On the African continent, Congolese rainforests span six countries. Like the more well-known Amazon rainforest, these forests help produce rain and provide shelter for some of the planet’s most remarkable plants and animals. But the rainforests are in danger: Acres are literally going up in smoke.
God has given humans charge over His Earth (Genesis 1:28) to care for it and use His resources wisely. Yet Africa has long struggled to protect the land. The continent’s large and mostly poor population depends on cheap, plant-based energy sources—mainly charcoal.
People in some African cities cook almost solely with charcoal. Edwin Muhumuza is an environmental protection activist in Uganda. He says charcoal has become precious, like gold or coffee.
In the Congolese rainforests, machete-wielding workers hew down trees for weeks at a time. They target seemingly unused public land at night with little interference. The workers slowly heat the chopped wood until all water and other matter are gone. The process is called “charcoal burning.” The resulting carbon material, or charcoal, burns hotter and smokes less than wood.
These charcoal burners’ efforts are consuming forests in parts of Africa. In many areas, the loss of rainforest is severe.
Uganda has been hit especially hard by charcoal burners. The country lost about 15% of its forest cover in about 15 years. “We are really concerned,” says Muhumuza.
Authorities are seeking solutions to the charcoal problem that don’t create greater hardship for people. One government agency wants a ban on gas taxes. Agency officials believe that if folks can afford to cook with gas, they may not depend so much on charcoal. Some Ugandan authorities are impounding charcoal trucks in hopes of discouraging charcoal burners.
Martin Mapenduzi has another idea. He organizes raids to arrest charcoal burners. “Illegal logging has gone down,” he says of the raids. “But the destruction of forests for charcoal burning is still high.”
Mapenduzi wants laws to restrict and punish charcoal burners. “We cannot succeed in running after them in the forest all the time,” he says.
This summer, Ethiopia’s prime minister led an effort to plant 350 million trees in one day across the drought-prone country. A similar greening initiative has been launched in Kenya.
But some conservationists say those tree restoration efforts alone may not be enough to save Africa’s forests.
Muhumuza, the activist, thinks the solution will require more than laws, new trees, or tax cuts. He wants a ban on the charcoal trade. “A total ban,” he says. “One hundred percent.”