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In Namibia encroaching bush is turned into charcoal

Avatar of inke inke 13. November 2017 - Economics

While some kilns are cooling down, another one is filled with wood again. The workers are usually paid according to the quantity of charcoal produced.

Pillars of smoke rise from the bush, but the farmer remains surprisingly calm. Namibia’s farmers used to react with immediate alarm when they detected a whiff of smoke somewhere on their land. These days the almost sole cause of smoke is charcoal production. There is a risk of course that this activity might start a bush fire, especially in the dry season. Therefore some farmers discontinue production for several months at that time of the year. Strict regulations are in place to prevent grass fires, which can also be devastating for neighbouring farmers. 

Charcoal production is still a rather young industry in Namibia, but it is already internationally recognised and also well regulated and organised. The Board of the Namibia Charcoal Association (NCA) is particularly proud of the fact that Namibia’s charcoal production ranks fifth in the worldwide comparison. In Namibia, however, no forests are cut down for charcoal. Instead, savannah areas lost to encroaching bush are reclaimed. 

Bush has encroached on a total of 32 million hectares in Namibia which otherwise would provide valuable grazing for livestock and wildlife. Another problem with encroaching bush is that it prevents proper replenishing of the groundwater reserves. Dense bush, especially the blackthorn (Acacia mellifera) with its extensive network of shallow roots, absorbs rainwater faster than it can seep into the ground. Several thousand hectares of grassland have already been reclaimed through charcoal production. Follow-up treatment is necessary to stop the cut down bush from growing back. 

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry there are currently 604 registered charcoal producers in Namibia. A total of 216,669 tons was produced during the 2015/16 financial year and a total of 109,885 tons during 2016/17. Charcoal exports to South Africa alone amounted to 139,684 tons during 2015/16 and another 71,991 tons during 2016/17. A total of 45,547 tons were exported elsewhere in 2015/16 and 14,690 tons the following year. The statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture also show that during the two financial years under review 31,438 tons of charcoal and 23,204 tons respectively were supplied to the local market. The charcoal industry created between 2318 and 3763 jobs during the past three years. 

In most areas the forestry authority mainly approves utilization of blackthorn for the production of charcoal. But specific trees and shrubs in different parts of the country are also allowed to be turned into charcoal. The candle thorn (Acadia hebeclada): around Otjiwarongo, Okahandja, Walvis Bay and Gobabis. The sicklebush (Dichrostachys cinerea): around Otjiwarongo, Otavi, Okahandja, Omaruru, Grootfontein, Walvis Bay and Outjo. The mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane): around Otjiwarongo, Otavi, Omaruru and Khorixas. The purplepod clusterleaf (Terminalia prunoides): around Otjiwarongo, Otavi, Okakarara, Grootfontein, Walvis Bay, Outjo and Khorixas. And prosopis, an invasive alien that was once imported from Mexico and the southern parts of the United States, ends up in charcoal kilns on farms around Gobabis and Mariental. 

The Namibia Charcoal Association (NCA) says that 490 producers are registered members of the association. Its Chairman, Isak Katali, the former Minister of Mines and Energy, emphasises that Namibian charcoal is a high-quality product. GIZ (a German development agency) is supporting Namibia’s fledgling charcoal industry with the aim to continually improve production and make it more environmentally friendly. 

The NCA is pushing for added value by storing, sorting and packing the product locally. So far a large part of the production is still delivered to South Africa as is and packed there for export elsewhere. Organised charcoal production helps with efforts to alleviate poverty. Thus there need to be records of the workers involved, and workers need to be trained. Many Angolans are currently making a living in the Namibian charcoal industry. Buyers of exported Namibian charcoal not only contribute to poverty alleviation but also to the utilisation of trees and shrubs which are cut down in the process of reclaiming grassland. Bush encroachment has become a multi-million dollar problem for agriculture. 

Many producers are committed to the strict international regulations of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ultimately secures the best price for their product. 

Dirk Heinrich

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