Charcoal burning is hailed as a dependable source of income by those who do it, especially at Christmastime when there is increased demand.
But officials maintain and warn that not only is the practice illegal, but it poses serious threats to the environment, which is home to over 300 endemic species of trees, as at 2021.
Jamaica is now only 30 per cent (336,000 hectares) forested lands, with the rate of deforestation being about 350 hectares per year – another reason why officials shun charcoal burning. But a St Thomas-based vendor said he chops thousands of wood to burn from 50 to 100 bags of charcoal from coal kilns, and described it is an easy job.
"It take me all two weeks fi done everything. I get the wood from anywhere in woodland… anywhere mi can find some wood. But it depends on the size and the amount of wood. If it is a big kiln, I can get 50, 100 bag of coal from it when everything done. Me hear sehh we nuffi cut down tree and dem thing deh. It look like Government soon get serious pon it," he told the Sunday Observer.
While knowing of the illegal situation, the man said he continues because it's lucrative. From 100 bags of charcoal, he earns $100,000. During the Christmas season when there is a demand, 100 bags avail him up to $150,000.
"One bag a coal sell for all $1,000. Now that a Christmas, and I will carry it to town and sell, people will buy one bag for all $1,500. Right now I have one kiln out there a burn," he related.
The man said it is a profitable business, but indicated that it has its dangers.
"A nuh everybody follow it up. It give off a different smell, because of the dirt and everything. You cyaa do that an a work in the rain or nothing like that. A nuff man it kill dah way deh. When the rain a fall, you have to just leave it. The heat and the rain nuh work… it will knock yuh out," he said.
Another man echoed similar sentiments, and made it clear that for him, it is hard work.
"I have been doing this from I was a little boy. Getting all the wood is something that takes one whole day. I put a stone in the middle and then I pack wood around it. I gather and cut up the wood before, and just pack them up around the stone like a pyramid. From you can see eight to 10 pieces of wood on the ground, until you pile on until it is a big stack," he said.
He related that the process of chopping the wood is the most hectic.
"We chop up the wood with cutlass, but sometimes we all need a saw fi cut into the thicker ones. It is hard work and it take a lot of time, but it is a honest living."
But the Forestry Department, the lead agency responsible for the island's forest resources and which manages approximately 117,000 hectares of forests across the country, said it is an illegal activity that is more widespread in St Thomas and Clarendon.
"Charcoal kilns are not allowed inside forests. In fact, under the Forest Act, 1996, it is illegal to keep, kindle or carry fire in a forest reserve, forest management area or protected area. Under the Forest Regulations of 2001, a person shall not light or make use of an open fire or charcoal kiln in one kilometre in or within one kilometre of a forest estate, forest management area or protected area except in compliance with a burning permit issued under these regulations," Stephen Williams, forestry technician at the department, told the Sunday Observer last Thursday.
Tanika Stewart, senior director of forest enforcement, said the issue was more widespread in the past.
"But in recent times, no. From time to time, we do observe that one or two trees have been cut from forest estates, and we can only speculate the reason or reasons, but we have not been able to link it to the practice," she said.
However, when asked about reports of charcoal burning in recent times, Stewart said, "We can speak to burning within the forest estates that we manage as well as within one kilometre of these areas, and we have not had any issues with charcoal burning in the past two years."
Meanwhile, Williams warned that there will be several issues in the next decade or so if the practice continues.
"The burning of charcoal releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is one of the harmful greenhouse gases. The increase of greenhouse gases are the greatest contributors to global warming which results in climate change. Climate change refers to the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.
"With the increased practice of charcoal burning, it will cause an increase in the production of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reduction of the trees which aid in the removing of the carbon dioxide, we will see within a decade greater impacts of climate change which are sea level rise, heat waves, increased drought, food scarcity, loss of species, and health risks," he told the Sunday Observer.
In 2013, Dr Byron Wilson, former lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, said the production of charcoal for domestic consumption was already an environmental disaster, and exporting the island's few remaining hardwood forests for use as cooking fuel is a folly, but burning them up here at home is no less destructive
In a column, Wilson said the best charcoal comes from hardwood trees grown in so-called 'dry forests', which take a long time to reach maturity.
He further argued that the destruction of the island's "few remaining forests" is clearly a bad idea, and an export trade would be worse than a "green scrap metal trade", because unlike road grates and bridge parts, forests are largely out of the public's view. As such, swift and irreversible forest destruction would progress relatively unnoticed.
The Government of Jamaica, through the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), has reforested 1,296 hectares since 2006. It has focused on the Yallahs and Hope Bay Watershed Management Units with programmes such as the Yallahs-Hope Project, through which 565 hectares were cultivated with help from the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), Forest Conservation Fund (FCF) and the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT).
The Forestry Department's latest report on forest cover was issued in 2013, and the data showed that the top five parishes with forest cover are Trelawny, St Catherine, Portland, St Ann, and Clarendon.
Moreover, Williams said a lot can be done to encourage more environmentally friendly practices.
"The major impact charcoal burning has on the environment is that it is one of the main contributors towards deforestation. Charcoal burning also contributes severely to air pollution. Teach individuals about sustainable practices – use less aerosol products, plant two trees for everyone cut down. Educate individuals on the impacts of charcoal burning, promote environmental projects like the planting of trees and emphasise reduce, reuse and recycle," he said.
Stewart noted that tree cutting hasn't been rampant in the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve which the department manages, which falls within the larger Blue and John Crow Mountains.
"What we have had in recent times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is that people were clearing lands for agricultural purposes, but the areas did not have mature trees; they were mainly covered in shrubs. We have not had instances of illegal logging on a large scale, not since about 2010," Stewart told the Sunday Observer.
"The cuttings that happen in these areas, though still illegal, are done on a much smaller scale which does not have a significant impact on the ecosystem. We use this opportunity, however, to remind persons that removing trees from forests is illegal and persons who carry out this activity will be fined and\or imprisoned."