Two counties in Kenya are at the risk of becoming total deserts in the next half a decade due to indiscriminate felling of trees for charcoal.
A survey by Green Africa Foundation, an environmental campaign group, has revealed that the practice has left land bare leading to deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and reduced land productivity in Tharaka Nithi and Kitui counties in eastern Kenya.
"Whereas charcoal production in the two areas is largely indiscriminate, there are preferred tree species for the production of quality charcoal," John Kioli, the executive director of Green Africa Foundation said on Monday during an awareness drive in Kitui.
He said over 85 per cent of the charcoal produced in the region comes from acacia tortilis (umbrella thorn) and tamarindus indica (tamarind), indigenous tree species.
"These trees are not grown; rather they grow naturally in forests and farmlands," Mr Kioli said.
Preferred exotic tree species include the senna samea (cassod tree), which is mostly grown on farmlands. However, its occurrence is limited and hence not largely used in charcoal production.
While the level of awareness on the need for sustainable charcoal production is relatively high, stakeholders have not fully embraced the concept of modernising and legalising the trade to make it sustainable.
The use of traditional production technologies, unplanned felling of trees for charcoal, failure to obtain permits for production, sale and transportation are persistent in the area.
This implies the need to ensure that the people involved understand the laws governing charcoal trade in Kenya, the various provisions and their applicability in every stage of the business.
Further, 8 per cent of charcoal producers interviewed use modern kilns, which assure efficiency in conversion, while over 70 per cent do not know how to obtain either production and/or transportation permits.
"These revelations point to the need for proactive measures to create awareness and knowledge among stakeholders on the existence of the Forest Rules," said the foundation's Assistant Project Officer Rowland Simiyu.
He said this can only be achieved by packaging the provisions of the charcoal rules into a booklet which the producers can easily understand.
In 2009, Kenya through the Kenya Forest Service developed two key subsidiaries to control the harvesting of forests.
The service, which is mandated to manage all forest resources in the country, has been undertaking a crucial role in respect to the trade by enforcing the provisions of the charcoal rules on the issuance of licenses and permits to producers and transporters.
Charcoal production in Kenya is legal by any person so long as he has a production license from the Kenya Forest Service to harvest the recommended trees. However, charcoal production from one's own farm for own consumption does not require a license.
Woody biomass accounts for about 68 per cent of total energy consumption in Kenya. Petroleum accounts for 22 per cent, electricity 9 per cent and others 1 per cent.