By Alloycious David, with New Narratives
Editor’s Note: This story is the first of a two-part series on the the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the charcoal industry in Liberia.
ZINC CAMP, MARGIBI COUNTY – The upsurge in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Liberia has led to a sharp decrease in the production of charcoal, a situation being cheered by conservationists, who have for decades campaigned to end deforestation in Liberia.
Liberia is fighting a fierce battle against the coronavirus pandemic, which has recorded 26 deaths from 255 cases as of May 23. President George Weah early last month imposed a state of emergency, which includes a lockdown in Montserrado, Margibi, Grand Kru and Nimba County. State security forces are enforcing strict disease-prevention protocols such as a ban on huge gatherings and restriction of travel across counties, except between Montserrado and Margibi.
These health measures are stalling business in the charcoal sector, which, according to a 2018 World Bank report, has a workforce of 28,000 people.
“We can’t find people to help us cut our trees and do other works like bagging of coal,” reveals Gormah Kollie a resident of Zinc Camp, a charcoal hub on the Monrovia-Kakata highway. Kollie, whose production was near complete prior to the lockdown, cannot find daily hires so her children have to carry 40 bags of charcoal on their heads on a 50-minute walk from the forest to her house.
“I have a stockpile of wood here, but people are not available to help me process them,” says 24-year-old Thomas Wonders. “I need people to assist me prepare the oven, provide night supervision, rake and bag the coal.”
Apart from producers, distributors cannot transport charcoal to Monrovia and other urban places due to travel restriction. The demand for charcoal is 337,000 metric tons worth US$46, according to the World Bank study—the latest on the industry. Monrovia demands more charcoal than any other county, with 65 percent of that total market.
“We have spent two nights here and [security forces] cannot allow us pass with our coal,” says Beatrice Moore, who is stranded at the Klay checkpoint. She is one of the charcoal producers in western Liberia pleading with government to relax restriction for the commodity.
Charcoal revenue collected from across the country has also dropped. Last year the industry contributed LD$12 million to the national budget. Authorities at the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) expect a huge fall in that revenue after generating just LD$300,000 in March and LD325, 000 in April.
“People are no longer bringing in the coal,” says Edward Kamara, FDA manager for forest product marketing. “It will affect Monrovia and there will be a shortage of charcoal on the market if this event goes on for long.”
But conservationists relish the industry’s struggles.
“I think it is good for us as a country,” Saah David, coordinator of Liberia’s reducing emission from deforestation and degradation in targeted forest landscapes (REDD+). “Charcoal production is a major driver of deforestation in Liberia. It is something good that pressure on the forest is reducing.”
Liberia is recognized globally as a top conservation priority. The country has about 42% of the remaining portion of the Upper Guinean Forest, one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world, home to rare plants and endangered animal species.
But poorly regulated human activities, including charcoal production, are significantly degrading most of the country’s ecosystems, resulting to an unprecedented loss of biodiversity and contribution to climate change.
Charcoal producers heavily depend on timber species and is linked to unsustainable farming, a 2013 report by environmental watchdog Green Advocates International found.
Here in the forest in Zinc Camp, there are plenty of evidence of destruction of the forest. Felled trees are everywhere. There are blackened patches of cleared forest with huge charcoal bays. Woods processed for production abandoned to rot.
Felling trees contributes to climate change. Forest helps mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. If the forest is cleared, CO2 is released into the atmosphere, which depletes the ozone layer that protects the earth from powerful ray of the sun. That ultraviolet radiation of the sun leads to global warming that subsequently results to extreme weather—rainstorm, sea level rise and drought, for example.
“The impact of charcoal production on climate change is grave and its increases greenhouse gases that go into our atmosphere,” says Jerry Garteh, coordinator for science and conservation at the Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia. “We conservationists will always be supportive and we will also be keen to see that certain actions that have been having negative impacts on the environment are reduced.”
Victory for Coronavirus, not Conservation
As well as the REDD+ project, Liberia has taken a number of initiatives to protect its biodiversity. The country has created four national parks, signed onto the UN-backed Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, placed local communities at the core of its forestry reform agenda and made a pledge at the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emission by 15 percent.
It is “regrettable” coronavirus has slowed down deforestation in a few months an array of conservation initiatives failed to do for years, says David. The victory is not sustainable.
“And the question we will ask ourselves is: ‘After the pandemic will people not go back to business-as-usual?’” He says. “So it means the forest will still be impacted. The question now is: ‘What can we from the REED+ end, the forestry and the agriculture ministry end do to improve the livelihood of our people so our people dependence on the production of charcoal is reduced?’”
The answer is a plantation of a fast-growing trees that do not emit much carbon when burned should be planted for charcoal producers, recommends Richard Sambolah, a conservationist with with Farmers Associated to Conserve the Environment (FACE). In that way charcoal producers will not have to degrade the forest.
A suggestion from Garteh of SCNL is that conservationists “speedily conduct a study on the alternative power-source being used during this decline and what producers are involved with.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.