The Chad News Archive

The Charcoal Challenge in Chad

The Guardian (5/30/12)

Nelly Benoudjita's eyes sparkle behind her horn-rimmed glasses as she stirs a huge vat of boiling oil, teetering on the ring of what resembles a Girl Guide's camping stove. "Come and help me with these yam fritters!" she giggles, "Don't be scared. This gas canister is perfectly safe!"

Outside the concrete walls of her kitchen in the suburb of Gassi in N'Djamena, Chad, the sun beats down turning the air hot like a blast from a hairdryer. Nelly has tied on a colourful headscarf and wipes the sweat from her brow as she re-arranges the pots on her stove. One contains grey foam, the product of a special tree bark that traditionally used only to be prepared by a young girl who has not yet had her first menstruation; another is a cloying soup made with a fruit no-one can tell me the French name of, but looks something like a 'conchigilie' pasta shell. Nelly is preparing food for twenty of her relatives who are coming for Easter Sunday lunch.

Across the Chadian capital, women like Nelly are still getting used to cooking on gas. The city, surrounded by the thick stunted scrubland typical south of the Sahara, differs from neighbouring 'Sahelian' capitals Niamey or Bamako in one important aspect - charcoal is nowhere to be found. Queues which used to form at the city's charcoal markets, where dappled horses waited sadly under clouds of wood smoke for the briquettes to be prepared and strapped to carts on their backs, have disappeared and been replaced by traffic jams at petrol stations on Fridays - the day when cooking gas is delivered from neighbouring Nigeria.

Chad is a country at the forefront of climate change, where increasingly erratic weather patterns are the difference between life and death. Three times in the last seven years the rains have failed, and this year alone, three million six hundred thousand people are likely to go hungry.

In the face of these recurring droughts, and the government's own figures suggesting that sixty percent of the country is threatened by desertification, President Idriss Deby Itno banned the production of charcoal outright at the end of 2008. "Artisanal production of charcoal is very inefficient" explains Alison Doig, a climate change campaigner for Christian Aid. "For every tonne of tree that is cut down and burnt, the amount of fuel produced is very small".

But the ban has been highly controversial. People were given no alternative fuel source and just three week's notice before it came into force. One of my first encounters with Nelly Benoudjita was as she was just about to smash up a wooden chair from her house to burn; other women scoured the ground searching for seeds and rubbish as fuel. Vans carrying charcoal were seized as they entered the city, set on fire, and left like eerie black skeletons on the side of the road as a reminder.

And still today there are complaints that no affordable replacement to charcoal has been found. "Gas has not been made available in the quantities we need it" says Delphine Djiraibe a human rights activist in Chad. "The shortages have pushed up the price for a three kilo canister from 3,500CFA ($7) to 15,000CFA ($25). Some women are still spending hours at a time foraging for dead wood".

The charcoal ban was introduced hand-in-hand with another presidential initiative - to plant a million trees over five years to act as a buffer against the encroaching desert. Aid agencies are supportive of this plan, believing that Chad's poor soils and lack of tree cover are factors in the country's chronic food insecurity. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) currently runs a programme in the north-west Kanem region - a place where it only rained nine times in 2011 - to plant a protective ring of trees around the town's so-called 'miracle wadis' (oases).

"People went out five or six times last year to re-plant their crops, and five or six times the rains failed and the crops died", says Remi Courcier, a programme officer for FAO in Mao, Chad. "Crops like millet are entirely dependent on the rain, and that's something we can't control. We need to use trees and shrubs to protect young crops, and develop irrigation systems so people can have alternatives".

Sandjima Doumia, the director General of Chad's Environment Ministry, which is in charge of creating the 'Great Green Wall' across Chad's semi-desert regions, agrees. "We are starting to see results such as small areas that have become green and productive again after many years of being desert"

The Chad charcoal bans raises important issues about how many African countries are looking for ways to adapt to similarly complex environmental problems, which many people assume are linked to climate change on some level. But Chad's experience shows how important it is that consultative approaches are developed.

"Of course we Chadians care about their environment, and we don't want to see our country turned into a dustbowl" says Delphine Djiraibe. "But while life is so expensive and we haven't got enough food to eat, tree-planting is simply not a priority for us".

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