highlight the industry’s failings.
Apart from workers’ living conditions - which on a number of charcoal farms were considered in breach of the International Labour Organisation’s Code of Practice by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which audited some of them earlier last year - the industry is dogged by two other main complaints.
The first is the illegal harvesting of trees. Charcoal production initially emerged as a way of combating invader bush, the thorny trees which dominate the land here and are considered a threat to the economy and environment because they cause desertification.
Cutting invader bush for charcoal was promoted as an innovative means of fighting this epidemic. But doing it manually is labour-intensive, and since workers are paid by the amount of charcoal they produce and not the hours they work - and bigger trees yield more charcoal for less effort - reports of widespreadillegal harvesting of large and protected species are hardly surprising.
The other issue is the environmental and health hazards posed by converting wood to charcoal in archaic kilns. Studies have shown that carbonising wood this way is very inefficient, with 82 percent of wood energy lost, resulting in noxious gases and products of incomplete combustion entering the atmosphere.
The health hazards associated with small-scale charcoal production are also well-established, and include “increased respiratory symptoms and decreased pulmonary function”.
Namibians are aware of these problems and some are trying to rectify them. On Monday, officials from the Directorate of Forestry are due to meet with charcoal producers to discuss new industry guidelines.
Moreover, Namibia’s troubles are not unique. Nigeria, a major supplier of charcoal to the Europeanmarket, has some of the world’s highest deforestation levels, and charcoal production plays a significantpart in it.
The major UK supermarkets that stock Namibian charcoal require that it is FSC-certified, but certification has its limits. Few Namibian producers are FSC-certified, and demand for certified charcoal outstrips supply.
But if charcoal were included in the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which requires timber products to be legally sourced, consumers would have greater certainty that their charcoal is legal.
European distributors buy in charcoal from countries where production and labour costs are low. The wholesale cost of a tonne of charcoal in the UK is around £1,400 ($2,166) - in Namibia it’s less than 6 percent of that.
The difference in price is reflected in the dire conditions of workers, and in the Namibian government’s lack of resources to regulate the industry. But if consumers were willing to pay a fairer price for their charcoal, this could support Namibia to enforce its own laws.
Fern’s report, Playing with Fire: human misery, environmental destruction and summer BBQs, can be found here.
Mark Olden is a journalist and press adviser to the forest NGO Fern.
Category: Coal and forests