Shadow of Smoke: Charcoal Burners in Tanzania

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The air is a little darker here than elsewhere. Smoke leads the way to Ubungo Terminal – a camp of charcoal burners around 80km north of Dar Es Salaam in rural coastal Tanzania. The camp is located on a hill and got its name from the little valley below. The camp is far into bushland, the grass is yellowish, the earth is yellow sand and yellow acacia is the predominant tree species around here. Word has it, that the bark of the acacia – pulverized and mixed into food –  enhances and stimulates sexual potential.This usually saves the trees from being cut down and processed into charcoal unlike any other tree, bush and shrub around. When all the usable trees are cut down the camp moves. This makes the camp structure highly mobile, tents and temporary shelters instead of houses. On the fringe of the camp is a little shop. It’s made of sticks covered with an orange plastic sheet selling the necessities: flour, tomatoes, cooking oil, matches and soda.There are around forty people from all over Tanzania in Ubongo forming a temporary collective of partners in fate.

Charcoal is the preferred cooking fuel of most Subsaharan countries. In Tanzania 85% of households use charcoal to produce their daily meals. It is easier to transport and store than firewood. But charcoal has a considerable impact on the environment, mainly through deforestation. High demand and pressure from population growth makes the production reach further and further into remote areas, cutting down everything on its way from mangroves to virgin forest.

In 2006 the government of Tanzania deemed the production of charcoal illegal. This only applies to forest designated areas though, which is all but a small proportion of the country and even then the law is poorly enforced due to structural problems, corruption and neglect on part of the lawmakers.

Thus, charcoal is in most areas not necessarily illegal, but also not welcomed, barely tolerated and so are its makers. The men and women producing the black smoke live an extremely pressured shadow existence.

One of them is Said. He is in his mid-forties. His path into the charcoal life is quite typical. During his primary education his father died and he had to support his mother. He left his home village in central Tanzania to try his luck in Dar Es Salaam. Times were hard, opportunities few. More than ten years ago he decided to venture out into the bushes to cut down trees to make a living. He struggled, survived, got married, got kids and now has to provide for a family of four. His income varies between 50 and 80 Dollars per month. It is the money that drives him into the bush: “This is not a game to play, it is very hard, but it is because of life hardship. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have left our families and come living in the bush like this. If you see our camps, where we sleep, you will pity us.”

Charcoal making is hard labour. Most cut around five to twenty trees a day before arranging the branches to form a kiln. The kiln is then covered with mud and grass and set on fire. The fire will burn for about two or three month. When the smoke subsides, the charcoal is ready. One kiln can produce around 30 to 40 bags which are then sold at a price of 8 USD each. The heavy bags are transported by bike to the road where buyers come to pick them up. The buyers are usually middlemen who sell the coal in Dar Es Salaam for three times the price. The charcoal burners only suspect this, as they are never told the real price by the middlemen. They can only ask other people who have been to the capital.

In rural Tanzania roads are few that means the big charcoal trucks with hundreds of heavy bags have to pass certain “check” points. An intersection on a dusty road, deserted during the day, springs to live after dusk. The red trucks, heavy with its load of shining white charcoal bags roar through the night. Five to ten people, dressed in brown rugs, usually ride on top of the coal, unloading, uploading, screaming and shouting. At the check points they are required to pay a “charcoal tax”. Here in Pwani, the tax is administered by the forest department and intended for reforestation of the area. However, these ‘taxes’ rarely reach their intended destination let alone purpose but mostly wander into the deep pockets of local politicians.

Rebelling against the system by setting up cooperatives and beating the middleman is tough. Said explains: “The problem in this job is trust. You may select and send someone to town to sell charcoal and then that person doesn’t come back, so we cant trust each other.”

Charcoal making is a man’s world. But Eda Sanga has taught herself to survive in it: “I was married but my husband abandoned me when I was pregnant. The day I went for my child’s birth he left me at the hospital and disappeared. I don’t know why he left. Back then I was doing small business of groundnuts. After I had my baby my aunt came and took me with her because I didn’t have anything to eat since I bore my child. I had my savings of 100,000 TSH (70 USD) from selling groundnuts before I went into labour. So I spent it for me and the children. Later on my husband came back when my baby was at a sitting stage. I asked him what he wanted he claimed that he wants to come back. I forgave him and we got back together. We stayed for a month and he left again to never come back. Now I have two children and have to live with them in Ubungo Terminal.” Her bags of charcoal only sell for 5 USD a bag.

Asked for solutions to escape their fate most charcoal burners urge the government to finally take charge and legalize their profession. Said suggests: “It would be better if we make this our official job and produce charcoal like other crops. We need to be recognized and accepted.”

Enforcing another ban on charcoal making would neither help Eda nor Said. They don’t produce charcoal, because they don’t care about deforestation or the environment, but because life and more accurately the situation of the Tanzanian economy doesn’t leave them with much alternative. Skills training like planting trees or the establishment of a nursery system finds much support among the people. Most of them dream about buying a piece of land and becoming a farmer. Providing for their family without the stigma of being a charcoal burner.

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