On the Ground in Zambia

Greetings from Zambia! I have been here a little over three weeks now and I am having a great time and learning much about Zambian culture and the work of my host organization. I am working with a Zambian registered NGO called BioCarbon Partners (BCP) Trust, which is responsible for community engagement activities attached to the first verifiable REDD+ Project in Zambia, the Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project. If you are not aware of REDD+, in short, it is a forest carbon financing mechanism that is designed to provide financial incentives for “avoided deforestation” (forest protection) projects that follow a program of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (hence the ‘REDD’ acronym). BCP is currently implementing the first (and only) verifiable REDD+ in Zambia on a large area of protected forest called the Rufunsa Conservancy, which borders the Lower Zambezi National Park. To protect the forest, they have projects in four community ‘zones’ surrounding the protected forest, and these projects aim to provide alternative income generating activities for those communities. Currently, many rural residents rely on the cutting of forest to generate income—for example, approximately 70% of community stakeholders living adjacent to the REDD+ project area are involved in the illegal production of charcoal, which is contributing to the high rates of deforestation in the area as cutting for charcoal is not done according to any sort of sustainable forest harvesting plan. BCPs activities are numerous, so in this post I am going to only focus on the projects themselves, not the processes.

Many rural residents sustain their livelihoods through charcoal production, which typically relies on the unsustainable clearing of forest. Zambia is endowed with expansive forestland, but charcoal production has lead to some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world – in the project zone, the deforestation rate is estimated to be 11 times higher than the rest of the country. Additionally, due to its landlocked position, fuel, especially cooking fuel, is expensive and so many residents rely on wood or charcoal for cooking. There is an especially high demand for charcoal in the Capitol, Lusaka, which drives the market and hence the high rates of deforestation in the area where BCP’s project is taking place, which is one of the closest remaining areas of forest to the capitol city. I should note that this charcoal is what is referred to as lump wood charcoal. Lump wood charcoal is not the typical briquette charcoal that westerners are used to, but an unprocessed product that is best described by its name. For additional information on how charcoal is made and the interesting process of pyrolysis, I would recommend the Wikipedia page on the subject.

Since arriving, my primary focus has been assisting in the development, monitoring and management of a “Sustainable Eco-Charcoal” project, which aims to produce a sustainable charcoal product through a community-based organization, so as to simultaneously promote sustainable harvesting techniques, improve rural poor livelihoods, and thereby to help to reduce unsustainable deforestation taking place within the project zone. The community organization is comprised of former unsustainable charcoalers from the local community that have come together in order to begin producing charcoal using higher efficiency kilns and sustainable harvesting techniques that have been implemented on a protected area of degraded community forest (ie: they are not clearing new areas of intact forest for the purposes of this project). The organization utilizes several sustainable forest management techniques, such as a rotational harvesting system, to produce this charcoal. Other techniques introduced by the program include replanting trees, improved cutting techniques that allow cut trees to regenerate, improved (higher efficiency) kiln technology and early burning. This model is in contrast to the traditional model of charcoal production in which someone clears an area of forest, burns it to make charcoal, and then just leaves without attempting to restore it—areas cleared for charcoal are often followed by agriculture, meaning that the resulting cleared area is often not allowed to regenerate, and the cleared area has been ‘permanently’ deforested. The idea behind this project is two-fold: first, the project aims to provide an incentive for unsustainable charcoal producers to switch to sustainable harvesting techniques, such that in the long-term the project will promote sustainable charcoal production in place of current, unsustainable charcoal production practices that are driving high rates of deforestation in the area. Second, by improving rural producer livelihoods, and by combining this project activity with the suite of other project activities that BCP is promoting, BCP’s engagement through this project is designed to reduce local drivers of deforestation such as poverty and lack of access to alternatives. As such, in the long term, this project is designed to eliminate the ‘need’ that local communities currently have to cut virgin forest for their livelihoods, and to thereby reduce environmental degradation in the area.

In addition to the Sustainable Eco-Charcoal project, BCP has two other main projects taking place in the area where I’ve been working: a Village Chicken Project and a conservation farming project. Both are designed to introduce improved practices into the communities to increase production of chickens and farm produce to create additional marketable products and reduce reliance on charcoal production as a means of income. BCP also facilitates market access for these producers, as transportation is very difficult for the often isolated communities.

My time here has been split between the project field house in Ndubulula, Lusaka, and the BCP office in the protected forest area. The majority of my time has been spent in Ndubulula, which has been an adjustment. Ndubulula lacks electricity and running water, so I have had to bring back my skills from the Peace Corps to carry water from the pump and not incessantly check my e-mail. Everyone in the community is incredibly friendly and welcoming, so the transition has been made much easier. I have already eaten nshima – the staple dish – at several homes and I am always stopped for a chat in town or on the roadside. It has been a pleasant, quiet existence. However, this past week I have had to run a herd of goats off of my porch every afternoon! One Saturday I came home to find that they had drunk all of the water out of a washbasin that I was soaking my bath towel in. Fortunately the towel had already soaked most of the morning. Suffice to say, the goats have been a nuisance and my lack of skills as a herder means I am not an effective deterrent to them coming back.

Although life here has been an adjustment, I have found that my collective experiences abroad have been a great help to me in the field. Largely my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar has allowed me to adjust to a basic lifestyle and easily integrate into the community. I find myself also using knowledge gained from my first year at Wagner. The course International Economic Development taught by Professor Morduch has been very useful in helping me to frame my thoughts on the community’s economic decision making. The research presented to us has really assisted me in this and helping my work with the eco-charcoal project.

I will wrap it up here by saying that I am looking forward to writing two more blog posts and presenting my experiences to the Wagner Community in the fall. For more information on BioCarbonPartners Trust, please visit their website at: www.biocarbonpartners.com/bcp-trust Enjoy your summer!

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