According to a report in the media earlier this week, the Tanzanian government believes that making charcoal more expensive would significantly reduce demand for it and reduce the rampant cutting of trees in the country.
The piece quoted the Energy and Minerals ministry permanent secretary as having said the government was determined to table a bill to that effect in the upcoming (February) National Assembly meeting, with the funds collected going into financing reforestation activities.
In that plan, anyone selling charcoal whether for use in Tanzania or for export would pay tax to the tune of 30,000/- on each 90-kilogramme bag of the fuel which is the common source of energy in the country alongside firewood.
If the charcoal taxation bill is indeed tabled in parliament and passed into law, the tax would be payable at checkpoints that will be set up in each district.
The government looks determined because environmentalists warn that more than 370,000 hectares (915,000 acres) of forests are being cut in Tanzania every year, mostly for fuel.
Statistics show that 2.3 million tonnes of charcoal are consumed in Tanzania each year, roughly half of it in Dar es Salaam. And demand is expected to double by 2030.
According to the government, the business cannot be left to blossom because despite being destructive to the environment, it is lucrative and therefore tempting.
The entire Tanzania’s charcoal industry generates an estimated $650 million a year, employing hundreds of thousands of people as producers and transporters, as well as manufacturers and retailers of charcoal stoves.
Despite the country having many energy sources such as electricity, natural gas and solar power, charcoal, firewood and other biomass sources still account for 85 per cent of total cooking energy consumption, according to the government’s statistics.
So, what is the way out? Impose a hefty levy on it, its price will go up remarkably and fewer people will be attracted to cut down trees to sell charcoal. Once its price goes off the roof, the business will die a natural death.
Although the government’s argument makes sense and the proposed solution sounds brilliant, there are however, some questions that we have to ask ourselves and find answers for.
First, are the alternative sources of energy such as electricity, gas and solar available and affordable to majority of citizens?
Secondly, is there any guarantee (basing on best practices) that taxation and government-funded reforestation programmes will bear the desired fruit?
Thirdly, in the absence of such law (whose enactment may hit a snag in parliament), what are we doing to sensitise wananchi on the need to plant trees to compensate the lost forests?
Fourth, in the event that some people (and even companies) find the charcoal money too good to let go, and plant trees in their farms for that business, will the tax still apply?