Forests play multiple roles in ecosystems and society. Yet, the dependency of human wellbeing on ecosystems has been given insufficient attention whence, historically, narrow economic pursuits have been given priority over environmental concerns. What started as a need to provide, cheap and reliable sources of household energy requirement has now translated into a huge economy built around depletion of natural resources especially landscapes and forests. Lack of availability and high cost of energy resources in the last decades caused a paradigm shift in the household energy sector in Africa. This was in response to the call to diversify energy resources from conventional sources to a new industry built with high level of uncertainty and hence increased vulnerability to the risk of today. It is in plain sight that the consequences of such revolution were not foreseen beyond the immediate needs and hence livelihood was prioritised at the expense of ecosystem loss. This is the case of West Africa where the brown desert strip continuously pushes downwards towards the equator, turning former savannah belts first into grasslands and now into deserts. In the last decades, this has been exacerbated by the charcoal transition in response to this new energy drive.
Charcoal has been an important source of energy for centuries and remains so today; projections indicate that demand will continue to increase, especially in Africa. Charcoal production has particularly risen in recent decades as demand has grown among urban populations and enterprises. Where demand is high, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, unsustainable wood harvesting and charcoal production contribute to forest degradation and deforestation and to greenhouse gas emissions along the charcoal value chain from inefficient technologies. Over the last decades, the charcoal revolution has threatened forest resources in Africa, especially West Africa with rich vegetation coming under threat due to biodiversity loss. The charcoal sector, which is largely informal, has become the livelihood of over 40 million people, but a lack of regulation has promoted its inefficiency, loss of ecosystems, destruction of land resources and governments forgo billions of dollars in revenue.
This new unregulated and uncontrolled industry has crossed limits and is no longer sustainable considering the loss of natural ecosystems. In North Eastern Nigeria which is already under heavy threat from climate change, the few available forest resources have been over-exploited for immediate gains. With few trees and sparse vegetation, the charcoal industry in this region targets the wetlands and forest reserves leading to overexploitation of wood and forest resources. With little or no surface water, charcoal production industry in this region are clustered around streams and wetlands where limited water resources are exploited for this process. Old trees known for good wood quality are the first to be lost to this industry and it thrives until the last tree standing has been converted into charcoal. From what can be seen today of the once popular Nguru Wetlands, it remains now only a sparse of land with shrubs after the trees were last cut down for charcoal production. When the point of no tree standing is reached, then it is time for the industry to shift in search on a new land to destroy. The former forests and wetlands are further subjected to other non-sustainable land uses such as converting them into agricultural farmlands and the industry builds continuously around these unsustainable practices. Burning large mass of wood over the open land surface close to stream banks continuously destroys the soil composition and structure and making lands more susceptible to stream bank erosion in the case of streams and flooding in case of wetlands. It is only a matter of time for this once rich vegetation to become a vast stretching kilometre of dust.
Several policies options have revolved around alternative ways of greening the charcoal value chain from the sources to the enterprises. But like many other policies, it has failed to put into consideration one of the key elements of the Dublin Principles “…Sustainability of vital ecosystems.” From literature reviews to desk studies and interviews with experts and practitioners, it has become obvious that if world leaders truly affirmed the urgency of climate-change mitigation in the 2015 Paris Agreement, then one of the world’s largest carbon sink must not be sacrificed on the altar of immediate livelihood.
Environmental consequences, high-value ecosystems, and sustainability security are often hidden from view of global politics. A new form of geopolitics embracing cooperative solutions for ecosystem and forest distribution management is now very essential as scientific debates drive policies towards Ecosystem Based Adaptation. Forest ecosystems are essential to human health, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity and the security implications of escalating resource use. These combined challenges move us dangerously close to the “planetary boundaries”. Ecosystems and forest resources are already at the brink of this “closed” status, and increasing infrastructure investments in developing countries necessitates trade-offs promoting policies that brings natural solutions under more threats. Shared ecosystems create subnational, national or regional interdependencies with public goods-neglect or overexploitation leading to cooperative and/or conflicting outcomes. Conversely, inappropriate management, or conflict between sectoral policies, can lead to security challenges, particularly when ecosystems limits are being tested.