Daniel Chakunkha and Mussa Abu understand that what they do for money is detrimental to Malawi’s environment – but poverty has left them little choice in the matter.
“We are well aware of the effects of deforestation on the environment but we are forced by circumstances,” said Chakunkha.
“We are feeling the effects of these self inflicted injuries,” Abu added. “When we had enough vegetative cover, the soil was very fertile and strong because of the leaves and roots. Nowadays, our farmland has become useless.”
These men are charcoal producers; to earn money to feed their families, they fell trees and slowly heat the wood to turn it into the chalky lumps of biomass used for cooking across the country.
Charcoal is big business in Malawi. According to a 2007 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the industry employs upwards of 93,000 people and charcoal is used for cooking by 85 per cent of households surveyed.
But charcoal production is also a leading source of deforestation in Malawi, a densely-populated country where resource depletion is an increasingly-pressing concern.
Chakunkha and Abu maintain that they do not want continue exacting such a toll on the environment. But they are poor and must do what they can to see that their incomes grow.
The two old men told me that last week, in a remote village called Makunje. Not so far away, in Durban, South Africa, similar arguments are being made by some of the most powerful men and women in the world.
Monday marked the opening of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or if you’re on Twitter, just #COP17). More than 20,000 state delegates, lobbyists and scientists are meeting to negotiate resolutions and agreements around climate change.
As U.K. publication, the Guardian, paraphrased it, the International Energy Agency’s “most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure” recently warned that “the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels.”
Yet despite such a dire pronouncement by the world’s foremost authority on energy, it largely won’t be the environment that’s the focus of discussion among world leaders in Durban next week.
For years now, international talks on climate change have been locked in arguments between the world’s richest economies –including the United States, European Union, and Canada– and the world’s fastest growing economies –such as China, India, and Brazil– over who gets to pollute the most and why.
Largely left out of the debate are the world’s poorest nations, which are not only the countries least-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change, but also those projected to be the worst-affected. (For a map illustrating how climate change will specifically affect Africa, click here.)
“(Malawi’s) total emissions are insignificant at the global level,” said Yanira Ntupanyama, director of Environmental Affairs, “and yet we do suffer from the consequential adverse effects of climate change that include intense rainfall, floods, droughts, dry spells, cold spells, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, hailstorms, mudslides and heat waves, among others.”
Ntupanyama described the link between climate change and extreme weather – which was recently confirmed a reality by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as “a threat to the country’s socio-economic development, attainment of the goals in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy, as well as the Millennium Development Goals.”
Speaking as she packed for her flight to Durban for the convention, Ntupanyama detailed a host of measures adopted by the Government of Malawi to minimizing the country’s contributions to greenhouse gases and prepare the nation for oncoming stresses associated with climate change.
For example, there is the Greenbelt Initiative, Ntupanyama said, which was designed to safeguard against climate change impacts like erratic rains and unexpected draughts. And the National Framework for Managing Climate Change, she continued, which is promoting adaptation and mitigation capacities, strengthening weather forecasting capabilities, and researching how to strengthen the management of climate change.
But there is always more work to be done. “We need to up-scale the effort, scope and modalities of funding to effectively manage the efforts of climate change,” Ntupanyama added.
Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick