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Research into commercial charcoal markets in Peru has confirmed suspicions about the unreliability of official statistics, while identifying a conservation conundrum.
Charcoal production in Pucallpa, the capital city of the region of Ucayali, was found to be more than 80 times higher than official figures. Researchers also showed the system of charcoal production – which is based almost entirely on the use of such sawmill waste as scrap wood – does not pose a threat to natural forests.
The research paper, titled “Leakage effects in natural resource supply chains: a case study from the Peruvian commercial charcoal market", examined the charcoal supply chain servicing the Peruvian capital Lima – a chain that can be traced from charcoal makers who sell to wholesalers or vendors, who then sell to urban customers.
Research focused on Ucayali as a key source for supplying charcoal to Lima, which has no forests. It further zeroed in on four main sites of charcoal production within the city of Pucallpa, considered the heart of Ucayali’s timber industry.
The research in Peru was initially conceived as part of a global comparative study on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), according to Mary Menton, head of research at the Global Canopy Programme and co-author of the study.
“We wanted to look at the level of information available in Peru, and how it would address monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon emissions,” Menton said. “There were specific knowledge gaps about charcoal and firewood.”
The global comparative study takes stock of REDD+ experiences in 13 tropical forest countries to identify the challenges of designing and implementing effective policies aimed at reducing emissions and combating climate change.
The official data from the Peruvian case study showed the country’s charcoal industry remained unchanged over time, Menton said. “I thought it looked a bit fishy and warranted some field work.”
“It really opened my eyes as to the importance of going into the field to gather good data,” said Aoife Bennett-Curry, a graduate student at the University of Oxford and the study’s principal author.
“The discrepancy between what we found and what government reported is quite a red flag.”
The implications of production levels more than 80 times higher than official reports will likely be further explored in a CIFOR policy paper.
NO THREAT TO RAINFORESTS
Charcoal is a natural resource derived from forests, the study said. “Production processes vary between and within rural and urban regions of Ucayali, but they typically involve burning wood until it’s charred, but can still be easily re-lit and re-used,” Bennett-Curry said.
While earlier research has highlighted the threat of charcoal production to forests, this study found producers used mostly sawmill waste and remnant wood in formerly cleared agricultural land to make their charcoal rather than felling live trees. As a result, charcoal production was not found to be a direct threat to rainforests.
A CONSERVATION CONUNDRUM
The study revealed a marked preference among urban chicken brasseries for charcoal made from two species of slow-growing, hardwood trees. The first, known locally as algarrobo (carob) is a flowering tree from the Prosopis genus known, in part, for its fruit. The second, Dipteryx spp. but known locally as shihuahuaco, has been called a “keystone tree” for its role as a nesting site for birds and bats.
Researchers noted that brasserie restaurants preferred these species for benefits such as longer burn time and lower levels of ash. However, in what they call a “seemingly novel” discovery, they also reported that brasseries want charcoal made from these trees because it gives the meat an agreeable flavor.
This creates a conservation conundrum, researchers said. It means that common mitigation strategies – such as producing charcoal from fast-growing softwoods, using more efficient stoves or shifting to other fuels like kerosene or gas – are unlikely to work since they cannot produce the desired flavor in the charcoal.
Building on these initial results, Bennett-Curry has said she plans to do further research with CIFOR in Peru to explore the preference of urban chicken brasseries for algarrobo and shihuahuaco in more detail.
THE LEAKAGE EFFECT
In another unexpected finding, Bennett-Curry uncovered a leakage effect – the inadvertent displacement of a problem from one area into another.
In this case, the study said, overexploitation of algarrobo, and subsequent conservation measures to address the problem, have led to greater demand for shihuahuaco. This demand, the study said, has made bags of charcoal made solely from shihuahuaco difficult to find. Scarcity, in turn, has increased prices.
Over the past two years, the study found, the price per kilo of shihuahuaco charcoal has almost doubled, which implies higher profits, but also higher production costs.
Sawmills that once gave away shihuahuaco by-products or sold it cheaply now sell it at higher prices that generate between 10 and 30 percent of their revenues, the study said. As a result, only well-off carboneros (charcoal dealers) can afford to buy enough to fill their kilns.
In this context, “super carboneros” – larger enterprises that maintain multiple kilns and pay workers – are beginning to dominate the Pucallpa shihuahuaco market, the study said.
Even if small-scale carboneros can afford to buy their preferred wood, their larger competitors often have agreements with sawmills to obtain the best waste wood first, the study said.
Equity and responsibility within the charcoal supply chain were a side-theme in this paper, the researchers wrote, but further research might help inform how legislation could best support small-scale charcoal makers.
“I saw charcoal in a different light,” Bennett-Curry said. “It wasn’t a cause of deforestation, but instead a helpful source of income for a lot of very poor people.”
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This study, conducted for the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, was funded by the Global Comparative Study on REDD+ (GCS-REDD), the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation (Norad) and Australian Government Overseas Aid Program (AusAID).