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Charcoal Business Threatens Northern Uganda’s Tree Species

By Dicta Asiimwe

Officially, Uganda has not exported charcoal since 1987, when the country amended the External Trade Act, a 1953 law that makes provision for the regulation of export trade.

Tom Okurut, the Executive Director of Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA)says framers of the External Trade Act included charcoal among items whose export was banned because the product is exhaustible and its exportation unsustainable.

An official in the Ministry of Water and Environment says Uganda’s charcoal ban law was later reinforced in 2004 when the East African Community (EAC) passed the Customs Management Act. In effect, this law banned the export of charcoal in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and subsequently, the three countries Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan which joined the EAC later.

With the law banning exports in place, Emmanuel Ssemambo, the Head of Statistics at Bank of Ugandaobserves that Uganda has not recorded charcoal exports since, not even under those goods that are traded across the border informally.

Yet, the consensus among different government officials is that Uganda exports a lot of charcoal to, especially Kenya, where the government instituted a moratorium on the harvesting of forestry products in 2018.

The ban on the production of charcoal has been a boon for some Ugandan businessmen. Joseph Wambedde, a former carpenter, who is now a dealer buying and transporting charcoal from northern Uganda to the border district of Busia, says business over these years has been good.

Wambedde says he was able to build a house in a short time, pay school fees for his children and comfortably meet the needs of his family.

“I collect charcoal from Agago and transport it to my business in Busia. I sell my charcoal in Busia, where it is transported to Kenya. That is how I get some good money to feed my family and meet all my expenses,” he shared with the East African Center for Investigative Reporting’s online publication, www.voxpopuli.ug.

His assertion is backed by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC) in their report titled, Black gold; the charcoal grey market in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan.

The study found that following a moratorium on charcoal production in Kenya, a lot of the product was being imported from Uganda.

“Due to the Kenyan ban on charcoal production, it is more desirable for transporters to carry Ugandan charcoal in Kenya as it is often accompanied by a certificate of origin, which serves as protection against confiscation and/or extortion,” reads an excerpt from the report.

Asked about these certificates of origin, an official from the Ministry of Water and Environment who asked for anonymity because he is unauthorised to speak without permission from his permanent secretary claimed there was no such thing.

“There are no such certificates of origin,” he said, adding that as a ministry, they know there has been an increase in the smuggling of charcoal following Kenya’s 2017 moratorium on the harvest of forestry products.

“We were told that many trucks are stationed in no man's land in Busia from where charcoal for sale to Kenya is bought but when we sent the environment police, there was no evidence of such,” the official added.

However, another official in the biomass department of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development told this publication that the Ministry of Water and Environment gives out permits to those charcoal exporters who have their private woodlands that are maintained for this particular business.

With the Uganda Bureau of Statistics reporting that 94 percent of Ugandan households use either firewood or charcoal for cooking, forests in the country are facing severe pressure. This pressure is exacerbated by demand from Kenya.

Northern Uganda is one of the most affected when it comes to tree cutting for charcoal production.

“Because of the wars in the north, people didn’t cut a lot of trees. As a result, the trees from this part of the country can’t be found elsewhere in Uganda. These trees matured and are hard so the charcoal that comes from the north is hard,” says Charles Kwesiga, a charcoal dealer.

Kwesiga adds that one of the most sought-after tree species for charcoal burning is the shea tree (biological name which he says provides very good charcoal.

A felled shea tree ready for stacking into a charcoal kiln. CREDIT: Tobias Owiny

The shea tree whose oil is an important item for the coronation of the Paramount chief, the leader of the Acholi cultural institution, has become popular with players in the business of charcoal trade.

“Just like the Roman Catholics use anointing oil for baptism and other Christian rituals, we the Acholi use shea nut oil to anoint our chiefs,” says Ambrose Oola,the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro, the Acholi cultural institution.

Oola adds that shea is a tree that the Acholi revere and whoever is anointed with its oil to become a chief has been made divine, whose duties and responsibilities cannot be interfered with by mere humans.

Kwesiga acknowledges the importance of shea oil for traditional rituals and food among the people of Acholi, but says that as a dealer, he likes the fact that one never loses money when it has been invested in buying the shea tree for making charcoal.

Michael Okumu, who leases his land to charcoal makers says the shea tree in northern Uganda is being cut rapidly. He attributes this to charcoal makers, who pay a premium for shea tree woodlands.

Since the shea tree can only be found in northern Uganda, this has partly fueled deforestation in the region. But Arthur Owor, Director of the Centre for African Research adds that the people who fought in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war have come back to illegally exploit the resources of northern Uganda.

He cites accusations against armed forces being among those accused of logging and taking bribes to allow charcoal production. He also highlights the case of local governments in northern Uganda benefiting from increased revenues collected from the confiscation of logging products.

In total, the GIATOC report shows that between September 2018 and May 2020, districts in the Acholi sub-region generated Uganda Shillings 600 million (US$ 168,000) from impounded charcoal.

With increased revenues, Owor says the districts are not motivated to stop logging, choosing instead, the money incentive.

But collections made by the local governments are comparatively peanuts. The same report found Kampala, where a bag of charcoal costs USh 110,000(US$30), the total market is valued at $182 million (USh 655.8 billion).

“In Uganda, a large share of that value probably gets dispersed into the petty corruption market and is largely captured by police,” reads an excerpt in the report.

Wambedde asserts that although his business is very profitable, he like most players in the charcoal business, “spend a lot greasing the palms of officials at different stages of the value chain.”

“We are involved in an illegal business,” he says, adding, “Cutting trees is a problem that the government arrests us for. When you load 300 bags on a truck, you will find that 50 bags are spent on bribing different officials along the way before reaching Busia,” says Wambedde.

Wambedde who sells his charcoal in Busia’s border market, for onward sale to neighbouring Kenya, says a bag goes for USh 100,000 (US$28), meaning he spends USh 5 million (US$1,395) in bribes.

Michael McLaggan, one of the authors of the report by GIATOC blames Kenya’s ban on the production of charcoal for fueling corruption-related crime in the sector. He also argues that Kenya’s demand for charcoal was displaced to Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

The report estimates the charcoal market in Nairobi to stand at $271 million (USh 976.5 billion), with some of the money used to bribe different officials.

Mclaggan highlights one such practice of organised bribery in Kenya to include a term known as “kusafisha barabara”, a Swahili term meaning to cleanse the road.

“What this practices entails is the actual withdrawal of roadblocks along routes where large consignments of illicit charcoal may be traveling, so that they may pass through unimpeded,” he says.

In Uganda, NEMA working with districts in northern Uganda introduced new by-laws to reduce deforestation caused by the production of charcoal.

But Owor says this has not been much of a deterrent. Over 20 years of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda meant that until 2006, the region didn’t have as much deforestation, as the rest of the country. But data from Global Forest Watch (GFW) shows an increase in deforestation, with Gulu district losing its tree cover the fastest in the northern region.

In 2020, northern Uganda lost 4020 ha of primary forest. Gulu district accounted for 32% (1306 ha) followed by Adjumani district with 23% (921 ha).

Among the trees highlighted by Owor as the most affected by the heavy deforestation are and the shea tree. Both tree species are classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Owor adds that the two tree species could soon become extinct in northern Uganda.

Makeshift home for workers burning charcoal. CREDIT: Tobias Owiny

Unlike which is exported, as logs to mostly Asia, the shea tree is mainly the preferred species for the production of charcoal.

Kwesiga, a charcoal dealer says he is happy whenever he buys shea trees because its charcoal is of good quality.

“You don’t make losses because sometimes when you buy other tree species you estimate 30 bags and get about 19 bags, but for this tree, the estimation of bags is always correct. When you estimate that you will get 60 or 70 bags that is what you get and you can only find these trees here in the north,” he says.

This story was supported by Code for Africa and funded by the Global Forest Watch (GFW) with support from the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment (KLD). GFW supports data-driven journalism through its Small Grants Fund Initiative. The publisher maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.



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