Namibian Charcoal Workers Pay a High Price for Cheap BBQ’s


How Namibian charcoal workers pay a high price for the cheap British barbecue.

Tom Bawden, Environment Editor, The Independent.

Sunday 09 August 2015

Britain moves into peak barbecue season this weekend, and the smell of slightly charred burgers, ribs, halloumi and salmon will fill the nation’s gardens, parks and balconies. But many households will be oblivious to the fact that much of the charcoal being used to fire up the grill is produced in Namibia under miserable conditions, a leading forest charity has warned.

The popularity of barbecues has soared in recent years, fuelled by a growing appetite for smoky favourites such as pulled pork and ribs. The UK is now the barbecue capital of Europe, the setting for about 120 million outdoor cooking sessions a year.

But Fern, an NGO that represents forests and the people who live and work in them, wants Britons to think carefully about the charcoal that fuels almost half of barbecues. It has conducted an investigation into the UK’s primary source of barbecue fuel – the Namibian charcoal industry – and discovered that pay, working conditions and environmental considerations are sadly lacking across large swaths of the southern African country.

On a visit to one of the country’s charcoal heartlands, Fern found a landscape populated by thickets of the thorny, twisted “invader” bushes used to make charcoal. The Outjo region, about 250km north of the capital Windhoek, is dotted with rusty steel drums used to make charcoal by burning the bush. Lining the edges of the roads are makeshift dwellings of black plastic sheeting and bits of wood, homes for the charcoal burners.

The Fern investigation found evidence of trees being illegally harvested on a vast scale, with workers typically paid a pittance and living without access to toilets or running water. Many workers are given little or no protective clothing, according to the report, Playing with Fire: Human misery, environmental destruction and summer BBQs. The work is punishing: trees are chopped down, sawn into small pieces and left in the makeshift kilns for a few days. “Although it is tough, we have no other choice. There is no other alternative,” one worker told the researcher who compiled the Fern report.

Britain imports more than 80 per cent of the 60,000 tonnes of charcoal it burns each year, and Namibia is by far the biggest source. Supermarkets and major retail chains only sell charcoal certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a process that requires social and environmental inspections. But much of the UK’s barbecue fuel is sold through smaller, independent outlets, many of which stock little or no FSC-certified product, experts say.

The wholesale price of charcoal produced in the UK is about £1,400 a tonne, compared with just £76 a tonne in Namibia, making it much cheaper for retailers to buy, even after the cost of transport. The UK imports more of Namibia’s charcoal than any other country, with some estimates suggesting it accounts for half of the total burnt, according to Fern campaign co-ordinator Saskia Ozinga.

“Yet consumers are oblivious to the conditions it’s produced under, with the widespread illegal harvesting of trees, and many workers living in the sort of atrocious conditions we’re more used to seeing on our TV screens beamed in from a makeshift refugee camp in a disaster zone,” she said.

“Whatever guarantees of sustainability FSC does give, it’s undermined by the large amount of non-FSC charcoal entering the EU, including the UK,” Ms Ozinga said.

She pointed out that only 8 per cent of charcoal producers in Namibia were FSC-certified, meaning there was nowhere near enough of it to meet demand.

“Major supermarkets require that their charcoal is FSC-certified. Many other retailers and restaurants do not. They should be made aware of the human and environmental cost of what they are selling,” she added.

Jim Bettle at one of the UK producers, the Dorset Charcoal Company, is also concerned about the prevalence of non-certified product in the UK market. “It is only relatively recently that certain retailers have been stocking FSC charcoal but it is far from the norm,” he said. “Any inspection of imported charcoal bags on garage forecourts is unlikely to find the FSC logo.”

The Namibian Forestry Department could not be reached for comment. However, the Namibian government is known to be concerned about conditions in the charcoal industry. Last year the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Alpheus Muheua, told the Namibian Sun that charcoal workers continued to toil under horrible conditions, being paid starvation wages and not being recognised as employees. He said he was working on an agreement to address the issues as part of a process that began in 2003, when his ministry began to investigate the issue.

Campaigners say overhauling the Namibian charcoal industry is a huge task. However, Fern says one simple change could make a huge difference. At the moment, EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) requires that all timber and most timber products sold in Europe must be legally and sustainably sourced. But charcoal is not included. Tweaking the law to make it a criminal offence to import illegally sourced charcoal from Namibia would be a great start, Fern said.

How to hold an ethical BBQ.

When it comes to barbecue charcoal there is one step – and one step only – that consumers can take to be ethical: buy fuel that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an NGO charged with ensuring woodlands are managed sustainably and which assesses working conditions and environmental concerns.

Inevitably, there have been complaints that the FSC’s oversight isn’t as rigorous as it could be, but even critics overwhelmingly agree that it is far better to buy charcoal which has the FSC logo on its packaging than the, typically cheaper, product without it.

Supermarkets and the major retailers sell only FSC products – but the smaller retailers are much less rigorous, so consumers should scour the packaging to see if the FSC logo is there. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t buy it and you should tell the shopkeeper why you’re going elsewhere.


Postscript.  Best of all, buy locally produced UK charcoal from sustainably managed woods and efficiently processed with a far shorter transport element – and, you’ll be contributing to your local landscape!

Cats vs dogs: Scientists Confirm Felines are Better… From an Evolutionary Perspective

Cats vs dogs: Scientists confirm that felines are better… from an evolutionary perspective

Tom Bawden, The Independent Environment Editor

Friday 14 August 2015.

It’s the debate that has long divided animal lovers. Now scientists have confirmed that cats really are better than dogs – at least from an evolutionary perspective. A ground-breaking study of 2,000 ancient fossils reveals that felids – the cat family – have historically been much better at surviving than the “canid” dog clan, and often at the latter’s expense.

The research finds that cats have played a significant role in making 40 dog species extinct, outcompeting them for scarce food supplies because they are generally more effective hunters. But researchers found no evidence that dogs have wiped out a single cat species.

The dog family – which includes the wolves from which today’s domesticated dogs are descended – originated in North America about 40 million years ago and reached a maximum diversity around 20 million years later, when there were more than 30 species on the continent. At that point, the cat family arrived from Asia.

“The arrival of cats to North America had a deadly impact on the diversity of the dog family. We usually expect changes in climate to play the overwhelming role in the evolution of species. Instead, competition among different carnivore species proved to be even more important for the dogs,” said the report’s lead author, Dr Daniele Silvestro, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

The influx of cats prompted a period of dramatic decline among the dog clan. This has left North America with just nine species of wild dog today, comprising different variations of wolves and foxes, according to the fossil analysis published in the journal PNAS.

Dr Silvestro says it is unclear exactly why, when times were tough, the cats were able to see off dogs so comprehensively. But he believed it could be something to do with the retractable claws that ancient cats have passed down to their domesticated descendants, but which dogs don’t have.

Millions of years ago, some dog species, such as wolves, were effective killing machines, chasing down their prey at high speed and devouring it. All surviving dog species fall into this “runner” camp.

But other dog species ambushed their prey in a manner similar to the cat family. However, these dogs weren’t as good as the cats at this technique – and all the canid species who used it are now extinct.

Dr Silvestro explained: “The cats have retractable claws which they only pull out when they catch their prey. This means they don’t wear them out and they can keep them sharp. But the dogs can’t do this, so they are at a disadvantage to the cats in an ambush situation.”

The evolutionary success of carnivorous animals is strongly linked to their ability to obtain food, meaning that there can be significant competition for prey when there is insufficient supply for the population.

“Felids must have been more efficient predators than most of the extinct species in the dog family,” the report concluded.