Fuel from the Savanna: the Social and Environmental Implications of the Charcoal Trade in Sub-Saharan Africa

Fuel from the Savanna: the Social and Environmental Implications of the Charcoal Trade in Sub-Saharan Africa
Rob Bailis, UC Berkeley RAEL, December 2005

The heavy reliance on woodfuels that characterizes energy consumption in much of the
developing world is often cast as inherently damaging to the environment. However, a more critical analysis reveals that the range of social and environmental implications of woodfuel use are complex and contingent on a wide variety of factors. Moreover, the impacts of woodfuel use are not necessarily negative for all groups of actors or under all circumstances. Nor do they necessarily lead to permanent environmental change. In addition, outcomes are driven as much by social as by environmental conditions. I explore these complexities using multiple methodologies, including an in depth case study and several analytic models.

For the field-based case study, I conducted a commodity chain analysis of Kenya’s charcoal trade. Used by nearly half the population and constituting roughly 40% of the country’s primary energy supply, charcoal is a critical fuel in Kenya. Despite its importance, it is not regulated by any overarching policy. The regulations that do exist are implemented through ambiguous and selectively enforced district-level ordinances that local authorities can easily apply to their own advantage. Although they are ostensibly meant to prevent environmental damage from the charcoal trade, there is little ecological knowledge incorporated into the design of existing regulations. Moreover, there is no consideration of the socioeconomic context in which charcoal production occurs. As a result, the regulations, when they are enforced, foster tension between local land managers and authorities, encourage corruption,
and do little to promote sustainable woodfuel production.

In spite of the popular discourse that portrays charcoal as an agent of environmental destruction, there are a wide range of social benefits flowing from the country’s charcoal trade. The trade constitutes an important source of income for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of charcoal makers throughout Kenya. It also forms part of a land management strategy for thousands of landowners who supply trees to the charcoal kilns. However, understanding how and why benefits from the charcoal trade are distributed among different groups of actors in the commodity chain requires an understanding of the local histories and social relationships in which the trade is embedded.

For example, in Narok district, where field work was conducted for this research, gradual reforms in land tenure over the past century, first from communal to corporate tenure and then to individual freehold tenure, created the conditions in which the charcoal trade now thrives, aided by an influx of migrants from neighboring districts who supply both their technical knowledge and their labor to the industry. Simultaneously, conservation efforts in a large and threatened area of forest that Narok shares with neighboring districts, but which, ironically, supplies very little of the district’s charcoal, was used to justify authorities’ effortsto clamp down on all trade in forest products, thereby criminalizing charcoal and creating the
space for rent-seeking behavior among corrupt local officials.

Analytically, it is possible to quantify a range of possible outcomes resulting from large-scale commercial woodfuel exploitation. Outcomes depend strongly on social and political decisions related to land management. For example, post-harvest decisions are critical in determining the degree to which a plot of land exploited for woodfuel production is a net source or sink of carbon. Finally, the availability and affordability of woodfuels, and the technology with which they are utilized, has additional implications for health and social welfare. All of these factors are explored below.