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Charcoal fuels the economy and deforestation of Mozambique

Santos Junior Guilaza makes charcoal for a living – he and legions of people like him literally fuel the engine of rural souther Africa.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2008

Santos Junior Guilaza's product comes from hardwood trees which provide a longer- and hotter-burning fuel than that used in American barbecues.

Stephanie Hanes

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Matenga, Mozambique

Santos Junior Guilaza's hands are calloused, burned countless times by the smoldering wood he separates, barehanded, from the dark, steaming dirt of his earthen kiln. His bare feet are leathery and flattened from trekking over this overgrown land – from his bamboo-and-thatch hut, past increasingly rare trees, and to the road where he, like thousands upon thousands of others, sells the charcoal that fuels southern Africa.

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"I go by foot," he says matter-of-factly as he guides a visitor through shoulder-high grasses that can slice skin like fine razors. ("Watch for the snakes," he warns.)

Mr. Guilaza has been chopping trees and making charcoal for as long as he can remember. It's what his father did and his grandfather, too. It's what all the men do in this village, not far from the crocodile-thick Pungue River. And it's how legions of impoverished people throughout the developing world stay alive.

Charcoal is more portable than simple wood, and can be made with trees, earth, fire – and sweat. In regions where electricity and money are scarce, but physical toil is not, the fuel is everywhere. In Mozambique, for instance, the government estimates that charcoal is the main fuel source for 80 percent of the population.

This causes intense international hand-wringing. It has given purpose to dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), has prompted countless academic papers, and concerns environmentalists watching the world's trees disappear.

Along with South America, Africa loses forests at a faster rate than almost any place on earth, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Many farmers use a slash-and-burn process, cutting forest and burning the remaining vegetation to plant crops in the temporarily rich soil. Logging – illegal and legal – clears large amounts of forests. But almost half of Africa's forest loss is a result of people chopping trees for firewood or charcoal, estimates the UN Billion Tree Campaign.

Asked why he makes charcoal, Guilaza reacts like an American might if asked to explain the whys of driving a car: "Everyone does the charcoal." It's the main way, in this cash-scarce region, to get a few meticais to buy a shirt or a goat or a pencil for a child. It's simply a way of life.

But that doesn't mean that Guilaza is unreflective. He gestures to the chaotic collection of grasses, skinny young trees, and thick bushes: "This used to be a no man's land, a forest." But over the past decade, he says, the sky-kissing trees have become fewer and fewer.

Cash-earning work is scarce in rural Mozambique, which is largely a subsistence and barter economy. In some parts of the country, as much as 70 percent of individuals' income is from charcoal, estimates the Stockholm Environment Institute.

So it's no surprise that Guilaza seees no other choice. But he also says he has started planting saplings, because he worries that at the rate the forest around his village is disappearing, there will be nothing left for his children to chop.

"[Charcoal] is probably the biggest problem in Mozambique, as far as deforestation," says Regina Cruz, a Mozambican forestry expert. "Whole forests are being cut. But what else can the people do."

• • •

Today, Guilaza walks to his kiln, a 30-minute walk from his house. There's no set schedule, he says, but when he woke up at 5 a.m., he knew that instead of going to his corn fields with his wife, Donazia, he would come to this pile of exposed earth. He started this oven a few days before, after he'd chopped two thick trees that grew alongside his corn fields.