By Paul Jimbo
In the scenic hills of South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, smoke is billowing into the sky, signaling that yet another giant tree has fallen and is being turned into charcoal. A few years ago, the smoke would not have penetrated the then thick canopy of the tropical forest.
Today, Upper Nile, just like many states in this Africa’s youngest nation is slowly turning into a desert – thanks to an aggressive trade in charcoal that has seen a massive deforestation.
Local villagers blame the destruction of forests on unemployment and poverty and state officials blame the slow mitigation plans to corruption, lack of budgetary allocations, archaic laws and disharmony between Central and State governments.
Researchers and activists now warn that South Sudan is dangerously tottering towards an environmental catastrophe with dire consequences to her neighbors They said climate change effects is already affecting South Sudan through unpredictable weather patterns.
Conservationists are however racing against time to help the affected communities living around Capital city of Juba and its environs to mitigate against these adverse environmental degradations by embracing agro forestry and smart agriculture.
They are using their meagre resources to travel deep in the villagers to convince the locals to stop cutting trees for charcoal and venture into farming as a source of livelihood.
Investigations by this writer discovered the intrigues of a community that has for years not been bothered by the worsening environmental situation and helpless state officers demoralized by delayed salaries, lack of firearms to fight well-armed charcoal burners, vehicles and high turnover of senior environment ministers.
Albeit belatedly, they have been slowly accepting the realities that their activities in charcoal and timber trade has threatened the livelihoods of millions of people both in South Sudan and in the neighboring countries.
Security officials fuel deforestation
The deforestation in areas around Juba had been worsened by the fact that even security officials –like soldiers who are expected to help conserve the country’s 121 forest reserves are themselves deeply involved in the charcoal trade.
This was confirmed by James Malong, a lanky soldier and one of the best-known charcoal burners and traders.
“Someone has to do this because of survival. It is like someone cultivating crops to produce food. It (Charcoal burning) needs a lot of effort. It requires many trees. It could be more than twenty trees. We don’t even count the number of trees we cut to produce charcoal,” says Malong as he smiles.
He adds: “So, you may need to cut down many trees of different sizes either small or big to produce a hundred sack of charcoal. To produce 100 sacks of charcoal, you may take more than two months or more depending on the burning process. “It took me more than a month to produce 18 sacks of charcoal.”
Just like his other colleagues in the trade, no tree should be spared. They use their weapons to ward off the forest guards who unfortunately are not armed with weapons, save for sticks.
He says the charcoal was in high demand, both in local and international markets in the neighboring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
Each sack of charcoal might cost about 1,100 upto 1,500 SSP in the forest. He confirms that they do not have any permit to cut down trees.
A charcoal dealer, Yar Riak, 42 year flashes a shy smile as we approach her for an interview. The mother of 9 started selling charcoal at the bustling Konyo-Konyo market to supplement her meagre salary as a government agency employee.
His children and husband do no leave with her because they are also selling charcoal in other markets.
“I came here because of sickness. I can’t get good treatment because of lack of money. I receive 2,000 SSP as salary. The hospital demanded 7,000 SSP from me. My other family members are also selling charcoal to help me raise medical Bill,” she says.
And how much does she sell a sack of charcoal?
“If someone comes with 2,400 SSP I can give the sack of charcoal. Some people bargain and pay 2,300 SSP or even 2,000 SSP,” she says
Riak says she buys the charcoal from middle men who gets them straight from the burners in the forest.
Another charcoal trader at the market – Joseph Lino says he buys his charcoal in bulk from an Ethiopian who gets the supplies from the forest, an indication that even foreigners are involved in charcoal burning.
“There is a trader from Ethiopia who goes to the forest. He brings that charcoal in bulk and I buy from him. He is a good man because he allows me to negotiate the price,” says Lino.
He adds: “The profit is not much – maybe on one sack, you can earn 400 or 350 SSP – that’s a lot.”
His clients include restaurant owners, tea sellers, and locals from the village.
Lino confirms that many government soldiers were in the charcoal burning and selling business.
“The soldiers in the Charcoal business tell me they have not received salaries for several months. They are cutting down trees and burning charcoal. Each one of them bring between 15 to 20 sacks every month. This is what help them survive with their families,” he says.
Breather despite plunder
But Timothy Chuol, the Director General of Forestry in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry says all was not gloom despite the many challenges and the continued plunder of the forests.
He says they were developing new laws and policies that he believes, will stop the runaway deforestation.
Chuol joined the government in 2006 after quitting teaching at local Universities.
“Yes. Since, 2007, we have been developing forest policies and laws. The policy has just been passed by His Excellency, the first vice president two- three months ago. He says the old laws did gave room to illegal charcoal burners, saw millers and traders.
He adds: “Initially, the charcoal and extraction of forest products was not prohibited by the law. But these have now been declared illegal. This is illegal. Unfortunately, some of these laws are not working.”
Chuol regrets that the war against the destruction of environment may take long because those involved in the plunder are armed with sophisticated guns.
“The people burning charcoal and cutting down trees are people holding guns. The people who are trading in charcoal are rich and have trucks. The forest guards who are supposed to stop them no-longer carry guns after they were disarmed sometimes back.” He says as sadness flashes across his face.
He adds with a tinge of bitterness: “You will find a forest guard carrying a stick while the person he is supposed to arrest has a big RBG gun.”
The guards also have no enough vehicles to be used in driving across the expansive forests.
He says that despite the fact that timber and charcoal exports from South Sudan had been banned, many people still smuggle thousands of sacks across the borders.
He says charcoal and timber from South Sudan was in high demand because it still had natural forests.
“In natural forests, we have 23 different species of Acacia. They also have Senegacia, Mahoganny, Afzelia Africana and Tectoina Grandis
Now of late, Afzelia Africana has become one of the natural tree species that are targeted by illegal operators, not for his charcoal, but because its hardwoods.
Tectona Grandis was the first plantation established in Southern Sudan in 1918 and most of them over time grown into very big trees.
Another challenge facing forest conservation in South Sudan is the high turnover of Ministers and a slim budget.
Chuol says since 2005, the ministry of environment has had poor cash flow. “All the things that we have been budgeting in order to protect the forest does not come. So our hands are tied. We get 1 per cent of the entire budget.”
Then there is the conflict between the Central and State governments over who should protect the forests.
‘The States are saying the forest is belonged to them because they are in their territories and there are those who insist the forests belong to the National government.
“Yes. There is no very strong cooperation between the national government and the state governments. The State governments give their own approvals especially on the exportation of timber and charcoal, but we stop them at the border. According to us, these exports are illegal,” says Chuol.
He says that South Sudan was losing its forest cover at between 1 and 2 per cent evert year and warned that the forests may completely disappear within the next 50 years.
Impacts on climate change
The official said already rivers were already drying up and pasture for cattle becoming smaller each year due to climatic changes triggered by deforestation.
“The swamps are shrinking and rivers are drying up. Herders have to drive their cattle far away in search of pasture and water. Food is becoming scarce,” he says.
A Climate Change Scientist at the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Center (ICPAC), Abubaker Selih Babekir is calling for an urgent intervention to save South Sudan’s forests because any further plunder would be disastrous even to neighboring countries.
“What is happening in South Sudan will impact the neighboring countries. I have done a study myself to assess how the deforestation in South Sudan affect Sudan, Ethiopia, and the neighboring countries. It will affect the neighbors because of what we call moisture transport which will have adverse effects on climate,” says Babekir.
Mogga Bill, the Project Coordinator for South Sudan Nature Conservation Organization, a civil Society group, is worried that little was being done to save the forests in the country.
“The deforestation in South Sudan is really a big challenge right from policy levels to the grassroots. There are the very major players that are contributing to deforestation,” says Bill.
He says his organization was a major actor in environmental conservation and was closely working with local communities to monitor and mitigate against deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation.
“As of last year, we have just completed our Juba Urban Land Scale project. This was Dutch funded project that came to an end and we are looking at land restoration, we are looking at renewal energy installations and we are also looking into food security.”
His organization has identified interventions within Juba in parts of Gumbo, Lologo and Luri , the areas inhabited by communities living along the Luri River, where they are implementing agro-forestry as one of main steps for communities to try to live harmonious with the environment.
“We all know trees play very big roles and once we introduce agro-forestry, communities will plant more trees. We help them set up tree nurseries for fruit production. So, these trees will act as wind breakers, they will also contribute positively toward rainfall formation. Besides this, the communities will also be addressing the issue of food security by selling the fruits.”
Getting fruits from these trees that at the same time bring to the market to sustain their livelihood and the same address food security”
He said that besides deforestation, unregulated mining along river banks was also destroying the environment in South Sudan.
Bill says sand mining was destroying the environment. “We have seen so many Lorries from the Luri Site, and so much constructions going around the Urban center here, they are mining but no one is really regulating them.”
“We all understand our situation in South Sudan. The most direct challenge that we face is funding. Not many people look at agricultural sector as an important source of livelihood and that it can be destroyed by environmental degradation,” he says.
He adds: “That is why we have come up with the initiative of agro-forestry and we look at tree nurseries that need to be set up at this intervention area. We emphasize that for every tree they cut, there is a mechanism or a strategy that is being equip in place to replace and reclaim the vegetation that is being destroyed.”
“These communities do not have alternative sources of livelihoods. it is either they do farming, if not farming, they are cutting down the trees. Their helplessness is aggravated by the poor economy. Everyone turns to alternative source that can generate incomes for their own livelihood,” says Bill.
He says communities involved in the deforestation activities had a dangerous belief that if they don’t cut down trees, they will not survive.
But he warns that cutting down trees for charcoal had far much worse consequences as it would result in famine, not only in the affected communities but even as far as in Capital Juba and other areas.
He is advising communities to adopt best agricultural practices such as smart Agriculture to help mitigate against environmental degradation.
“I believe with a lot of awareness creation through conservation education, communities will get to learn so that the natural resource they are living on needs to be taken care of. So, my appeal to line Ministries; from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to Ministry of Wild-Life, Conservation and Tourism, is that they need to take up momentum and create awareness at all levels. Even with the International NGOs that are dealing in Food Security they need to introduce more smart agricultural practices for communities at the grassroots to take up”
Campaign to plant more trees
To boost up the conservation campaign, South Sudan Nature Conservation Organization has planted two hundred tree seedlings in nurseries.
“We are doing our best but the main challenge is the issue of funding. Funding plays a very major role in sensitizing the communities to understand how to sustain these projects. With proper funding, we will monitor our progress as civil societies that are starting up.
He adds: “We find it very difficult to monitor these activities because of inadequate funding. But it is positive these communities want to really get involved in this. Largely, what these people lack is conservation education and the effects of deforestation on Climate Change.”