Track loaded with charcoal in one of the streets in Juba. [Photo by Paul Jimbo]

By Paul Jimbo

The series of conflicts in South Sudan have not only had a devastating impact on the once virgin environment but also continues to threaten the survival of both wildlife and mankind.

Wanton destruction of forests for the evidently booming charcoal business continues to rob South Sudan of frantic efforts if any to be enlisted among nations keen on tackling climate change.

In some areas where civilians have contended with the elusive peace to clear forests hence paving way for small-scale subsistence farming, including finger millet and cassava production.

For several years, thousands of South Sudanese, majority of whom are women and children fled the war into refugee camps across neighbouring nations such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. However it is the 2015 conflict that left a huge trail of destructions, it claimed both lives and property.

Today, the conflict in South Sudan has snowballed into tribal clashes emanating from cattle raids and fights over resources such as pasture and water for human survival.

That war is bad is quite evident in the current unfavourable economic tidings in the once optimistic youngest country in the world.

For more than two decades, most towns across South Sudan remain inaccessible due to continued highway attacks and ambushes that have equally hampered humanitarian aid supplies to the effected civilian populations.

Phillip Acuil, a resident of Bor town says, “There are no longer convoys of relief food into some places despite the urgent need for aid supplies, the soldiers who used to attack these convoys have no option but to turn into charcoal business for economic survival.”

He says that in some cases, unscrupulous middle-men have taken advantage of the puzzle to hire militants to burn charcoal and sell them.

“This is a booming business, it remains the only lifeline for the hungry militia men, the problem is that nobody realises that future generations will imminently regret the brunt of the on-going massive destruction of our forests, it will be bad,” Acuil says.

So threatening is the situation that swath of lands across dozens of states including the volatile Jonglei and Lakes states have borne the brunt of charcoal business.

To corroborate the whole theory, Juba the capital city of South Sudan has become the destination of hundreds of tracks that ferry the charcoal.

“Most hotels and households rely on charcoal for fuel and so Juba is the biggest market for charcoal trade. What I can say is that it is really booming, charcoal business is currently one avenue for minting quick cash”, Antony Okanya, a Ugandan trader who operates a food kiosk in Juba’s TongPiny area confirmed.

Okanya says cooking gas remains the alternative source of fuel in the city but admits that it is expensive. A 13 kilogram cylinder gas refills at 7,000SSP an equivalent to $35. Comparatively, a 90kg sack of charcoal trades at 6,000SSP an equivalent of $30.

Okanya says most traders opt for charcoal because of its economic nature and suitability for commercial use.

“Juba has no stable electricity supply and so majority households including NGO guest houses depend on charcoal on virtually everything including ironing, cooking, barbeques and even day to day fuel needs”, he adds.

As this interview went on, two tracks fully loaded with charcoal waded their ways into a nearby hotel compound and within half-an-hour, they were empty.

A drive along the Juba-Nimule highway confirms that indeed charcoal traders are in for a huge kill. Several tracks full of charcoal find their way into Juba. Interestingly some foreigners too have joined the trade.

“With charcoal you can never go wrong, I can assure you it is a sure bet, I purchase a sack of charcoal at $20 dollars and sell it at $35, and I can sell up to 50 sacks on a single day”, Martin Kimani a charcoal trader from Kenya said.

He said most of his potential clients are Non-Governmental Organizations and hotels, some of which pay him on a monthly basis.

Along the Nimule-Juba road, any traveller would not fail to see and smell the smoke of charcoal burning. Several tracks have been cleared.

However not everyone understands the devastating effects of this money minting trade. South Sudan receives heavy rains between the months of February and August and during this season; most rivers burst their banks because of siltation.

Massive soil erosion has taken a toll on the bare and naked land upstream during heavy rains.

Michael Wani is a former soldier who currently works with a local NGO and says, “You know there are serious economic hardships in my country and the government has been hard pressed in tackling the cash crunch”.

He saysin some cases government soldiers have gone without salaries and the militias across the board havenowhere to raid and loot because most homesteads were deserted during the war.

“Some militias took advantage of the crisis to raid homesteads and do all manner of destructions and crimes including rapes and killings. Some raided food stores and when civilians ran away, the militias were left with no sources of livelihoods but to turn to charcoal business,” Wani asserts.

A fortnight ago, a convoy of vehicles ferrying humanitarian aid workers was attacked along the Juba-Yei road.

“The convoy came under a heavy attack, they waylaid them on the dilapidated route, in fact it was a convoy of four vehicles so they let the first three to pass before they struck on the last vehicle, all their property was looted and people were injured”, said a source at the South Sudan police who sought anonymity for fear of jeopardising on-going investigations.

He defended government soldiers from the attacks blaming it squarely on rebel remnants operating along major highways that connect Juba with other cities.

The source further said that in some cases, most forests have been cleared for charcoal burning leaving the rebels with no more charcoal to sell instead resorting to highway ambushes.

“They do not even have anywhere to hide, they thickets have remained grasslands so they now prey on humanitarian aid workers travelling the routes,” he said.




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