September 16, 2015 By Ann Marie Dumbuya
Charcoal production is one major commercial activity undertaken by people in many rural communities in Sierra Leone, including Gbomsamba, a village about 120km from Freetown which was adopted by the National Revenue Authority (NRA) under the theme, ‘Taking prosperity to the people’, as part of its corporate social responsibility.
Agricultural and environmental protection authorities however have always viewed this practice as hazardous and costly to society, citing issues relating to the health of charcoal producers due to air pollution and environmental challenges associated with greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. In a bid to discourage the use of traditional sources of energy—firewood and charcoal—the government made a tax concession on the importation of kerosene or gas stoves or cookers in the Finance Act, 2011. According to Article 24(a) of the Act, any business or company assembling stoves or cookers, whether fuelled by kerosene or liquefied petroleum gas, shall be entitled to import-duty free for any period of three years chosen by that business. This includes all relevant equipment for the production and delivery to market of the stoves or cookers, including gas cylinders, briquette machines and cookers.
Nevertheless, over 80% of the population still depends on firewood and charcoal for cooking and this is unlikely to change despite several education programmes on the environmental effects of tree-cutting. It is clear that charcoal production is not only a useful source of revenue for rural communities facing many economic challenges, but also a cheap and easily available source of energy for many Sierra Leoneans. Rising population growth and urbanization will only make a bad situation worse. It is no wonder that the Ministry of Agriculture is moving away from merely condemning the cutting of trees for the production of charcoal, to developing strategies that would help address not only the environmental but also socio-economic concerns of tree-cutting and charcoal production.
Last weekend, the Commissioner-General of the NRA, Madam Haja Kallah-Kamara, while donating assorted food items to the people of Gbomsamba in the Port Loko District in the North, proclaimed her intention of joining forces with the Ministry of Agriculture to promote sustainable charcoal production in the area. The ministry is currently identifying communities to benefit from a project on sustainable charcoal production and since it is obvious that this project offers great opportunities to significantly contribute to poverty reduction and environmental protection at Gbomsamba, the Commissioner-General has appointed a team of staff headed by the Director of Monitoring, Research and Planning to liaise with the ministry to ensure the successful implementation of the project in the village. This includes ensuring that farmers have access to information on tree growing and management for sustainable charcoal production.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner-General admonished community members to stop cutting tress while awaiting the commencement of the project. Advocating for reforestation, she noted that increased charcoal production in recent years is rapidly destroying and depleting tree resources in the community, which she said calls for collective and speedy tree growing measures. She advised the community to form a committee of youth to start replanting tress that have been cut down to further protect their environment.
Community elders, including the chief, promised to quickly form and implement by-laws that would immediately discourage tree cutting for charcoal production.
While NRA’s key areas of intervention at Gbomsamba includes agriculture, education and women empowerment, the Commissioner-General maintained that ‘advocacy’ is a crucial part of the Authority’s support to the people in the area. “We want to open closed doors and give the people of Gbomsamba access to opportunities they would otherwise be denied. The NRA cannot on its own fund all community development projects in Gbomsamba, but we can partner with relevant MDAs and other organizations. Through these partnerships, we empower people to get involved in their community and ensure that people in the community have access to useful and reliable information that will led to positive community development,” he stated.
The need and importance of advocacy was further buttressed by the local chief, Pa Alimamy Turay. He disclosed that since the invitation of agricultural officials in the village by the Commissioner-General, access to information and services from the ministry including the provision of seed rice and ‘food for work’ for villagers is becoming easier due to reliable information and useful contacts with ministry officials.
He commended efforts being made by the NRA boss to mobilize resources to improve community conditions and advocate for positive change.
It is hoped such useful networks with agricultural officials will result to capacity development and empowerment through knowledge sharing of viable community-based forest management strategies, and alternative farming strategies to reduce dependency on charcoal production as a main livelihood activity. It is the dream of the Commissioner-General that community stakeholders at Gbomsamba village will soon be strengthened to mobilize resources and advocate for themselves by engaging state and non-state actors on issues that affect their lives as NRA intends to adopt another village in due course.