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Congo's "conflict charcoal"

DR Congo, June 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Kamwi Alphonse, 65, lives in the Bulengo displacement camp and makes charcoal primarily for his family, but occasionally sells it as well. He sells a plastic bag for 600 Francs — about a dollar. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Most people have heard of conflict or "blood" diamonds, but fewer may be aware of conflict charcoal. The charcoal trade in Congo's North Kivu Province is primarily controlled by a long-standing rebel group. Much of the charcoal in Goma is produced from trees in Virunga National Park.

While in Goma recently, Balemba, an employee of the park service (ICCN), came to speak to Mercy Corps about activities in the park. The ICCN patrols the park regularly, both to protect the gorilla population, but also to discourage charcoal production in the park. Balemba works with communities that live on the borders of Virunga National Park and strives to find ways to increase revenue for the local population in an environmentally friendly way.

Currently it is common practice for communities to engage in the charcoal trade as a way to make money. As an alternative, the ICCN is distributing biomass briquette presses to local associations. The associations receive training on how to make the briquettes and are responsible for collecting the biomass (which includes dried grass, sawdust or paper) needed to make them.

One press can produce approximately 500 briquettes per day. The briquettes can be used to cook with and are a cleaner energy source than charcoal. Mercy Corps is currently distributing briquettes to 700 beneficiaries for use in fuel efficient stoves.

Balemba warned that while the briquettes are largely a positive development, there are negative consequences to offsetting the charcoal trade. Briquette presses may be destroyed by the rebels that control the charcoal trade, or community members may be forced to produce or transport charcoal for them.

As with most things in Congo, it's a complex situation.