Environment & Climate ChangeFeatures

Despite Charcoal Ban, Forests Continue To Disappear In Nigeria’s North East

To tackle deforestation, the Borno state government placed a ban on the production and importation of charcoal. The trees, however, keep falling. Why?

Returning home upon completing his dawn prayer, 39-year-old Bukar Gana* quickly prepared to be on his way. He gathered his belongings – an axe, a bag containing two sets of clothing, provisions including garri, and other essentials. With these items slung over his shoulders, he bid farewell to his family and set out towards the bustling Benisheikh motor park in North East Nigeria. Prior to his departure, he had stocked his home with groceries to sustain his family for at least two weeks, ensuring their immediate needs were met as he embarked on a journey to secure their future livelihood.

At the motor park, he joined his companions, a group of seven men, who were all heading towards the forest.

Three vehicles arrived, and the passengers hurried to board them. While Gana and his companions headed eastward towards the Konduga Forest, the others departed westward toward Damboa. They would spend the next 30 days in these forests, felling trees to make charcoal.

“After we have gone into the forest, our first task is to identify mature trees for cutting. We then chop them into logs and transport them to a secure area. Afterwards, we arrange these logs into a tower and cover them with mud to make a hill. Finally, we ignite it and let it burn steadily for at least three days,” Gana explained, detailing the charcoal production process.

The practice of charcoal production is detrimental to the environment, especially because it involves deforestation. The extensive felling of trees leads to the loss of thousands of hectares of fertile land. The cleared lands become vulnerable to erosion caused by wind and water, ultimately disrupting the soil structure and rendering it unsuitable for agriculture. Additionally, charcoal production exacerbates climate change and poses a threat to biodiversity.

The reduction of forest cover diminishes the capacity for carbon absorption and contributes to the release of previously stored carbon, further exacerbating climate change.

Between 2001 and 2022, Borno state experienced a significant loss of tree cover, amounting to 28 hectares, which represents a 66 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000. This deforestation contributed to the emission of approximately 12.9 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide, as reported by Global Forest Watch, a forest-tracking platform.

The primary drivers of this alarming trend include the longstanding Boko Haram insurgency, which has spanned over a decade, as well as the activities of charcoal producers like Gana. 

The increasing rates of environmental degradation prompted the state government in 2017 to ban the sales of charcoal and firewood in Maiduguri, the state capital. Although renewed in 2021, the ban has failed to deter deforestation in the state as the charcoal industry keeps booming. Were Gana and his peers unaware of the ban? Was there no implementation? Or were they simply ignoring it out of necessity?

Traditional charcoal production mound emitting smoke with people working in the background under trees.
Woods ignited to be made into charcoal in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria, August 2021. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

Why the ban has not worked

Gana is aware that falling trees causes deforestation and negatively impacts the environment. However, he confesses that they cannot stop because “if we do, our families will starve.” Gana, who is a native of Magumeri, lost his means of livelihood when he was displaced in 2014 by the Boko Haram insurgents. The story is the same for his companions.

“Prior to the insurgency, charcoal business was something strange to us in our villages. We didn’t know how it was produced, nor did we use it in cooking. We used to hear about it from other places. It was after we were displaced that we learnt to make a trade out of it for survival,” Gana told HumAngle.

The activities of IDPs have since contributed significantly to the disappearance of trees to the extent that people now have to trek for much longer before sighting trees that can be cut down for firewood and charcoals.

“The charcoals presently are mostly from smaller trees and scrubs. The forest is barren,” Gana explained. “Big trees keep getting hard to come by. They can only be obtained in Boko Haram-controlled territories like Sambisa. The sad thing is that even if three out of ten of us are killed today in the forest by the terrorists, the remaining seven will return in a few days.”

Asked if there are laws prohibiting indiscriminate logging in the state, Gana confesses that there are. They are enforced by the forest guards, he said. 

“However, they are lenient in their approaches. They seem to understand that we have lost our means of livelihood to the Boko Haram insurgency, and charcoal is our only present means of sustenance.”

A director of agriculture in one of the state’s local government areas explained that forest guards are sometimes unable to go as deeply into the forest as the charcoal producers because they may be attacked by insurgents.

“This is why monitoring the activities of these people is difficult sometimes,” he said. 

He added that another challenge is they have not received a clear directive from the state government to enforce the ban. They only heard of it in the news.

“What is usually done is that directive would be given to the head of the agriculture department through the chairman of the local government. Then we would invite the Bulamas and Lawans [community leaders] and sensitise them on the effects [of deforestation] and then announce the penalties for defaulters. They will in turn inform their community members.” 

This shows that a gap in how the policy is communicated may have also been impeding the ban’s implementation.

The loggers also have their ways of avoiding trouble.

“If someone transports logs of trees into the town, the government agents mostly fine them. However, if the logs are burnt into charcoal in the forest before being taken to the town, they don’t talk,” Gana revealed.

He added that they have union leaders who checkmate their activities and serve as a bridge with the government. Loggers in Borno are restricted from felling economic trees like Tamarind. Defaulters, according to him, are fined between ₦6,000 and ₦10,000 ($7). 

Alhaji Babagana, a forest guard at the Chingurmi-Duguma sector of the Chad Basin National Park, said when people are caught in the forest, they first try to understand their true intentions, confirming whether they went to log or hunt games. “Depending on the offence and the gravity, you either fine them there or take them to court or both. If such a person is to be fined, the minimum is ₦5,000, and it can be up to ₦50,000, depending on the offence. And if such a person is to be jailed, he can get up to 15 years.”

Ahmadu Mafa, a Permanent Secretary at the Borno State Ministry of Environment, earlier disclosed to HumAngle that loggers are fined ₦500 per tree, observing that the penalty is too low to deter repeat offences.

Another irony is that the charcoal producers have continued to generate revenue for the state government. Gana said they pay a levy of ₦1,000 per bag to the Borno State Internal Revenue Service (BSIRS).

Goni Aisami*, a revenue officer with the BSIRS, confirmed this to be true. 

“They buy tickets from our officers stationed at the entrance of the state. Once they possess that ticket, they can freely enter. The price of the ticket depends on the quantity of the load. The ticket is acquired on every entry.”

The cooperation of security personnel is another hindrance to the implementation of the ban. Babakura Musa, a charcoal merchant, revealed that when they are moving charcoal into Maiduguri, the security agents at the entrance let them pass after taking bribes.

Gana mentioned that two able-bodied youths can produce at least 100 bags from one hill of charcoal. In a week, at least five to six pick-up trucks, carrying 80 to 100 bags each, will go into town. A bag of charcoal is bought by the merchants at ₦1,700 in the forest and resold at ₦4,500 in the town.

Sandbags on wet ground with a blue truck and two people sitting by the water in the background.
Bags of charcoal made from wood ready to be transported into town in Maiduguri North East Nigeria, August 2021. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

No alternatives provided

Muhammed Waziri, a Professor of Geography at the University of Maiduguri, said the charcoal ban could not be effective for two major reasons. 

“Number one, the livelihood. The people who depended on that have no other source, and the government has not provided anything for them. Number two, other sources of fuel, such as kerosene and gas, are very expensive; they are beyond the reach of the poor man. So, the government has made the mistake of not providing an alternative to charcoal for the people to use.”

So, how does this further fuel deforestation?

“It is obvious. If you go round the state, especially the central and northern parts, you can go kilometres without seeing a tree standing,” Prof. Waziri stated. This implication of this is a contribution to climate change as it “opens the place to heat, wind, etc. without any barrier. Trees normally protect the environment from harsh wind and even provide oxygen that is needed for human consumption.”

He added other consequences include reduced rainfall, increasing windstorms, and low agricultural productivity.

To effectively implement the ban, he suggests that the government carry out sensitisation campaigns to let people understand the long-term adverse effects of their habits. 

“So, if people are sure that what they are doing is not good enough, they will start adapting to sustainable alternative sources. But meanwhile, we have to enforce it. Anybody unnecessarily cutting down these trees, especially fresh ones, should be punished.”

What alternatives are there?

Prof. Waziri sees options like maize, sorghum, millet stalks, sawdust, cow dunks, and waste papers as short-term alternatives. “And if we must use trees, we should replant them, or there should be a tree garden where trees will be planted for fuelwood exploitation as a long-term alternative. The government can also connect with NGOs or invite individuals to provide alternatives such as charcoal briquettes from animals and other wastes.”

Engineer Yahaya Goni, an instructor at the Borno State Vocation Enterprises Institution, also suggested the wider adoption of renewable energy sources. “Energies like cooking gas can be obtained from organic wastes through biodigester,” he explained.

There are abundant cows here in the North, he said. “These cows can help give the adequate number of cow dungs, which can be converted into energy to aid cooking. Once these dungs are obtained, they can be mixed with water and put in an airtight container. This will ferment after some days. Once fermented, it produces gas. Now, this gas can serve as an energy source.”

“Then, we have charcoal briquettes. Instead of cutting down trees and burning them, we can smoke out tree leaves, grasses, and other plant wastes to make biochar. Once the biochar is gotten, we can crush them into powder, add a binder (which can be starch), then mould into desired sizes and allow to dry.”

*Name changed to protect source’s identity.

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