Once a fortnight, Moses Sserwada travels from the capital, Kampala, to northern Uganda to pick up a truckload of charcoal destined for the popular Owino market in the city.
“I have been in this trade for three years; we get our supply from northern Uganda because the charcoal produced there is of a good quality and in high demand,” Sserwada told IRIN.
The charcoal trade, referred to as "black gold" by Kampala traders, has become more profitable than the forests where trees are being indiscriminately cut down for charcoal-burning. For the rural population, charcoal trade is an opportunity to earn an income.
According to the National Forest Authority (NFA), more than 73,000 hectares of private forest are cleared every year across the country and over 7,000ha of protected forest reserves are destroyed annually for timber and charcoal.
“People are cutting down trees indiscriminately without thinking of the future,” said Moses Watasa of the NFA.
Watasa said Uganda had no clear policy on charcoal production. "We must encourage planting fast-growing trees like eucalyptus now so that we can be in a position to get timber and charcoal in 10 years," he said.
Northern Uganda has thick forest cover, comprising both hard and soft wood. Forest growth in the area flourished during the two-decades-long Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict as many locals were displaced from their villages.
Previously, Kampala charcoal traders relied on charcoal from Nakasongola, Hoima, Masindi, Kafu, Luwero areas of eastern Uganda. These have since been depleted of private and community forests.
For instance, Langele village, adjacent to the Murchison Falls National Park in Nwoya district in northern Uganda, known for its beautiful scenery and thick forests, is no more. Locals refer to Langele as a charcoal factory.
“The price of forest depends on its thickness but on average it costs 1.5 million shillings [US$600] for a hectare,” said Otto Oola, a resident of Langele. "Any patch of land here covered with trees is [worth] a fortune, it can earn you millions of shillings any time."
Although aware of the environmental impact of indiscriminate cutting of trees, Oola said many people were doing it out of poverty. He said charcoal buyers not only provided cash upon purchase, they also helped villagers clear forested land for cultivation.
“I am trying to survive, I can’t sit hungry in that forest,” Oola said.
According to the State of the Environment report by the Uganda National Environment Management Authority, the rate of deforestation had, by 2005, increased from 1.76 percent per annum to 2.13 percent per annum.
The report says pressure on land, water, forest and biological resources has dramatically increased to meet the needs of a growing population, leading to a loss of 76 percent of the country’s forest cover.
Geoffrey Oryema, the district leader of Nwoya, said poverty and lack of a meaningful livelihood source were the driving factors for environmental destruction.
“What do you expect somebody in the village without money to pay for his needs such as soap, salt, medicine and food to do?” Oryema said. "People are struggling to find alternatives to survive."
However, Samuel Abwola, a district environment officer in Gulu, said people in rural areas were being exploited to degrade their own environment.
Gulu initially had 371 sqkm of forest cover, but environmentalists now estimate the cover to be only 200 sqkm, a reduction they attribute to charcoal-burning, human settlement as well as the quest to open up cultivable lands.
Margaret Barihahi, a coordinator for the African Climate Change Resilience Alliance, said it was necessary to devise alternatives for sustainable livelihoods and to empower communities with information on the dangers of indiscriminate forest-cutting.
“Without a viable alternative source of energy, it is clear that charcoal and wood fuel will remain the dominant sources of energy,” Barihahi said.
An estimated 95 percent of Ugandans depend on charcoal and wood for cooking. Moreover, Uganda’s rapid population growth, coupled with rapid urbanization, has increased the demand for energy, especially cooking fuel.
However, growth in energy demand has not been matched by corresponding growth in supply of alternative sources of fuel, such as hydro-electricity, which is the cheapest and most convenient alternative source of energy for cooking.
Because of its short supply, hydro-electricity is neither affordable nor reliable.
Uganda’s National Development Plan estimates the country’s electricity demand to reach 35,000MW by 2015 and the absence of cheap charcoal is likely to push demand for electricity even higher.
* This article first appeared on IRIN (the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN-OCHA), with the title Uganda: Charcoal boon a bust for forests’ on Feb. 07, 2012.