Woodfuel in the Congo forests

Woodfuel is a vital resource from the Congo basin forests: approximately 90% of all wood removals from African forests are estimated to be used for wood fuel, largely for home cooking. Although rural residents use wood fuel, the vast majority of total wood is destined for charcoal production for major cities of the region like Kinshasa and Brazzaville. In the DRC, where rural population is high, woodfuel is estimated to account for 94% of all wood production, whereas in timber producing countries like Gabon with low rural population, woodfuel removal is only 24%. In Gabon, fuel wood collection is also less due to government subsidies of cooking gas and a national electricity network. In western Uganda around Kibale National Park, woodfuel users usually target pioneer trees growing in fallows, whereas charcoal users more often target mature hardwoods, resulting in greater overall impact. In some areas of the Congo basin, woodfuel is also used for metal processing, brickmaking, and agricultural processing, to dry products such as cocoa. In other areas of the world such as Brazil, charcoal production is used more for industrial purposes.  

Woodfuel, primarily used for cooking and home heating, comes from processed charcoal, timber waste, or direct collection from the forest. In cities, charcoal is easier to stock and transport; deforestation around cities in central Africa is thought to be largely driven by fuel wood demands. The city of Kinshasa consumes an estimated 5 million cubic meters of wood, affecting a ring of 300 km around the city. Much of this collection is from shifting cultivation plots and secondary forest fragments. Wood for charcoal production is often harvested from coppice systems, where trees re-sprout after cutting; coppicing is especially common among trees in dry environments where seasonal stress and animal grazing favor coppice strategies. Even in Africa, where woodfuel harvest is most common, deforestation caused by wood collection is estimated at only 5-20%. While charcoal harvest and coppice management can be managed sustainably, coppice rates are dependent on a multitude of factors including harvest rates, soil fertility, grazing, and precipitation.

Plantations of fast growing timber for wood fuel are a potential method to alleviate stress on native forests of the Congo basin. Outside of Kinshasa, a UNEP-EU project helped establish a woodfuel agroforestry plantation where manioc or maize is planted alongside acacia trees; after the manioc is harvested in the first year, the acacia trees continue to grow. A similar forest carbon project is the Ibi Batéké Carbon Sink Plantation, where project developers are establishing plantations for charcoal wood outside of Kinshasa. A project in northeastern DR Congo near Virunga National Park attempts to relieve deforestation pressure from the influx of refugees from neighboring Rwanda. WWF and local groups have established fast growing plantations for charcoal use, combined with implementation of fuel efficient cook stoves. The project is now being scaled into a larger forest carbon initiative.    

In most countries of the Congo basin, wood fuel trade is a largely informal economic activity, meaning that participation is spread between many actors but tax revenues are low and over-exploitation is common. Customary land tenure also complicates tree planting- rural residents lack the tenure security to assure that they will be able to harvest trees that they plant. Moreover, many are short of the capital needed to invest in plantations. Read more about wood fuel harvest and energy use in the Congo basin on the CIFOR blog.

Other challenges are technological, namely the low efficiency of charcoal oven processing. Yale researcher Rob Bailis studies the adoption of clean cook stove technologies in tropical countries around the world – see a recent study in Energy for Sustainable Development and an earlier study in World Development.   


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