Zimbabwe turns to charcoal for cooking as power outages bite

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Miller Chizema walked through the forest near his home and came across a pile of freshly-cut logs — a sight that spurred the 82-year-old villager to dismay and anger.

The logs were arranged in such a way that they were ready to be burnt into charcoal — a fuel that has become a substitute for Zimbabwe’s energy shortages, at a terrible cost to its forests.

“It hurts to see forests decimated like this,” said Chizema, who lives in Mhondoro Ngezi, in the centre of the country, 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Harare.

Some loggers come from as far as Harare, “where we hear there is a big demand for charcoal,” he said.

“We, as elders, try to discourage the practice, but it’s all about money and survival.”

For nearly six months, Zimbabwe has been in the grip of chronic power cuts, sometimes running to 19 hours a day.

The price of cooking gas has increased more than six-fold since the start of the year, placing it beyond the reach of many.

For many lower-income urbanites, firewood and charcoal have become the go-to sources of substitute energy — and rogue logging is the result.

Zimbabwe is losing more than 330,000 hectares (815,000 acres) of forest annually, according to Abednigo Marufu, general manager of the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission.

That’s the equivalent to nearly half a million football pitches.

“Zimbabwe is losing quite a lot of trees and forests… everywhere because there is no electricity and our people need to feed themselves, they need heating in their homes,” he told AFP.

Even so, “agriculture is still the number one driver of deforestation,” he said.

A controversial land reform programme launched in 2000 saw a surge in the loss of forest cover as people cleared land for cultivation.

“Some of them started growing tobacco and cut down trees to use for curing their crop.”

The practice continues, as farmers view wood to be free compared to other options.

Authorities are confronted with an enforcement conundrum.

Charcoal production is outlawed in Zimbabwe but it can be imported from neighbouring Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, with special permits.