Kenya Fights a Burning Problem
The Equatorial Press Lead Story Kenya has long been regarded as a responsible steward of its national ecosystem, but the sheer scope of its illegal charcoal trade threatens to undermine both its fragile economy and its environmental legacy. How does such a seemingly commonplace product become a national crisis? (Photo by Abisalom Omolo)

By Abisalom Omolo

The Kenyan government is losing more than 5 billion shillings in taxes due to the unregulated charcoal burning industry, as well as acres of trees that are being cut and burnt in the process.

According to the Kenya Charcoal Working Group, the government loses 5.8 billion shillings in charcoal profits every year from a 32 billion shilling per year business. The rate at which trees are being consumed for the illegal trade is particularly devastating to the Kenyan environment. In the Lake Victoria region of the country, the Mau forest is rapidly being cleared, harming the 12 rivers that flow through it into Lake Victoria. The poor water quality thus affects Lake Victoria, which, in turn, serves as the source of the Nile River, Africa's longest.

The loss of 25% of the 400,000 hectares of the Mau forest to illegal logging, charcoal-making, and settlements has had widespread consequences. The Mau helps to hold in ground water, reduce soil erosion into the watershed, purify water bodies, and regulate the local micro-climate. The reduction in the amount and quality of the water flowing into Lake Victoria, the world's second largest freshwater lake, has massively affected the 12 billion shilling Sondu Miriu hydropower project, which had been planned as a major sustainable energy initiative by the Kenyan government. With nearly a quarter of the Mau forest complex lost in the past 15 years, Kenya also faces a serious environmental crisis in a nation where only 16 percent of the arable land is productive while 84 percent is arid or semi-arid. The United Nations Environment Program has declared the ongoing and extensive destruction of such a key natural asset a national emergency. It has reached the point where if no measures are taken, Kenya will lose one of its fundamental assets.

A key culprit, the illegal charcoal trade involves producing the commodity through the felling of trees from protected forests. About 3 million people depend directly or indirectly on charcoal burning for cooking fuel and heat. An estimated 500,000 are involved in the illegal charcoal trade, with 200,000 estimated producers.

Cleaner, sustainable alternatives to charcoal such as liquified petroleum gas and briquettes have yet to fulfill the energy demands of low income households. Many have urged the government to step in and regulate the charcoal industry, which would allow them to collect revenue as they currently do with electricity and petroleum. This revenue, in turn, could be reinvested into environmental conservation and sustainable energy. The Kenya Charcoal Working Group said in a report, "the charcoal business is riddled with corruption and the permanent perception that the trade in the commodity is illegal due to the negative impact on the environment." The charcoal trade has been regulated in countries like Sudan, which have put in place policies to reduce human-caused desertification.

Yet the crisis is not entirely a Kenyan problem. Traders frequently cross borders and import charcoal from neighboring countries. Lake Victoria is often used for this trade, with traders bringing boats full of charcoal overnight into Kenya on a daily basis. Many urge Kenya to institute buffer zones where charcoal can be produced sustainably near- but not in- environmentally protected areas. The establishment of zones would need to be supported by regulations and guidance on responsible land use, addressing the unchecked harvesting of trees- a major priority for Kenya as it seeks to meet its environmental Millennium Development goals.

Abisalom Omolo is a columnist with the Lake Victoria Journal and a radio journalist for Radio Lake Victoria.