Guy Symes, Contributor
I seem to have missed the details of last week's news item about a shipment of charcoal to the Middle East, but I did hear the concern expressed on television that allowing the export of charcoal would result in the eradication of our forests!
Perhaps, as Jamaicans, we are too quick to see the worse side of any picture, and we tend to overlook the need for instituting appropriate management control systems! Charcoal production is widely and profitably practised in many developed and developing countries, for use as domestic energy and for various processes in mining and food industries. We need only Google it to learn more!
Personally, I think that we should commend the exporter for his/her initiative in identifying the market opportunity, making the contact with the foreign buyer, and cementing what I assume was a profitable deal. Of course, the transaction raises a whole series of questions that did not appear to be answered (or asked?) by the news reporters. For example:
1. What was the declared volume/weight and value of the shipment according to the customs document? Has the shipper been paid for the shipment?
2. What was the source of the charcoal? Was it processed by the shipper in a modern kiln or by various charcoalers using the traditional earth kilns?
3. Where was the wood raw material harvested? Was it only of select species, and from how many acres/properties in which parishes? Was harvesting done with the permission of the respective landowners?
4. What is the current state of the forest or woodlands from which the raw material was extracted, and will the areas be able to produce another wood harvest in a reasonable time?
The answers to these questions could reveal that certain tree species were illegally harvested by employing a number of persons, possibly from the dry forests and woodlands along the southern coast, leaving those areas somewhat depleted or degraded and unlikely to fully recover in the next decade. That is a big problem and we need to fix it.
However, the good news is that, like the emergence of the scrap metal trade has demonstrated, Jamaica has wood raw material resources from which we can produce charcoal of export quality and earn foreign exchange, which the economy desperately needs at this time. But as we don't want it to get out of hand, let us organise for seizing the opportunity! This then raises new questions.
Where and to what extent are the markets for charcoal, locally and abroad? The Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica is supposed to be doing a countrywide biomass assessment and may have some up-to-date information.
What resources can we devote to supply these markets sustainably? It is interesting to note that certain tree species can grow viable fuelwood crops in four to five years on marginal lands, to supply economic production of charcoal. Also, it has been reported that our local bamboo can produce charcoal of a higher calorific value than most woods.
Can we supply the market with existing technology? The simple answer is "No!" as earth kilns are wasteful and non-viable. The new Jamaican charcoal industry would need to invest in batteries of kilns, as in Brazil, China, USA, etc. But the scale of the investment will depend on the market!
The challenge, then, is how to harness the entrepreneurial initiative of the shipper and his suppliers and to pursue the opportunity that they have opened, but in a legitimate and business-like manner.
Is this another job for the ministries of Foreign Trade and Industry, in association with the Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change? Or can the private sector take a good look at this type of venture and simply get started without waiting for the International Monetary Fund?
The charcoal industry can earn big bucks and employ many people without damaging the environment, but it has to be well planned and managed.
Guy Symes is managing director of The Forest Conservancy. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.