Say the word 'charcoal' to a British audience and they will probably think 'barbecue'. Yet, the charcoal trade is estimated to be worth $12bn a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone by 2030, where it is widely used for cooking and heating. The little-known commodity is increasingly implicated in some of the most serious threats to health, peace and sustainable development in the region.
Not only is charcoal a major driver of deforestation and respiratory illness, it is also a lucrative source of funding for armed groups. Income from the illegal trade in timber products dwarfs the amount gangs earn from higher-profile wildlife crime such as ivory smuggling. And trading and exporting charcoal is estimated to provide terrorist group Al Shabab with up to US$56 million per year – making it one of the group's main sources of income.
This story follows the charcoal trail from Uganda, where its production is laying waste to forests around the booming city of Kampala and joins charcoal smugglers as they float their precious cargo across Lake Victoria and into Kenya. With help from INTERPOL, the project investigates the scale and nature of exports to the Middle East, where charcoal is used for Shisha pipes. Along the way the story documents the makers, users, dealers and smugglers pivotal to this booming trade, as well as investigating the impact of the charcoal industry on the region's people and ecosystems. This investigation also looks for credible solutions to reduce the damage caused by the trade.
Cover photo: © United Nations Environment Programme
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