BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
PERSONS who rely on charcoal production for an income are opposed to the introduction of an export market for the product as they believe this will not only open up the trade to more players, but will also cause wanton destruction of trees.
Residents of Llandewey in St Thomas said they have been burning charcoal for years without any negative impact on the environment and attribute this to knowing which trees to cut and how to cut them.
"Mi wouldn't encourage the export ting because if dem open up dat, people woulda cut down every tree and nobody wouldn't be partial which tree dem cut," said Clevious Wilson, who has been burning coal for a living for decades.
They say the acacia and pimento trees are the two best woods to burn as coal and as such they usually go deep into the woody terrain in search of them, rather than cut down fruit and other trees.
"Some people will all cut ah mango tree fi burn coal but mi nuh believe inna dat and so ah only certain trees me use," resident Robert Anderson told the Jamaica Observer North East.
Last month, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), joined by the Forestry Department, moved to stymie a budding charcoal export trade, citing dire implications for the island's forests, the wildlife they help to sustain and water resources. This, in light of reports from the Customs Department that a 40-foot container loaded with charcoal was destined for Lebanon, last December.
The reports prompted NEPA to write to Commissioner of Customs Major Richard Reese requesting that the Customs Department "refuse export clearance and direct the persons involved in the export trade" to them.
But the St Thomas residents say in a parish where unemployment is high, they would have very limited means of caring for their families were it not for charcoal, which they sell to both householders as well as wholesale purchasers.
A bag of coal is sold to householders for $500 per bag and $450 to the latter group.
"People come from all 'bout come buy it from we and sell it back because coal a supp'n weh sell good," another resident explained.
Pointing to acreages of woodland, Anderson said he can never, ever burn down the entire area although he burns charcoal regularly.
"Mi own all that land and mi cyaan do nutten else wid it but fi burn coal," he said.
Anderson explained further that trees for charcoal burning are always available, particulalry when he has to clear a plot of land for farming.
The downside to the venture, which can be very profitable, is that the work is physically challenging, residents said.
"Sometimes if you see how far we haffi carry the wood from fi come burn the coal," said Wilson. He explained that not everyone can afford electric saws to cut the trees and those who do not own the equipment have to use machetes to hack away at tough trees.
Women are not left out of the coal production process and although they rarely cut trees and pack the coal kilns for burning, they often gather and bag the coal once it is burned. That's what Ramble resident Vivia Wilson does. She reported that her spouse burns a new kiln every two weeks which sustains the family. She explained that, depending on the size of the coal kiln, they can get as few as 40 bags or as many as 120 from each kiln.
According to Wilson, burning coal is a back-breaking task and her spouse, who was out looking for wood when the Observer North East visited, has to travel for long distances through the wooded terrain to locate the preferred trees.
"Sometimes him haffi go very far fi find the acacia and pimento tree and when it so far him haffi get a truck fi carry them home fi him," she told the Observer North East.
After lugging the trees from the hilly area to a site at his home, Wilson's spouse has to spend time packing it before covering it with dirt and lighting it. She noted that there is an art to burning coal and her spouse's versatility in this practice makes his product among the most sought-after in the community.
"As him burn fi him coal it sell off cause di people dem like how dem nuh bend up but dem just straight," she said.
Wilson said her job begins four or so days later when the kiln is burnt through and she is required to help pack them in bags. The packing, she said, sometimes provides employment for other women who help with the task.
But while most of the residents oppose an export market for charcoal, others believe it is something which would not only help the country to earn much-needed foreign exchange, but also provide an income for even more persons.
Those in support of export argue that there is no truth to the claims that it would have a negative impact on the environment. Onr of them is Noel Folkes, who thinks exporting should be contemplated as an increase in charcoal production would have no harm on the environment given the fast rate of how trees grow.
"Yu cut down a tree today and you frighten fi see how quickly it spring up back over the next two three years because dese trees no easy fi dead," he told the Jamaica Observer North East.
Water, Land and Climate Change Minister Robert Pickersgill said the public education initiative on climate change, which will soon be rolled out under his portfolio, will seek to address the issues surrounding the charcoal trade. A policy statement, he said, will shortly be made available.
"This thing about climate change brings into question the challenge of development and sustainability of the environment with charcoal being a predictable means of livelihood," Pickersgill said.