By Alex Stuckey
Edited by Hiram Foster
Every day for 10 years, Cecile Nyirabahutu trekked long distances through the Musanze District in Northwestern Rwanda—battling the heat, strenuous work and shame, she made her way into Volcanoes National Park in search of usable wood.
The wood Nyirabahutu collected each day beginning in 1997 was then sold for charcoal, which supplemented her family’s meager living — but three years ago she started a new business plan.
In 2007, members of the Art of Conservation, an organization that educates the adult population of the district, about forest conservation, discovered Nyirabahutu on her daily trek and wanted to help her, said Julie Ghrist, spokeswoman for the organization.
“This is the last habitat for the mountain gorillas (in the world),” Ghrist said. “It needs to be protected.”
Like Nyirabahutu, about 94 percent of the nearly 11.1 million Rwandans rely on wood as their main source for heat and fuel because they lack modern electricity. The overuse of wood for charcoal has left the country, roughly the size of Massachusetts, with only about 7 percent of its original forests left, according to the Ecosystem Restoration Associates website.
The deforestation within Rwanda has caused an increase in run-off and flooding, which spreads diseases such as Malaria. It also has environmental effects, including a loss of an estimated 1 million tons of soil per year because of erosion, as well as longer drought periods, which threatens food security, according to the ERA.
However, efforts by both the Rwandan government and organizations are underway to reverse the problem.
Many organizations in Rwanda are replacing charcoal with fuel briquettes, which are made by mashing biodegradable materials together, pressing it into a tightly packed mass and setting it out to dry for several days, said Ben Beck, spokesman for Great Ape Trust, an organization working to reduce deforestation in Rwanda.
With the use of a wooden press provided by the conservation, Nyirabahutu manufactures briquettes made of shredded paper or other available materials, Ghrist said.
Convincing members of the Musanze District to use briquettes over charcoal is a slow process because most residents turn to the park for all of their wood and charcoal needs, Nyirabahutu said.
Despite this, the sale of briquettes still earns Nyirabahutu money for her family, Ghrist said.
“It will be sustainable for Cecile’s cooking,” said Innocent Uwizeye, the organization’s alternative cooking fuel consultant. “It will be a good income generator for her children and husband.”
Currently, a sack of briquettes costs about 6,000 Rwandan Francs, or about $10, Ghrist said.
What began as a pilot project to help Nyirabahutu’s family has expanding to surrounding villages, where she visits to demonstrate the technique, Grist said.
Administrators from the Rushubi Primary School in Kinigi, about 9 kilometers Northwest of the district, also expressed an interest in briquettes for cooking teachers’ lunches, Ghrist said, adding that an industrial sized stove was donated from Mercy Corps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We hope (the school) purchases briquettes from Cecile,” she added.
The conservation is not the only organization promoting the use of fuel briquettes to reduce charcoal production.
Another organization promoting fuel briquettes in Rwanda is the Cincinnati Chapter of Engineers without Borders. The chapter teaches villagers in Muhororo, about 80 kilometers west of the capital city of Kigali, how to recycle excess agricultural waste into briquettes, said Lee Hite, spokesman for the chapter.
The area has an abundance of bananas so briquettes are constructed out of decayed banana leaves, Hite said.
Hite and several other engineers created a wooden biomass press villagers can use to make briquettes, he said, adding that the chapter implemented the presses in the village to help reduce deforestation.
“So much of the rainforest has gone away, to be harvested for fuel,” Hite said. “Something needs to be done.”
Hite’s press has been duplicated in South America, Korea, India and other areas of Africa, he said, adding that the blueprints are available online and accessible to anyone.
Materials used to build the press can cost between $15 and $75 if materials are purchased in the US, Hite said.
Members of Great Ape Trust also promote the use of fuel briquettes as an alternative fuel source, not only to save the forests but also to save the apes living there.
The organization is focused on the Gishwati Forest, about 150 kilometers west of Kigali, which is 99.4 percent deforested, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Observatory website.
“(The organization) is trying to reduce the demand on the forest and its wood products,” Beck said. “Education is our main strategy to help people better understand the connection between livelihoods and saving the forest.”
In an effort to curtail deforestation, Rwandan government officials made it illegal for citizens to cut down trees native to the country, Beck said, adding that pine and eucalyptus trees planted throughout the country were not native and could be cut down.
Officials also set a goal to increase electricity accessibility for its citizens. The target is to connect at least 35 percent of the population to electricity by 2020, as part of the Vision 2020 proposal, according to the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA).
Through increasing accessibility, the intention is to decrease wood usage to 50 percent from 94 percent by 2020, according REMA.
Health Problems Associated with Deforestation
Reducing charcoal usage will not only save the environment and the apes — it can help save people as well.
Burning charcoal creates high levels of indoor air pollution that can imbed soot particles in a person’s lungs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
As of 2004, nearly 2 million people per year died from this kind of pollution. Some illnesses related to inhaling these pollutants include pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, according to the organization.
“Charcoal is making indoor air pollution a big problem,” said Elaine Fletcher, spokeswoman for the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland.
The WHO currently is working with sub-Saharan Africa to reduce air pollutants and better address associated health problems.