I have been in the Southern African region almost three weeks now and just returned to Lusaka from a very interesting trip across Eastern Zambia, Malawi and the Tete province in Mozambique. I traveled with my local research partner from the University of Zambia, Mr. Edwin Luwaya. Edwin is currently pursuing a PhD in engineering on charcoal burning, but is also interested in the broader socio-political dynamics around charcoal and therefore joined me on the trip. The purpose, especially in Zambia and Malawi, was to follow several charcoal chains away from or into major cities and do interviews with local charcoal consumers, transporters and producers, as well as with policy and NGO officers dealing with these issues. Charcoal is a huge issue in this part of the world (like in many other parts), as the far majority of people depend on it for cooking and other energy needs. It also has strong social and environmental implications, particularly in relation to tree-cutting and burning for production, with associated effects on soil, water and thus agricultural dynamics. While many studies and interventions have tried to understand and mediate these impacts and dynamics, they seem to have had remarkably little effect, and the same debates continue as they have done for a long time (though the environmental aspects has definitely become more important over the last years). My purpose is not to do an exhaustive study of charcoal chains, but rather to understand how this mode of energy is connected to broader regional energy dynamics, or what I call the ‘political economy of energy’ in Southern Africa. This is what the interviews focused on, and I think I’ve been able to get some interesting data. One of the fascinating things is how charcoal is transported, particularly by biker guys who sometimes carry up to 7 or 8 heavy bags of charcoal for miles and miles across sometimes steep hills. But you also see trucks, like the one in the picture that had broken down four days earlier and so the driver was waiting for spare parts to arrive.
From Southern Malawi, we moved into Mozambique’s Tete province, in order to get to Tete-city. Here, completely different energy dynamics dominate the discussions, although charcoal is ever-present on the roadside and town markets. Tete is a booming frontier town in regional energy dynamics, as many investors have come in from all over the world to exploit the abundant coal supplies in the province. We were very fortunate to have some people helping us in getting interviews with some of the key players. Fortunate also was that our hotel hosted a meeting to discuss the Environmental Impact Assessment of a large new dam project called Mphanda Nkuwa. This dam is supposed to boost energy generation capacity in Mozambique and is quite controversial due to its environmental and social implications, so it was very interesting to sit in the meeting and talk to some of the key players. After the meeting, we met up with one of the participants who had planned to visit a (coal-induced) resettled community called Cateme, some 50 kms from Tete-city. We tagged along, and experienced a surreal place. Built approximately two years ago, Cateme was a strange mix of neat little houses in straight rows with electricity and street lights, and a strange ‘unsettled-ness’ and alien feel that you don’t normally experience in other rural villages. The inhabitants – some 500 families that first lived in Moatize, the centre of the mining boom – soon told us why this was so: most of them didn’t want to be here, and saw little future in the place. It was too far from the markets they used to depend on in Moatize, so they could only sell their ware locally, and many things weren’t what they seemed. While the houses looked solid, they were not built on any foundation, while many started showing cracks. Moreover, many people could not afford the expensive electricity, so were still stuck without (and hence cooking on wood – see picture). What topped it all was the sign at the entrance of the village that said ‘take care of the environment’. The irony is acute: an international mining company that displaces people in order to bring enormous quantities of CO2 producing coal to the international market telling those same displaced people to take care of the environment! That is a raw deal indeed, and ‘raw’ is how best Tete can be described in general. Edwin used to work in the mines in the Zambian Copperbelt, and several times mentioned that Tete reminded him strongly of the boom periods there.
The trip made a big impression on both of us, and I don’t know yet what to make of it all. One thing is clear: if you are on the ‘wrong’ side of the socio-economic spectrum, then energy dynamics in the region present you with a raw deal indeed.