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.