Ilorin — The problem of deforestation has become a global concern going by the effect of climate change on the global environment. To mitigate the effects of climate change, the global community has devised many programmes, one of which is afforestation aimed at encouraging tree planting and ornamenting the environment.
Nigeria and indeed many African countries have an extant policy to encourage the planting of trees as a strategic and deliberate move to control the continuous deforestation and promote carbon trading which is a product of afforestation.
However, the global effort at afforestation has been constrained by the rampant cases of tree burning particularly by those who engage in charcoal trading.
Despite the existing government policy which bans charcoal business, to restrain people from burning trees in the forests, the trading thrives in Kwara State as investigations by Daily Trust revealed.
Charcoal, which is produced by heating wood or another organic substances, is traditionally used as a fuel, filter and absorbent and has become very popular for domestic use in cooking by many households which explains why the production has become a thriving business. Charcoal became even more popular with the increasing price of kerosene which many average women could barely afford and therefore resorted to using it for cooking in metal cookers made by welders.
With the rising number of households using charcoal, the traders have made fortunes through the proceeds from processing and production of charcoal.
Checks by our correspondent in Kwara communities where charcoal is made indicated that despite the embargo placed on charcoal production to protect and preserve the forests and ensure a green environment, the traders have rebuffed all attempts at restraining them and continued making a living from the business albeit clandestinely to evade arrest.
A visit to Falokun Oja in Ifelodun Local Government Area of the state bespeaks of the nature of the business. The producers, wary of government's likely clampdown on them, conceal their modus operandi though according to them unemployment is a major reason why they took to the business to make ends meet.
A woman charcoal trader in the village who spoke to Daily Trust said: "Charcoal trading is a very lucrative business and that is our major source of generating income to cater for our children and the entire family.
"If they now say we should stop the business, I think it would be right to give us another job. It is no more news that unemployment rate is very high and to say that we should stop this business, it means you want to block our source of income and make us suffer in hunger and starvation."
She, however, directed this reporter to their coordinator in the town who identified himself simply as Johnson. According to Johnson who opened up to our correspondent after persistent persuasion, "charcoal is our major source of income."
The processing of charcoal begins with the cutting of hard trees which are distilled to make charcoal. The chunks of the newly produced charcoal are then packed in sacks and tied. Rickety old-model pick-up vans are readily available for loading of the finished product to potential buyers.
Investigation further showed that a bag of charcoal is sold to bulk buyers at N900. The retailers then re-sell to the general public at varied prices ranging from N1,100 to N1,300, our correspondent who interacted with charcoal sellers in Ilorin, the state capital, discovered.
The petty charcoal traders in Ilorin re-pack small quantities of the commodity in nylon bags with a bag sold for N20. It used to be N10 some years back before it was jacked up to N20 following a hike from the producers.
Apart from Falokun-Oja, charcoal is also processed at a small village near Oke-Oyi, headquarters of Ilorin East Local Government Area of the state. Like their counterparts in Falokun-Oja, they also secretly cut trees in the bush which they burn to make charcoal.
It was also gathered that those involved in the business claim they import the commodity from neighboring states though the government insists the charcoal is produced in the state.
The state Commissioner for Environment and Forestry, Barrister Kayode Towoju, in an interview with our correspondent noted that the charcoal traders hide under the inadequacy of the law to do their business, saying the extant state law only prohibits the production of charcoal in the state but does not ban the sale of the commodity.
However, he said the ministry would strengthen its enforcement unit to curb the activities of charcoal producers who cut down trees at will in the forests without replacing them thus endangering the environment.
He said: "There is a law in existence which was enacted in 2005 known as Kwara State Charcoal Production Prohibition Law. The law has prohibited the production of charcoal in the state. And whoever produces charcoal in contradiction of the law upon arraignment and conviction is liable to pay a fine of N50,000 or serve one year jail term.
"What I have discovered as commissioner for environment is that the law is not adequate enough. It should prohibit the illegal production, selling of charcoal, dealing with charcoal or marketing charcoal or transporting charcoal. When my officers go round for random checking and enforcement, what we have discovered is that people hide under the inadequacy of the law, that they are not producing charcoal; they are only selling it and they would give you receipt from the neighbouring state that they procure it from Niger, from Kogi, from Ekiti. They would say they are not producing it in Kwara; they are only selling and the law has not prohibited selling of charcoal.
"From what I have found out recently, they do their business in the night. They go to the jungle, cut the trees, make charcoal and they have ready-made receipt. But since we have been able to know their game plan, we are strengthening our enforcement organ to ensure that we are able to nab the people who are dealing in this business and to ensure that if we cannot stop it in totality, we minimize it to a reasonable level so that we will not be endangering our forests and by extension we would not be creating a serious environmental problem to the living and even for our future."
He added that they have a serious advocacy strategy to enlighten the dealers to know that the little gain they would make now would be paving way for a greater danger that money cannot even solve.
"If all these villages that engage in illicit trading of charcoal business cut all their trees and there is a serious thunderstorm, all these trees that are supposed to be windbreakers are cut down and there is ecological problem," he said.
The commissioner also debunked the traders' claim that unemployment motivated them into the business, saying they are only being lazy and looking for cheap lucre.
"Farming is as lucrative as the creation of humanity. Our people are simply lazy and they are looking for cheaper means of making money.
Kwara State has abundant arable land. You can engage in not only crop farming, you can go to animal husbandry; you can go into fish production; you can go into poultry; and you can go into vegetable production. Let me tell you, they have a thousand means of employment if they are sincere to themselves."
The commissioner also claimed the charcoal producers export the product to neighbouring countries such as Niger, and were not selling to residents in the state alone.