The socio-ecology of land use intensification.

Renewable charcoal energy for Maputo

Overview and Rationale of REFORMA

REFORMA aims to improve the sustainability of the woodfuel sector in southern Mozambique. We will do this by i) conducting research to better understand how rural communities can maximise the benefits and mitigate the negative impacts of the charcoal sector; and ii) working with the relevant government institutions to develop a regional sustainable harvesting plan.

REFORMA contributes to addressing one of the major development challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa (SSA): how can secure, low cost and low carbon energy be provided equitably to rapidly growing cities? Although heavy dependence on woodfuels is often seen as a barrier to addressing this challenge, a recent body of scholarship has shown that it is possible, and in fact essential, to reform the traded woodfuels sector to achieve sustainability1–4. Until recently, policy has focused on substituting woodfuels with more “modern” energy sources, but this has not been successful, and woodfuels still provide 80-90% of energy used in most sub-Saharan countries5,6. In fact, in absolute terms, woodfuel use is increasing rapidly, doubling every 20-30 years due to population growth and urbanisation, which shifts usage from fuel wood to the less mass-efficient charcoal5,7.

Policy makers have failed to engage constructively with the sector and the traded woodfuel sector is the “Cinderella” of energy policy, ignored in most energy and poverty reduction plans4; its importance for livelihoods obscured by discourses of informality, a lack of proactive governance, and overshadowed by the spectre of environmental degradation8,9. The last half century of energy policy in SSA has aimed to substitute wood fuels with “modern” fuels higher up the energy ladder, but this has not happened. For example, in Tanzania, despite six decades of policy calling for the substitution of woodfuels, 87% of energy still comes from woodfuels10. Meanwhile the fallacies of the woodfuel crisis narrative11have left a vacuum in our basic understanding of the state, trends and sustainability of the main component of the energy system3.

The status quo creates problems for livelihoods and the environment, and presents key governance challenges, with missed opportunities for generating revenue, creating secure employment and developing skills and technologies3,4. The informal and often illegal nature of the industry means exploitation and harassment of producers and traders is common12,13, and a lack of investment leads to dangerous working conditions. Production is almost entirely unmanaged and is over-concentrated in hot spots of degradation around major urban markets, attracting the ire of environmentalists and forest departments14–16– despite the overwhelming evidence that deforestation is driven mainly by agricultural expansion17,18. Finally, the illegality of the sector drives rent-seeking and obstructive bureaucracy, which alienates producers, transporters and traders from the state and leads to exploitation and marginalisation12,19,20.

Objectives of the proposed activities

O1: To learn how villages can proactively make the most of the opportunities offered by the woodfuel sector, and mitigate its environmental and social impacts. To do this, Activity 1 will help three villages prepare for the arrival of the charcoal boom, by facilitating i) experiential learning with villages currently experiencing the “boom” or a recent “bust”, and ii) participatory land use planning and the development of social capital at village and district level. The learning from this activity will be analysed to allow wider impact and upscaling.

O2: To develop a regional plan for the woodfuel sector to ensure sustainable harvest and reduce deforestation and degradation and associated carbon emissions. Activity 2 will do this by building capacity at provincial and district level to use the tools ACES developed, to i) map the woody biomass resource, ii) estimate its sustainable harvest, and iii) develop a regional plan for permit allocation. Together with partners in national government, we will develop a long term plan to learn from this and expand the approach to other areas in Mozambique with an active woodfuel sector.


This work was carried out with financial support from the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein are those of the creators and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, IDRC or its Board of Governors.

References cited

  1. Openshaw, K. Can biomass power development? IIED Gatekeeper Series no. 144. (2010).
  2. Ghilardi, A., Mwampamba, T. & Dutt, G. What role will charcoal play in the coming decades? Insights from up-to-date findings and reviews. Energy Sustain. Dev.17, 73–74 (2013).
  3. Mwampamba, T. H., Ghilardi, A., Sander, K. & Chaix, K. J. Dispelling common misconceptions to improve attitudes and policy outlook on charcoal in developing countries. Energy Sustain. Dev.17, 75–85 (2013).
  4. Owen, M., van der Plas, R. J. & Sepp, S. Can there be energy policy in Sub-Saharan Africa without biomass? Energy Sustain. Dev.17, 146–152 (2013).
  5. IEA. IEA Energy Statistics. (2019). Available at: (Accessed: 1st January 2019)
  6. Ryan, C. M. et al.Ecosystem services from southern African woodlands and their future under global change. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci.371, 20150312 (2016).
  7. Owen, M., Ryan, C. M., Baumert, S., Luz, A. & Jones, D. Scoping study for a potential new DFID programme: ‘Miombo Forests, Livelihoods and Climate Resilient Landscapes’. (2015).
  8. Zulu, L. C. The forbidden fuel: Charcoal, urban woodfuel demand and supply dynamics, community forest management and woodfuel policy in Malawi. Energy Policy38, 3717–3730 (2010).
  9. Arnold, J. E. M., Köhlin, G. & Persson, R. Woodfuels, livelihoods, and policy interventions: Changing Perspectives. World Dev.34, 596–611 (2006).
  10. Owen, M., Openshaw, K., van der Plas, R. J., Matly, M. & Hankins, M. Malawi Biomass Energy Strategy. (2009).
  11. Leach, G. & Mearns, R. Beyond the woodfuel crisis: people, land and trees in Africa. (Earthscan, 1988). doi:10.4324/9781315066370
  12. Smith, H. E., Eigenbrod, F., Kafumbata, D., Hudson, M. D. & Schreckenberg, K. Criminals by necessity: the risky life of charcoal transporters in Malawi. For. Trees Livelihoods24, 259–274 (2015).
  13. Schure, J., Levang, P. & Wiersum, K. F. Producing Woodfuel for Urban Centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo: A Path Out of Poverty for Rural Households? World Dev.64, S80–S90 (2014).
  14. Mwampamba, T. H. Has the woodfuel crisis returned? Urban charcoal consumption in Tanzania and its implications to present and future forest availability. Energy Policy35, 4221–4234 (2007).
  15. Sedano, F. et al.The impact of charcoal production on forest degradation: A case study in Tete, Mozambique. Environ. Res. Lett.11, (2016).
  16. Ahrends, A. et al.Predictable waves of sequential forest degradation and biodiversity loss spreading from an African city. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.107, 14556–61 (2010).
  17. McNicol, I. M., Ryan, C. M. & Mitchard, E. T. A. A. Carbon losses from deforestation and widespread degradation offset by extensive growth in African woodlands. Nat. Commun.9, 3045 (2018).
  18. Geist, H. J. & Lambin, E. F. What Drives Tropical Deforestation? Glob. Environ. Chang.1, 136 (2001).
  19. Jones, D., Ryan, C. M. & Fisher, J. Charcoal as a diversification strategy: The flexible role of charcoal production in the livelihoods of smallholders in central Mozambique. Energy Sustain. Dev.32, 14–21 (2016).
  20. Butz, R. J. Changing land management: A case study of charcoal production among a group of pastoral women in northern Tanzania. Energy Sustain. Dev.17, 138–145 (2013).

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