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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.

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In this part of Mozambique, the regulo, or regional leader, tells people where they can plant crops and where they can't. Too close to an ancestral cemetery is a no-no, for instance, as is planting on your neighbor's turf. Villagers can cut most trees that grow on and around their fields but not trees protected by traditional law, such as the panga panga or marula.

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People also know that stealing another man's timber will end up in a village-wide dispute, Guilaza says. A log in the middle of the brush might look abandoned, but it probably represents half a family's monthly income.

After Guilaza chopped his trees – wood chips flying from his hand-length ax head – he separated the skinnier branches from the 1- to 2-foot thick trunks. He took the smaller wood pieces home for his own family's cooking. (Last week Donazia made a goat curry stew over a wood fire.) The thickest chunks go toward charcoal.

Guilaza sets up the oven by clearing a swath of grass about 30 feet across and turning over the rich ground, just like his father and grandfather once showed him. He piles the remains of the tree in the center, and covers them with dried grass. Then he lights the wood and shovels dirt on top of the pile, leaving a small hole on top to allow just enough oxygen for a slow burn. He'll make a new kiln for the next two or three trees he chops.

The fire will smoulder for a week, he says, the wood gradually transforming into the thick chunks of charcoal. After a few days of burning, he shovels the mixture of dirt and burned wood to a section of the clearing and sifts out the pieces of charcoal. When they're cool enough, he stuffs them into 35 to 40 burlap bags that he buys for a few cents in a neighboring town. After stuffing them full, he adds a grass net at the top that will allow it to hold a bit more. Guilaza says each 100-pound bag sells for 60 meticais, about $2.40.

The charcoal will heat stoves in cities from southern Mozambique to northern Malawi, from Zimbabwe to South Africa.

He sells the charcoal along the main road to travelers at a stand he and a few neighbors share. But sometimes he will pile his bicycle with bags and sell the charcoal in nearby towns, where he can sell the bags for double the price.

In the US, "charcoal" evokes small, evenly-shaped briquettes that fuel summer barbecues. Guilaza's wares are larger and less uniform, more clearly the blackened remains of trees. They also burn longer than the American standard because they come from hardwood, not plantation timber, says Grant Norvall, a Zimbabwean agricultural consultant in Mozambique.

"It's very, very good quality," Mr. Norvall says of the longer- and hotter-burning charcoal. He says that the buyers are not just people from Mozambique's cities who don't have electricity. Wealthier individuals pick up bags of charcoal because it's more economical, or because they just prefer grilling. A common scam, Norvall says, is for long-haul truckers to exchange fuel – paid for by their companies – for bags of charcoal, which they then sell for their own profit in neighboring countries.

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By noon, the combination of heat from Guilaza's kiln and from the blinding Mozambican sun is almost unbearable. This is the time when he rests, leaning a forearm on his ax. He'll walk back to his hut, where his wife has made lunch. He will try to stay in the shade.

Meanwhile, the heat shimmers on top of the pile of earth he made, distorting the green landscape beyond.

Stephanie Hanes's reporting for this article was partially funded by an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.

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