Nigeria: Special Report – How Demand for Charcoal Depletes Forests in Nigerian State

Mokwa, Niger State — Niger State lost 76 hectares of tree cover, equivalent to 324 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, in 2022, according to Global Forest Watch, a forest-tracking platform. In January 2024 alone, at least 334 deforestation alerts were reported within the state.

A motorcycle laden with logs from Mokwa Forest Reserve pulled up on a field. On the far edge of the field was a supervisor standing beside a neat pile of logs and barking orders at a group of labourers. “Hey, find a good space and add the log to the other ones.”

Once they assembled the right quantity of logs, the labourers covered the logs with dead leaves and sand and set fire to the woods. The woods crackled in the heat for days until the labourers returned to douse the dying embers and excavate the resulting mass of luminous black coal. Afterwards, they stuffed the charcoal into white bags weighing 50kg and loaded them onto trucks that ferried the combustible goods to buyers in town.

A common trend

Mokwa Forest Reserve is one of the 94 reserves covering about 76,300 square kilometres of arable land in Niger State, north-central Nigeria. The reserve, which spans 8,000 hectares, confronts increasing deforestation with the surge in demand for charcoal by residents. Niger State lost 76 hectares of tree cover, equivalent to 324 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, in 2022, according to Global Forest Watch, a forest-tracking platform. In January 2024 alone, at least 334 deforestation alerts were reported within the state.

Yet Niger is hardly an isolated case. Between 2001 and 2022, Nigeria lost 1.25 million hectares of its biodiverse forests. Across the world, 15 billion trees are cut down each year. This increasing felling of trees means that the carbon contained in trees is released back into the atmosphere, resulting in a loss of biodiversity and further aggravating the global climate crisis.

The effects of this indiscriminate deforestation can be seen in extreme weather conditions causing flooding and erosion, now posing a threat to Mokwa residents. “Three children have lost their lives to erosion, and more than ten houses and animals have been lost,” said 70-year-old Mohammed Mohammed, who resides in Etisheshi Efoabebe, an area in Mokwa. “The government should help us so we can live in our houses without fear.”

But changes in the climate did not happen so abruptly years ago, as Suleiman Mohammed, a climatologist and professor of Applied Geography and Meteorology at the Federal University of Technology, Minna, reckoned. Mounting levels of carbon dioxide in the air have triggered a resultant rise in global temperature.

“Even if no new addition is made to the carbon dioxide level we have in the atmosphere, it will take 50 years for it to dissipate or get off,” Mr Mohammed explained

As more Nigerian households depend on wood for domestic energy, due to poverty and the relatively higher cost of electricity and cooking gas, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air can be an uphill struggle. Further complicating this are people like the labourers at the Mokwa Forest Reserve who depend on deforestation to fend for themselves.

Producing charcoal has been Aliyu Abubakar’s daily loop for 18 years. “I need this work because I need to pay bills. I can’t stay idle,” he said. Mr Abubakar’s maize farming can hardly cater for his two wives and nine children. “This [charcoal business] is my side work which I use to take care of my family. I can’t depend on crops alone.”

For ten years, Rokibu Sakira has traded at least 300 bags of charcoal each week in Mokwa town. “We buy one bag N3, 200 ($3.50) and sell N3, 500 ($3.82). We use the small gain we get to buy another set and continue.” Other times, Sakira would measure the charcoal in smaller quantities in black or yellow nylon and display them by the road for people to buy. “I use the [proceeds] to support my children in school,” the mother of six said.

Since cooking gas has soared in price in proportion to the price of petroleum products, many more households are opting for charcoal as a cheaper source of domestic energy.

“Genesis of the problem”

According to Sharif Labaran, the state’s director of forestry service, deforestation in the state dates back to the early 1980s, when the state government introduced the Taungya farming scheme, which allowed farmers to cultivate crops in the forests. Most farmers encroached on the forest reserves to expand their farmlands, cutting down their trees.

As this reporter found out, during a 40-minute drive on a motorcycle, the green plush exterior of the reserve contrasted sharply against its sparse hollow interior. The grounds were strewn with piles of logs and dead twigs. The lively chatter of young boys felling more trees pierced the silence.

“The scheme is the genesis of the problem we have with deforestation,” Mr Labaran argued, leaning forward to prove his point. “[Illegal] loggers and charcoal producers contributed, but the introduction of the farming scheme is the genesis.”

Having a general perception that their farms will lose fertility after cultivation, many farmers abandon their farmlands for new ones upon the onset of a new season. “If you cultivate beans in the old farmland, it will not grow well,” Abubakar Muhammad, a farmer in Mokwa, said.

Strangely, these farmers who clear and burn trees for planting still bear the brunt as they suffer low crop yield mainly because the cutting of trees in the forest reduces the health and water-retention capacity of the soil, leaving the area more susceptible to flooding, as experienced in some areas.

In 2016, the state government employed 500 forest guards as part of a task force to protect the reserve from indiscriminate deforestation. The team achieved considerable success, confiscating bags of charcoal from dealers of the commodity. But this task force team, Mr Labaran said, became defunct after a new governor assumed office in 2023.

Mr Labaran explained that the task force, while constituted under the office of the secretary to the erstwhile state government, did not exist within the purview of the forestry department, so “I can’t give a report or account of it, and with the coming of this [new] administration, we don’t have a task force yet,” he said.

He added: “We can’t quantify the number of trees cut down daily or monthly. We [only] have the forest reserve by name. When you say forest reserve, the impression is that you will see a place thickly covered. But you will only see grasslands.”

Although the state established a mobile court last November to prosecute defaulters, Mr Labaran maintained that the area forest offices across the state — responsible for arresting and charging de-foresters to the mobile court for prosecution — face logistics problems, hindering their regular patrols.

More challenges

In 2020, the state government received one million tree seedlings from the Forest Research Institute in Ibadan to repopulate depleted forests. “We distributed it to some institutions and individuals,” Mr Labaran said. Yet no tree-planting project has been commissioned in Mokwa.

Mr Mohammed acknowledged the importance of reforestation projects but expressed concerns over the poor maintenance culture, which cramps the possibility of achieving a forested area again.

“It [tree planting] should not be an annual ritual. We have been planting seedlings every year, but have never seen any forests,” he said, adding that “termites eat it up because there is no maintenance.”

One way to reduce pressure on the forests is to encourage rural communities to adopt liquefied petroleum gas (cooking gas). But the current market price of N1,000 ($1.15) per kilogramme remains out of reach for most locals struggling to improve their living conditions.

The National Bureau of Statistics LPG price watch for December 2023 showed that “the average retail price for refilling a 5kg cylinder of LPG increased by 2.79 per cent on a month-on-month basis from N4, 828.18 recorded in November 2023 to N4, 962.87 in December 2023.”

This soaring cost of cooking gas, according to Mr Mohammed, sits at the root of Mokwa’s increasing deforestation. “If you don’t reduce the cost of LPG, you can’t stop them [locals] from cutting [trees]. It must be cheaper, affordable, and accessible,” he said.

Back in Mokwa, Mr Abubakar, the maize farmer, hopes for a better job than the “stressful work” at the charcoal site, where he earns N1,500 ($1.64) for each bag. “I will truly stop [the charcoal work] if I have another business,” Mr Abubakar says. “I would like to do marketing business, like people that store maize [in large quantities] and sell.”

This report was sponsored by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, with funding support from the Public Diplomacy Section of the U.S. Embassy, Abuja


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