Bamako — Mali's citizens almost universally prefer firewood and charcoal over gas as a fuel. As a result of their dependence, the west African country is losing large swathes of its forests, putting at risk efforts to adapt to climate change.
"A bag of charcoal costs only about 3,500 West African CFA francs ($7) and it is sufficient for my energy needs for a month," said Saran Doumbia, a 30-year-old housewife from Bamako, the capital. In her neighbourhood of Lafiabougou, fuel wood and charcoal are the main sources of energy, and substantially cheaper than natural gas.
About 13 million hectares of Mali's land area were forested in 2005, but the country is losing 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of forest every year, mainly due to cutting for fuel wood, according to a 2010 environment ministry report. For at least the last decade, deforestation has been a principal source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, accounting for 35 percent of total emissions.
To deal with the problem, the government in 2011 launched a five-year programme to reduce dependence on fuel wood, in an attempt to protect the country against ongoing climate change. But the fragile political situation, as separatist rebels in northern Mali wage war an armed struggle against the government, has led international donors to suspend aid for such projects.
The programme had aimed, in part, to increase the country's carbon storage potential through reforestation, and to promote alternative energy sources, especially solar power and biogas, to reduce demand for wood.
The government's goal also is to increase overall access to electricity, which is available only to 7 percent of the population in rural areas and 16 percent in cities.
Despite those efforts, most people say they still prefer using charcoal and firewood because alternative sources of energy are more expensive.
CHEAPER THAN GAS
"The authorities should do something to reduce the price of gas so that people can use it rather than fuel wood and charcoal. If I want to use natural gas, I would need to buy two bottles of gas in the month," said Doumbia, the Bamako housewife. This would cost 10,000 CFA francs ($20), about three times as much as charcoal, she said.
Sanata Keita, a 22-year-old who lives with her husband and two children in Bamako, said she prefers wood even though she must walk half a kilometre each day to buy it at her neighbourhood market.
AMADER, the Malian Agency for Rural Electrification, says that 91 percent of families use fuel wood for their energy needs. Wood is also widely used as an energy source by businesses.
Amadou Diallo, who works at Issaber Bakery in Bamako, refuses to switch to electricity, arguing that bread baked with a woodburning oven tastes good. He says his business consumes eight tons of wood every month.
"Above all, the maintenance of an electric bakery is more expensive. You need to have gas, oil and permanent electricity to run an electric bakery. That is (a lot of) expenses for a small company," Diallo said.
Authorities are trying to dissuade trade in fuel wood by taxing it, said Sekou Kanta, who is in charge of control and regulation at Mali's National Directorate of Water and Forests. In Bamako, taxes cost a wood trader an average of about 36,000 CFA francs ($72) per year.
"Our job is very difficult nowadays, as the control agents of the forests and waters take our benefits from us with taxes," complained Mamou Sylla, a Bamako firewood saleswoman who buys supplies from villagers and sells it on in the city.
But with fuel wood cutting - as well as agricultural expansion - contributing strongly to deforestation, such taxes are necessary, said Kanta, of the water and forests directorate.
Despite the growing tax burden, those who trade in firewood and charcoal are reluctant to give it up. Still, some see the problems it is causing.
Sylla, the firewood vendor, said she worries for the future because those who gather wood in the rural places where she buys it are increasingly having to travel far from their villages to find it.
Moussa Traore, another firewood vendor in the capital, jokes that thanks to the tax crackdown it is now easier to sell drugs than wood or charcoal. He has been imprisoned for not having a trading permit.
"I have spent at least one night in prison in every police station of Bamako because of my job," said Traore, who hopes to change to another line of work.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.