Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Chad wins the 2009 Nobel Prize for the Environment

After years in the Brownie Guides, I still get a romantic thrill from cooking on a wood fire, and find the honest hard work of foraging for dry sticks invigorating. While Chadians certainly don’t suffer from the disappointment of only being able to find sodden black crumbs of moss-coated mould after another wash-out British summer, every day it’s becoming harder for wood-collectors to scrape together enough twigs to supply N’Djamena, a city of around a million people.

It didn’t used to be like this. A year ago there was a roaring trade in charcoal, and a mephitic haze of charcoal fumes hanging over the dusty streets. But late in 2008 charcoal was banned almost overnight. These days anyone daring to smuggle a sack in will likely see their vehicle impounded or incinerated, and a fine of one hundred and fifty dollars.

As an archetypal African country battling on the frontline of climate change, Chad produces an infinitesimal amount of CO2, yet bears the impact of the west’s profligacy. Temperatures are soaring, and farmers cling on in desolate Sahelian marginal lands, searching the skies for signs of rain. As the Sahara creeps southwards, President Deby has become the new trees’ champion (‘to cut a living tree is to commit a crime’) by banning charcoal production and sale outright.

The effects have been dramatic. Almost everyone is now using wood, which apparently is practically carbon neutral, and a programme of tree-planting has begun.

A wonderful example of leadership - inspired behavioural change - you may conclude. And in fact if we are serious about tackling climate change, perhaps more governments should be willing to legislate, and applaud Deby for forcing people to abandon environmentally-damaging habits?

But the catch has been the shortage of trees. Already collectors say they have to travel several hundred kilometres out of the city to find wood that has fallen from a tree and become parched in the infernal sun. Prices are becoming crippling for most ordinary Chadians who are footing the bill for problems not entirely of their own making.


  1. It is a little confusing...if the only alternative to charcoal is wood, how is this anything but a short-term solution? It's not so much ironic as predictable.

    BTW, I didn't know the English had Brownies, I thought they were American! I was a proud Brownie and Girl Scout.

  2. It is a short term solution, and reflects I believe complete lack of planning by the government.. With every passing day the wood is getting harder and harder to find.

    the government says they hope people will start using gas and that they are subsidising gas cookers, but at £70 a shot, they remain out of reach of most people. Without massive government action it's hard to see how gas can become a viable alternative.

    I don't know what will happen. I guess over time wood will just get more and more expensive and people will start cutting trees in desperation. But it's unlikely there will be any mass protests - most of the protests when the charcoal was banned were put down quite brutally by the police and people here are very scared to voice their discontent