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Ke hoole okunyangadgala, na ki ifala komukodhi omunene.
(Ovambo Proverb: Namibia)
-This proverb cautions those who wander around the world aimlessly, as it can lead to disaster. In this case -the claws of a hawk! Live with passion and purpose. Nourish what inspires you -and run with it.

Kazana kulima, vyakupewa havitoshelezi.
(Bena Proverb: Tanzania)
-Preserve your life with farming, because handouts will not satisfy you. There is so much to be said about this simple phrase and sustainable community development.

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More details to come. This blog will document my travels/work/photos/stories post grad school at Columbia.

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    Friday, October 2, 2009

    Charcoal Burning: Outjo's "Black Gold"

    Greetings Everyone:

    Here is a brief look at the Charcoal burning aka "Black Gold" business I've come across during my economic survey work for WWF and the University of Pretoria-South Africa.

    Some select farms in the Outjo District aka "Cattle Country of Namibia" rely on this burned wood product to pay additional bills. Currently, its an extremely viable business option, but comes with environmental and social impacts that raises concern among many Outjo district residents. To understand part of the problem, its beneficial to review the brief political history of Namibia recently.

    The political, cultural, and ecological landscape has been changing drastically since apartheid ended in 1990 here in Namibia. The emergence of Affirmative Action black commercial farmers [AA Farms] is the newest growing landowner population in the Outjo District, because prior to 1990, if you were black you could not own land in Namibia.

    There are unique start-up challenges AA farms face coming into their new landowner roles, unlike their Afrikaner counterparts who have been utilizing wildlife and cattle for income for some time. Thus, one finds more intense management plans for resource extraction on AA farms like Charcoal Burning to help cover their over-hedge, or heavy loan payment situation.

    AA farms have to deal with additional loans for fence improvements, cattle, and farm improvements on top of the AA loan. The average lifespan of an AA farm is 5 years according to many of the farmers I've interviewed in Outjo. This does not allow one to have any type of long-term land improvement management plan. Its often referred to as a "sick circle" as one Afrikaner farmer told me and a "huge struggle" according to one AA farmer.

    All the AA owners Uapii and I interviewed on these farms have come from the communal lands of Namibia and each had 200 plus cattle in the communal land, which is the minimum requirement to receive this loan. The cattle are then moved to the farm when the farmer signs the loan and continues farming. These farmers told us they know poaching is associated with charcoal, but they need it to stay on the land given the loan structures. Wildlife is still seen as a "white man's business."

    Many of the Afrikans farms are now converting to wildlife as the main land use by utilizing trophy hunting fees to generate income from hunters mainly from Europe then the States. This has been possible due to the fact that landowner rights were devolved on wildlife for the Afrikaner farmers in the 1970's, so wildlife gained a market price and their numbers have slowly increased and been utilized as trophy, own use, shoot and sell, and biltong hunting.

    Great disparity has been created from this process, because even the communal lands were just given wildlife and tourism revenue rights in 1990 where many AA farmers come from.

    Conflict is created between the two groups, because one many farmers feel the AA loans are just another incentive and unfair for their previous hard work, this group often associates poaching to occur from the hired hands used to harvest charcoal, and the environmental air pollution forces wildlife to migrate out of the area.

    One usually finds Charcoal Burning on emerging farms, or farms that have special incentive loans where the new owner only pays the interest on the 5 year loan, then continues to pay the premium after the 5 year period. Some Afrikans farmers do utilize charcoal burners on their land, but many prefer other methods of bush extraction like using goats, slow fire burns, or highly "centrally managed" charcoal burning groups that selectively harvest and cannot have dogs, visitors, and are fed only cattle meat so one can see if poaching is occurring.

    When you drive in the Northeastern part of Outjo district, you can see many piles like these containing the "Black Gold." The contents are destined to South Africa and Europe to be used as an energy source or insulation in coolers. Many farms off the NamPower grid utilize make-shift coolers using charcoal.

    Many of the famrers in the Etosha and Outjo area blame their poaching problem on the charcoal operations, and there is some truth this matter, but its a given poaching happens everywhere and across all boundaries racial and political. But the common trend research has shown, is when there are large concentrations of populations poaching is more likely to occur due to poverty conditions and a large market demand created by larger groups. When there are large families or groups of workers collecting wood and burning along with loosely managed burning operations, its a formula suited for poaching to possibly occur.

    Many of the emerging and resettlement farms are using charcoal as supplemental income to stay on the land as stated previously and I've seen it range from 10% to 70% of an AA farmer's income in the Outjo district. I've also seen a lot of interest from the emerging farmers in wildlife, but they're being excluded currently from the commercial conservancy movement and this will only create more problems in the future I feel for the wildlife and community cooperation needed in conservancy operations.

    But as a colleague and I were talking about the last few days, many of the non-emerging farmers here could possibly be singled out as poaching too with their shoot and sell permits if this system is abused like we hear of from time to time.

    These permits allow a farmer to go on their farm and take game at will and sell it as meat to a butcher. For the hunters out there from the States, this may sound mad, but there really is no season for hunting and in this process bulls and females are taken at will sometimes. Many of the farmers who I've interviewed who are serious about game ranching never practice shoot and sell or biltong hunting because they feel its unethical and not suitable for viable wildlife populations.

    The difference is, these farmers have land thus power and the government stamp to go through and clean up their game at will, while on the other end we call it poaching when a family struggles to provide food.

    Nearly 90% of the farmers agree wildlife provide a great deal of food security to Namibia, yet many disadvantaged people don't have access to the market and are forced to poach sometimes. Game meat is found in stores, cheaper then beef and chicken, and often given to farm workers to satisfy the food quota laws set forth by the Namibian government, but the charcoal burners are on contract basis and thus do not normally receive food rations for their work.

    This is such a complicated issue and I'm just beginning to learn more about the market and social pressures of poaching and charcoal burning, but here is what I've learned talking to guys who burn and here are some pictures that can show you a snap shot into the lives of many Angolans who are forced to burn to provide for their families.

    Here are some pictures of a charcoal operation on an emerging Herero commercial farm:

    Basically, a charcoal burner receives 400 Namibian dollars for a ton of charcoal. So about 70 US dollars per ton. Each individual bag weights 40-50 Kgs each or around 100 pounds. The final product is used for insulation in coolers, a fuel source in Europe and South Africa, or sometimes fence posts are produced from the strong straight trees workers cut down. Workers are usually paid by the ton they haul in, so there is incentive to cut down denser tree varieties that may not be part of the bush encroachment problem.

    The men spend their days collecting wood on the road, digging up roots, and cutting trees down with pongas [sharp machetes] or axes on the farms. The work looks hard and grueling. The heat just swells around the large tanks containing charcoal on top of the summer heat now coming. Its grueling work and because of some much time in the field, many of the farmers in Outjo blame poaching to occur when harvesting of wood is occurring.

    One of the harvesting methods. It makes for a strong and ca-laced hand-shake:

    The lack of proper land mangement does contribute to the additional swartehwak trees creating the "bush encroachment problem." One wonders how cattle can graze or how wildlife can survive in some of these encroached areas, but they do.

    The trees harvested for this process are normally part of the huge bush encroachment problem many farmers have here because of overgrazing and fire being excluded from the natural management. There are concerns of erosion, air pollution, and loss of wildlife habitat depending on how extreme the extraction rates occur. The removal of the trees takes away the root systems holding soil together, extracts the natural recycling of nutrients, and is no longer a carbon sink when burned for CO2, a green house gas blamed for Climate Change.

    Even the farmers who charcoal burn will tell you they don't have wildlife because the smoke is too strong and scares them away.

    I drove through the heart of the Charcoal business yesterday with Uapii when we were interviewing emerging farmers and it was rather depressing to see the working and living conditions. It doesn't surprise me poaching occurs, yet given the extreme situation who can blame people needing to provide for their families?

    This problem is going to take a lot of thought and consideration by the Namibian government and the Outjo community. A good bridge I feel would be incorporating the emerging farmers into the conservancy systems and being able to benefit from wildlife and employing the Angolain refugees as employees for the operation. But this will take incredible training and financial resources to be feasible.

    An Angolan refugee:

    More pictures:

    [Fence posts. Notice the Angolan style houses in the background].

    A look at the biggest group of Charcoal burners we found. Many of the operations operate right by the road, so trucks can easily pick up the heavy bags. I would estimate 40 people were in this one camp alone with horrible housing and far far away from markets and grocery stores.

    One final side note:

    Many of the emerging farms have small stock and cattle, but due to strong cultural traditions according to my friend and colleague Uapii, the Herero farmers do not sell cattle to Namibia's MeatCo and only utilize it for themselves on the farm or the new emerging Angolan market. An absence of marketing skills is also lacking according to Uapii and we're finding lots of interest in wildlife hunting, but a lack of education and facilities to make it a reality.

    You wonder if anyone finds this stuff interesting and made it to this point, but if you did, thanks for reading!

    I gotta run, but I'll continue this discussion later on and see what results Loxondonta Conservancy provide. It seems charcoal burning is less prevalent in the west vs. the eastern side of the Outjo District.


    A.E. Price

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