*Sorry for the delay in updating the blog if you’ve been following it, but I was out of town visiting my sister in Malawi. Rosamond et al, thanks for the hospitality and I hope all is well in Lilongwe.*
I last wrote about my friend Clément a few months ago, so I wanted to give an update on one of the projects we’ve been working on and provide some links to some of the information Clément has posted on the Tunza Mazingira blog site.
Besides the many evident difficulties troubling eastern Congo, there are some threatening Congo as a whole. Environmental degradation, from the era of Leopold II onto the present, has remained a permanent feature in Congo, and one often going unaddressed due to the seemingly more urgent needs such as curtailing the violent conflict and addressing rampant food insecurity. The low priority of environmental protection in reference to other issues throughout Congo also persists due to the complete breakdown of the law in general due to continuing hostilities (i.e. Even if there were codes limiting deforestation and regulating seeing/tree replacement quotas for timber traders and enterprises, who has the time, money, and infrastructure to enforce them in light of the day-to-day reality in Congo?).
The importance of the protection of Congo’s natural resources cannot be overstated. Everything from the civilian food supply to job opportunities in resource extraction done in a sustainable manner depends on environmental protection. This is not to leave out the more temporally distant (and well-known) catastrophes which can occur due to a disjointed vision of conservation and environmental protection such as climate change and mass exodus of soil nutrients in agricultural areas after all of the trees and nitrogen fixers have been removed. Many human rights groups have also commented on the fact the environmental degradation in Congo has further intensified the war, as less and less arable land is available, resulting in potentially hostile armed groups vying for the same plots of land.
Because of the lack of state protection of the environment, it is often the case in eastern Congo that local and international NGOs ‘pick up the slack’ to at least make small changes on local levels, if not only to send a clear message that the needs of the environment need to be addressed on a large scale.
In Uvira, one of the main issues Clément has been working on is a reduction of makala (Swahili for ‘charcoal’) dependency experienced by every family for their daily cooking. Because of the lack of electricity here, people use a type of charcoal derived from the eucalyptus tree. The basic process for making makala is: 1) strip up to half a hectare of eucalyptus trees, 2) dig a series of large holes, 3) cover the eucalyptus with smaller branches from surrounding trees (as kindling) and mud, 4) light the holes on fire, and leave them to simmer for three or four days. Interestingly, the smell of these fires is pretty much the signature smell of eastern Congo, experienced in any car ride or walk in North or South Kivu. The odor is actually pouring into my house as I write this. Not offensive at all actually, but ever present.
This of course results in big problems maintaining the forests in eastern Congo, as everyone needs to cook and makala is pretty much the only way to do it. The scarcity of eucalyptus trees due to the constant cutting is making life expensive for Congolese-In 2005, the price for a burlap sack of about 100 kg was $5, which lasts the average family about a week; larger families of over 10 people (not uncommon) go through this sack in about 4 days. For the moment, the price for the 100 kg sack has escalated to $22. Those selling makala say the price increase is due in small part to natural inflation but that the majority of the increase is due to recent lack of eucalyptus in traditional areas, and the need to go to more remote areas by diesel trucks to prepare makala.
Here’s where Clément comes in. He’s been experimenting with an alternative type of cooking material that beats makala in almost every category. It’s easier to light, burns longer, is infinitely cheaper, burns at a higher temperature, and requires only small amounts of wood to use. Forgive me if this is beginning to sound like the TV advertisements for the Ab Roller or the knives that cut through tin cans…
Lucky to have met with a UN fieldworker in Beni (Ituri Province) interested in conservation, Tunza Mazingira got $150 initial financing for the construction of a wood press capable of making 500 125g briquettes for cooking per day, all from waste materials like banana peels, sugar cane peels, manioc peels, and pretty much any organic waste or would-be compost material available in eastern Congo. The average family will use 5-10 briquettes per meal, which could make a significant difference in family budgets, as well as in the rate of deforestation. Of course, this all depends on the idea of alternative cooking materials catching on, as well as the availability of enough briquette presses to supply an increasing demand of briquettes if people like the alternative to makala.
In order to properly burn the briquettes, families need to have a modified bombula (a metal cooker that traditionally uses makala) or the type of bombula typically used to prepare meals in Burundi. Many families already use the latter type of bombula, and the modification for the bombula typically used in Congo costs about $3.
To make the briquettes, you basically need a team of three people. One person begins in the morning collecting organic waste (50kg) and accomplishes this pretty quickly as there is really no where to put garbage here besides in holes near people’s houses. People aren’t too concerned with giving you their garbage free. This trash is then processed to a pulp by all three people, and mixed with an appropriate amount of water to make a product a bit stiffer than bread dough. The original tests were done with a small proportion of wood shavings from local furniture builders. This makes a nice briquette that lights quickly, but the wood can easily be substituted out in the event that the shavings are not available. For example, sugar cane stalks (people chew them but spit out the tough material that is leftover after all the water is sucked out) work equally well. Then, this mixture is put in the press and pressed into briquettes, which are left in the sun to dry for a day or two. The photos I hope I can upload will give you an image of this process, but it results in at least 500 briquettes by the mid-afternoon (plus drying time), which supplies free and sustainable cooking fuel for a family for maybe two weeks.
Clément told me that he has numerous ideas for where this current project could go given the proper input. First, he’d like to secure additional funding to build 5 more presses, which could be distributed to 5 different quartiers in Uvira. He has identified groups of demobilized female militia soldiers in each quartier, and hopes that this might be an work opportunity for them, depending on how the project developed. Thus, the briquette presses act as an environmental and social service, creating jobs for women (often times girls) considering rejoining the militias due to lack of an occupation and at the same time minimizing makala dependency and the environmental degradation which accompanies this. In addition, Clément is looking to scratch together a few hundred dollars to encourage families in the quartiers to modify their bombulas to use the alternative briquettes. He assumes that if he can encourage the modification of bombulas, (using small amounts of financing to pay for the modification, rather than waiting for families to get $3 to perform the modification) that the idea may catch on and make it possible citizens to prepare their meals less expensively as well make small contributions to conserving trees.
In my opinion, the briquette project Tunza Mazingira is working on is a prime example of the cleavage between social and environmental issues, given that the deforestation in eastern Congo has shown itself to dangerous for both the environment and people’s budgets. So, I am really encouraged by Clément’s idea and vision, and I anticipate seeieng how everything develops. If you are interested in reading more about Tunza Mazingira and the briquette project in progress, take a look at their blog, www.tunzamazingirardc.blogspot.com. If you are interested but not a French-speaker, definitely feel free to contact me at email@example.com and I will get Clément your message.
PS: We can’t take complete credit for the idea, as we found it on the internet. You can look at the plans and theory we followed at the Legacy Foundation website, www.legacyfound.org.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted May 13th, 2009