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Charcoal exportation a threat to our forests

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Byron Wilson, Guest Columnist

The recent Customs seizure of containerloads of charcoal destined for export has generated much discussion, including a contributed Gleaner article published on January 27, 2013 titled 'Cash in on charcoal but ...'. That commentary was very worrisome, because it gives the impression that exporting charcoal is a good business opportunity for Jamaica. Given that some of the export-bound charcoal may have been pilfered from forest reserves, this endorsement is premature.

The destruction of the island's few remaining forests is clearly a bad idea, and an export trade would be functionally equivalent to a 'green' scrap metal trade, except much worse, because unlike road grates and bridge parts, forests are largely out of the public's view. Swift and irreversible forest destruction would progress relatively unnoticed.

The production of charcoal for domestic consumption is already an environmental disaster. Exporting our few remaining hardwood forests for use as cooking fuel is unimaginable folly, but burning them up here at home is no less destructive.

The best charcoal

The best charcoal comes from hardwood trees grown in so-called 'dry forests'. These trees take a long time to reach maturity. Quality 'old-growth' dry forest is restricted to the Hellshire Hills and small sections of Portland Ridge. Everything else has been ravaged, and persists only in skeletal form. Published research led by my colleague Dr Kurt McLaren has shown that Hellshire's undisturbed sections boast trees in excess of 500 years old. That is the conclusion of the only scientific study of dry-forest regeneration ever conducted in Jamaica. Yet those ancient forests are being cut down daily to feed the charcoal industry.

The Gleaner writer indicated that the coal destined for export may have come from "dry forests and woodlands along the southern coast, leaving those areas somewhat depleted or degraded and unlikely to fully recover in the next decade."

First, charcoal-burned areas, particularly dry forests over limestone, are not 'somewhat depleted or degraded' by clear-cutting for charcoal, they are rendered biological wastelands.

Second, Jamaica's damaged dry forests will NEVER recover fully, not even in centuries. Again, that is the conclusion of the only scientific research conducted on the impact of charcoal burning on a Jamaican dry forest. Once clear-cut, the forest is simply too dry and too sunny for natural germination and regeneration to occur in anything other than a geological time frame.

An environmental and extinction crisis is well under way in Jamaica's remnant dry forests. For example, in 2012, the Jamaican iguana was listed among the world's 100 most critically endangered species - and that list included plants and fungi, too. This is clearly a case for application of the 'precautionary principle': we do not need exhaustive environmental, socio-economic, or sustainability studies of charcoal burning, because the evidence of destruction is so obvious.

Economic valuations of Jamaica's forests are urgently needed (e.g., monetary value of ecosystem services such as water and carbon storage), so that their exploitation can be guided by sound economic and environmental principles. In the absence of valuation analysis, though, we need only look to our neighbour, Haiti, where the catastrophic consequences of deforestation are evident.

Tree farms are a good idea, of course, because farmed trees may eventually become the only source of burnable wood. But growing trees takes time, lots of time; and the better (read: harder) the wood, the slower the growth rate. As a result, tree farms do not represent a solution to the immediate crisis.

That will require difficult, politically unpopular decisions that must be countered with affordable alternative fuels and viable alternative livelihoods. Subsidising cooking fuel, especially propane gas, would be a start, as well as removal of taxes on propane cooking devices. Hotels would not receive such concessions, as their largely foreign clientele can certainly afford propane-fuelled barbecue and jerk. Appropriate fuel wood trees could also be planted for domestic consumption on private or ruinate lands.

Ultimately, effective enforcement of existing laws will be necessary to protect the island's remaining forests, particularly in protected areas. In addition to charcoal burning, trees are cut for fence posts, yam sticks, fish pots, and timber; even the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park has been plundered of its most valuable 'money trees'.

To date, enforcement of the Forest Act and the Wild Life Protection Act has been dismally inadequate. To be sure, protecting what is left will be no easy task. But the alternative is unthinkable, so the Government needs to act with haste and conviction. Jamaica's remaining forests are national assets that help provide clean air and water. Their destruction is a matter of national security.

Professor Byron Wilson is a lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to