Biologist Cédric Muliri (second from left) works with Batwa community members in Chibuga village to make fuel efficient stoves. Photograph: Ed Ram
‘In 10 years, we might not have forests’: DRC struggles to halt charcoal trade – a photo essay
Projects involving the Batwa and other marginalised communities offer alternative fuel and income, but can only ever be a small part of a wider drive to stop deforestation
by Ed Ram in Kahuzi Biega
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Every few seconds a handful of reddish clay is scraped out of a bucket, rolled briskly into a ball, coated in charcoal dust and left in the sun to dry. For the past three years, Nzigire Ntavuna, 39, has been making these balls on the outskirts of Kahuzi-Biega national park, in the rainforest in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to burn as fuel. The little briquettes represent a tiny glimmer of hope here, at the centre of a multilayered threat to this forest and the people who live in it.
Ntavuna lives about 2 miles (4km) outside the park, in Chibuga village. The Batwa people have lived in the region for millennia. Since the 1970s, they have been caught up in a cycle of violence in the forests, which is home to the endangered Grauer’s, or eastern lowland, gorilla. The tensions deepened in recent weeks after a German-funded investigation into alleged massacres in the park was accused of covering up accounts of rapes and killings of Batwa people, formerly known as Pygmies, by park rangers.
The rainforest of the Congo River basin covers 178m hectares (440m acres) across six countries. It absorbs about 4% of global annual carbon emissions, sustains rainfall as far away as Egypt, and is home to 80 million people – and a vast spectrum of rare animals, insects and flora. Its preservation is deemed key in the fight against global heating.
But DRC has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation, losing 490,000 hectares (1.2m acres) of primary rainforest in 2020, according to Global Forest Watch. Unlike in the Amazon, where industrial-scale logging is mostly responsible, in DRC small-scale charcoal production and slash and burn agriculture drive deforestation; about 90% of forest loss between 2000 and 2014 was due to smallholder agriculture, according to a 2018 report in Science Advances.
At Cop26 in Glasgow, more than 100 leaders pledged to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030 and committed $1.5bn (£1.2bn) for the Congo Basin, with $500m earmarked for the first five years. After signing the deal, DRC’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, said food security and action on the climate crisis would be delivered “through sustainable agriculture, primarily in the savannahs”. But while plans are being made to promote community forestry, there are concerns that efforts to stop logging are not going to plan, with DRC’s first reporting target being missed. Meanwhile, the demand for charcoal remains high.
In Kahuzi-Biega national park, created by Belgian colonialists in 1937, earth is heaped over smouldering tree branches to produce charcoal – turning the forest into stumps. Charcoal burners, transporters and sellers bribe underpaid Congolese military, tasked with policing the trade. In Bukavu city, on the banks of Lake Kivu bordering Rwanda, sacks are sold at a huge markup. With gas prices high and limited electric grid power, charcoal is big business, with 90% of DRC’s population using it to cook daily. One study revealed that the capital, Kinshasa, receives 4.8m cubic metres of fuelwood and charcoal a year.
About 6,000 Batwa, hunter-gatherers who play an integral role in conserving the forests, were coerced off their ancestral lands in 1975 as the national park was expanded. Marginalised and displaced, and with little means of making a living, some Batwa returned in 2018, cutting down trees for charcoal and subsistence farming. As well as being subject to alleged killings and sexual violence by rangers and military, the Batwa are at the mercy of the militias operating in the park and controlling illegal mining.
In Chibuga and two nearby villages, Batwa have been engaged in a scheme designed to give them an alternative income and integrate them into the wider community. Biologist Cédric Muliri, 25, has been working with humanitarian organisation Objectif Brousse since 2019, teaching women to produce and sell soap, cooking stoves and honey, alongside making 1,000 fuel balls a day, selling them at $1 for 20.
The fuel balls burn 70% more efficiently than charcoal, cutting the price of fuel by a third and reducing deforestation. The scheme is extended to widows of rangers who have been killed in conflict with Batwa or armed groups, with a view to building peaceful relations between communities.
“It’s economic and ecological – now they won’t need to go into the park and cut down trees and kill animals,” says Muliri, who graduated from Bukavu University and is pursuing a career in community integration and the protection of south Kivu’s environment. He believes taking care of DRC’s poor people will safeguard the forest, and wants to see more projects like this, estimating that if 1,000 women are involved, deforestation could be reduced in the park by 25–30%.
But there have been difficulties in transporting the balls to Bukavu, where they can fetch double the price and offer an alternative to the illegal charcoal market run by criminal gangs. “We need investment,” Muliri says.
Further north, 56% of charcoal used in the city of Goma is produced illegally in Virunga national park. Here the World Wildlife Fund in DRC is supporting production of thousands of energy-efficient charcoal stoves and family biogas generators, as well as trying to restore forests. WWF says it has planted about 20 million fast-growing trees since 2007 for charcoal and carpentry, but this has reduced deforestation rates in Virunga by just 2.2%.
Powerful officials have interests in the charcoal trade continuing in DRC, a country battered by brutal colonisation resulting in decades of conflict, and corrupt politicians who have used its mineral wealth as personal piggy banks.
“If we don’t address this issue, in 10 years plus we will not talk about forests,” says Thierry Lusenge, sustainable energy manager at WWF-DRC. “It will be coffee plantations, cocoa plantations, palm … but no forest.”
Halting deforestation in DRC is a “very, very tough ask and would cost a lot of money and investment”, says Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London and the University of Leeds. There is a “poverty of ambition”, and stoves and plantations won’t cut it, Lewis says, believing the solution is solar energy feeding an electricity grid for DRC’s cites.
President Tshisekedi launched an ambitious solar project in Kinshasa and Virunga in 2020 and has been building hydroelectric stations. But the role of rich countries cannot be underestimated – exports of gold and the rare minerals that go into smartphones and electric car batteries to countries including Britain drive “deforestation and habitat destruction”, according to Mike Barrett of WWF-UK, who said the UK should “play its part” by reducing its global environmental footprint by 75% by 2030.
Back in Chibuga, three clay balls glow under a pot of bean stew. Muliri admits these are not a “solution by themselves” but is determined to do everything in his power to protect the land where he grew up. As they chat, Ntavuna says to Muliri: “It’s in our blood to protect the forests, even though this government doesn’t think of us like that.”
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