The Charcoal Bicyclists of Deforestation-Ravaged Mozambique

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Take a drive between Mozambique's rural towns of Dondo and Savane, and you'll find yourself repeatedly pulling over to the shoulder of the cragged dirt road, making way for a parade of incoming bicyclists—each one hauling enormous bundles of charcoal over their back wheel. The loads look precariously fastened on, but the riders navigate the terrain at a steady, deliberate pace. These charcoal-haulers are coming from the front lines of Mozambique's worsening deforestation epidemic, and they'll travel great distances with their burden to the nearest market hub—typically the city of Biera—where they'll sell each bundle for about 250 meticals; less than $10.

And this burdensome ride occurs only after the men create the charcoal themselves, and package it up. That process includes felling the trees, chopping them up, burning them in a kiln, and acquiring burlap sacks to hold the charcoal. According to the Stockholm Institute, in many regions of Mozambique, 70 percent of the population earn their income from this charcoal.

"Sometimes they'll ride 35 kilometers, to about here," Bill Rustrick, an agronomy expert, says, gesturing out the window, his eyes on the road. We're near Dondo, an hour's drive from Biera, in a region that was thoroughly deforested within the last ten years or so. "And lots of them will ride another 35 to Biera, where they can get a better price." That's 70 kilometers of carting a heavy load or charcoal on a rusty old bike.

Another cluster wobbles down the road—some carry one bundle, most carry two.

The Mozambique government estimates that 80% of its citizens use charcoal to cook. Almost everyone buys it on the informal market (here's an in-depth look at how that works), where it's the cheapest and most readily available cooking fuel. And it's that demand for charcoal that's feeding the plague of deforestation in Mozambique, where thick forests are razed at an increasingly alarming rate.

Rustrick is the CEO of CleanStar Mozambique, a for-profit venture that's seeking to combat the spread of deforestation by promoting sustainable farming and tree-planting in the region. We've been passing the bikers en route the company's flagship farm in Savane. That town used to be covered in dense forest just five or six months ago—when we get there, we see that it's almost completely barren of tree cover. The clear-cutting is taking place so rapidly largely because the way is paved by foreign logging operations, most of which are Chinese, Pedro Cornuda, an agroforestry expert with CSM, says. Those companies come through and chop down the oldest, choicest trees for lumber, blazing a trail for the charcoal harvesters and offering them easy access to the rest of the forest.

CSM buys cassava, an indigenous starch-loaded plant, from local farmers, to refine it into an ethanol cooking fuel, which it will then sell in Maputo, Mozambique's capital. The fuel is clean-burning, and much safer than charcoal, whose fumes are a leading killer in Africa. But in order to promote sustainable farming practices—and to hedge against "food vs. fuel" criticisms from the development community and the Mozambican government—the company teaches participating farmers to follow a model in which three different crops are rotated every year. Only one is cassava; others include soya, sorghum, or cow peas. They also show that planting trees along the crop can bring nutrients to the surface, and help enrich the soil, and encourage farmers to do so. The company will offer farmers a higher price for any cassava yields harvested this way.

The goal is to stabilize incomes for farmers, and to provide a potentially lucrative alternative to the charcoal harvest. So far 98 local farmers have signed on; CSM is hoping to get 3,000 over the next couple years. The tree-planting efforts of thousands of locals, and the promise of a profitable new industry may help slow the tide of deforestation. But the company faces an uphill battle against well-oiled logging companies and the massive demand for a product used by 80% of the nation.

Which may be why Cornuda frowns when I ask him if he thinks CleanStar can counter the deforestation in the region. "I don't know if we can plant fast enough," he says.

Novozymes, CSM's strategic shareholder, covered travel expenses to Mozambique.

Tags: Africa | Coal | Deforestation

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