Charcoal, forest and people: the case of Cambodia

For six months, members of GERES’ monitoring & evaluation and research team and staff members of Mlup Baitong – a Cambodian NGO working to promote sustainable, equitable and just, rights-based use of natural resources – traced the flow of charcoal, starting from retailers in Phnom Penh all the way back to producer communities more than a hundred kilometers away and, ultimately, to the source of wood in forests on the Cardamom mountains.

Funded by the Global Forest Watch, the study had endeavored to bring the complex reality of charcoal production in Cambodia to light using scientific evidence, and in the process, developed a replicable methodology for local-level studies on the impact of charcoal on forests.

What realizations did the study arrive at?

That the story of charcoal, as the case of Cambodia illustrates, is more complex than it appears. A sector that is widely held as one of the main drivers of forest degradation is also a sector that sustains livelihood of some of the most vulnerable members of the population, and – given many factors, including pervasive rural poverty – one that is not going away in the foreseeable future.

For government, non-government organizations and development actors to be able to effectively address the issue of “charcoal,” its impact on deforestation and forest degradation needs to be fully and accurately understood in local area contexts (cannot emphasize enough the relevance of local-level studies as each area’s unique circumstances and power play require equally unique and targeted set of interventions), and in light of the dynamics of various factors – economic, environment, social – at play.

Here are some interesting findings from the Charcoal, Forests and Livelihoods in the Northern Cardamoms, Cambodia: A Participatory Impact Assessment of Charcoal Production using Global Forest Watch report:

Following a survey of 47 charcoal producers and 66 woodfuel traders in six provinces done at the end of 2013 identifying charcoal production hotspots, two areas were selected for this study, representing two different dynamics: in Phnom Aural in Kampong Speu, charcoal production is both a product of land cover change due to economic land concessions (agriculture), and a stimulus for illegal harvesting in community forest land and natural forest, making it therefore a driver of forest degradation; while in Koas Krolar in Battambang, charcoal appears to be a mere by-product of forest conversion to agricultural land (medium-size agriculture enterprises).

To contribute to the analysis of charcoal production patterns, an in-depth socio-economic survey were conducted among 48 charcoal producers, along with visits to the production sites. Producers in Phnom Aural have more full-time producers for whom charcoal represents the main source of income, than in Koas Krolar where charcoal is a secondary source of income for majority of the producers. In comparison to other livelihood options in the studied areas, charcoal presents a lucrative opportunity, earning for the producer an average USD168 gross profit monthly.

To determine the amount of charcoal leaving each study area over a 24-hour period, 14 checkpoints in three provinces were set up, and which recorded an estimation of the amount of charcoal transiting within 24 hours. The biggest amount of charcoal flows were recorded in Kampong Speu, between Phnom Penh and national road n°4, with more than 50,000 tonnes of charcoal per year, representing approximately more than 320,000 tonnes of wood annually. Total charcoal production for the two study areas was estimated at 148,718 metric tonnes per year, representing a demand of more than 1.1 million tonnes of wood per year (considering that only 80 percent of the Above Ground Biomass is suitable for charcoal production, and that 6.41kg of wood is needed to produce 1kg of charcoal), and making the two study areas the source of nearly half – 44 percent – of the estimated national charcoal consumption of Cambodia (based on a GERES study estimating national charcoal consumption to be at 336,000 metric tonnes in 2013).

In order to gain an insight into the impact of charcoal on forests, the deforested area in each of the two study zones was computed, the concerned forest area’s biomass stock was assessed and its supply potential estimated. Assessing charcoal’s impact on an area within 20- to 30-kilometer radius around the charcoal kiln estimates that charcoal is responsible for 74 to 44 percent total biomass loss in Phnom Aural, and a 10 to 4 percent biomass loss in Koas Krolar. Excluding wood sourced from agricultural conversion, the contribution of charcoal to biomass loss drops somewhere from 41 percent and 24 percent in Phnom Aural, and is nil in Koas Krolar.

Community workshops in each of the two study areas were held to validate findings – including images captured by the GFW platform – (and in the case of Koas Krolar, to supply missing information) against the communities’ experience of their charcoal-making activities and their recollection of land cover changes that had occurred in their environments over the past decade. In Koas Krolar, the villagers provided information unavailable anywhere else regarding local dynamics influencing charcoal. Community workshops such as these provide much needed rich qualitative and anecdotal information to complement quantitative statistical and GIS (geographic information system) analysis, therefore helping provide a complete understanding of socio-economic issues driving the depletion of forest resources in developing countries like Cambodia.

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