Forty-two-year old John Matuku, a peasant in Mutha, Kitui County, has been burning charcoal all his adult life.
What started as a pastime to supplement his meagre farm earnings has over the years turned into an occupation. He specialises in producing charcoal for sale in Nairobi and other towns.
Over the years, like thousands of villagers in the arid county, Mr Matuku has been harvesting selected trees in his land for charcoal.
However, upon depleting trees in his 30-acre piece, he recently acquired a power saw, teamed up with several young people and ventured into the nearby unpatrolled South Kitui Game Reserve, where they established a makeshift base to engage in mass charcoal production.
The vast reserve, which borders the famous Tsavo East National Park, is like a no man's land.
Here, no one regulates the felling of trees, and thousands of people are competing for the best mature ones.
Despite wildlife and conservation laws prohibiting trespassing in national parks and game reserves, South Kitui Game Reserve is home to more than 5,000 people surviving on poaching and illegal charcoal burning.
Mr Matuku and his group uses the power saw to cut mature acacia trees. The logs are then covered with an earth mound to form a traditional. This restricts the supply of air during carbonisation.
"There's no time for constructing a modern kiln. Traditional ones are easier to make though they are wasteful. Most producers care less because the trees don't belong to them anyway," he says.
A mature acacia tree can yield up to 15 bags of charcoal, depending on how one contains oxygen intake into the kiln.
This most common method of charcoal burning, which has been practised for years. It is wasteful since more than 85 per cent of wood is lost in the process.
After the tedious work, a bag of charcoal goes for a paltry Sh500.
Brokers then transport it from the game reserve to Nairobi and sell for as much as Sh2,500.
Mr Matuku is aware of the consequences of deforestation, but he says he is not about to quit the illegal trade because hundreds of other people including buyers, transporters and barons are in it.
"The government is aware of the activities in this game park. However, it's a free for all and very soon, the land will be bare," the father of four told the Nation at Mutha market.
Ms Monica Mutindi, another charcoal producer, tells a similar story but says her motivation to get into the reserve was borne out of realisation that people from far-flung counties had camped there for years.
"We are scrambling for resources in the reserve," she says.
"Now that the government is not interested in reining in loggers and restoring order, why should we watch outsiders enrich themselves with our resources?"
The mother of two recently graduated from a charcoal producer to a broker, and she acts as the link between transporters and the people burning charcoal in the reserve.
Ms Mutindi also acts as a guide by taking charcoal trucks into the forest and showing the traders collection points of the producing groups.
"Unless something drastic is done, South Kitui Game Reserve will become extinct soon. The government should drive these people away and fence it off to allow natural regeneration, or plant trees" she says.
The use of inefficient traditional production methods, unplanned felling of trees, failure to obtain permits for charcoal production, sale and transportation has led to wanton destruction of the forest.
Mr Matuku says charcoal trade does not get the policy attention it deserves from the government, and that is largely controlled by cartels that flout laws with impunity and bribe their way to ensure the commodity reaches the market.
This, he observes, has prevented the development of the industry, making it acquire a negative image due to its role in deforestation and the clandestine manner in which charcoal is transported to the market.
The farmer agrees with the county government's recent decision to ban the trade.
However, he warns that nothing would be achieved unless authorities evict thousands of people roaming the vast game reserve that separates Kitui and Tana River counties.
The confession by the two residents on the worsening environmental situation in the region mirrors a study warning that Kitui and Tharaka-Nithi counties risk becoming deserts in the next five years.
Environmental experts have warned that the unregulated way of charcoal production is unsustainable and may lead to decimation of Kenya's already depleted woodlands.
The survey, which was conducted by Green Africa Foundation, an environmental lobby, established that the charcoal burning business had left vast sections of land bare, leading to large scale deforestation, massive soil erosion, loss of crucial biodiversity, and reduced land productivity in lower Eastern.
According to Mr John Kioli, the executive director of Green Africa Foundation, certain high value tree species which are preferred by loggers for production of quality charcoal are also at risk of becoming extinct.
"Charcoal production in the two counties is largely indiscriminate and the danger is that loggers prefer trees that take decades to mature yet there are no efforts to replenish the environment after the wanton destruction" he says.
Mr Kioli, who is also the chairman of Kenya Climate Change Working Group, says more than 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; they grow naturally in forests and farmlands and unlike other fast growing species, they take a minimum of 30 years to mature," Mr Kioli said in an interview with the Nation.
The study by Green Africa Foundation whose findings were released late last year warn that unless decisive measures are urgently taken to stop charcoal burning, the arid region will deteriorate into a barren land unable to support any meaningful economic venture.
The report says 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.
"Kenyans are replanting only 12 per cent of the trees cut, and unless concrete measures are taken to arrest the depletion rate, afforestation efforts will amount to nothing," hesaid.
The study says Kenyans must adopt energy-saving technology while also being enticed to grow more trees because the current conservation efforts are not enough to replenish what is getting lost.
"We must use all means to entice Kenyans to join hands in planting trees to save this country from the adverse effects of climate change," said Mr Kioli.
Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu triggered a national debate last month when she banned charcoal production and trade in the region.
Ms Ngilu maintains that she will continue enforcing the law banning the business, which was passed by the county assembly following public outcry over wanton destruction of the environment.
The ban got a shot in the arm last week when the National Environmental Complaints Committee endorsed it after touring the affected areas.
Committee chairperson Isabella Masinde, who paid Mrs Ngilu a courtesy call, noted that environmental degradation had caused a lot of suffering.
She cited poor rains, hunger, early pregnancies and high rate of school dropouts.
Ms Masinde said after going round the county, she found out that Kenyans fully supported the charcoal ban, and were ready to engage with county and national governments on alternative means of earning their livelihood.
"During our tour in areas where charcoal burning is intense, we've seen the suffering communities are facing. Rivers have dried up, forcing many to walk for long distances in search of water," she said.
The committee, which is charged with investigating complaints or allegations regarding the condition of the environment in Kenya and suspected cases of degradation, noted that protecting the environment was a devolved function.
Ms Masinde said girls in charcoal producing areas were being molested or lured into risky sexual behaviours, leading to pregnancies and HIV/Aids infections.
The committee also undertakes public interest litigation on behalf of citizens in environmental matters.
It is composed of seven members appointed by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources. It is headed by a chairman, who is qualified to be appointed as a judge of the Environment and Lands Court.
Members are nominated by the Attorney-General, the Council of Governors, the Law Society of Kenya and the business community.