The illegal trade of charcoal is costing government trillions but in Tanzania this could soon be a thing of the past.

Not only is the sale of charcoal in Tanzania illegal, unregulated and untaxed (a recent World Bank report estimated that government is losing about R1.4 trillion a year in uncollected revenue) but it is also bringing the environment to its knees. Deforestation is rampant and the charcoal market is one of the main culprits. About 95 percent of urban households in this rapidly urbanizing country use it as their primary fuel and many informal traders use the sale of the wood as their primary income.

Tanzanian government has tried, and failed to curb the trade of illegal charcoal by instituting a ban in 2006. The effort backfired when prices spiked and bolstered the illegal trade rather than curbing it, and was abandoned after just two weeks. But government is now trying a new approach toward sustainable charcoal production by engaging with local communities that could usher in a new era for the R9 billion Tanzanian charcoal industry. Their plan is focused on village-owned forests, which account for nearly half of the country’s remaining woodlands and have been a huge source for black market charcoal. State officials are making agreements with village stakeholders that forests will now only be harvested in rotation over 24 years, at which point programme organizers hope the forest will be completely regenerated and ready for harvest again.

By leaving at least two feet of stump during the charcoal harvest, the trees survive the cut and regenerate, preserving the native forest ecology and preventing erosion. Peter Mtoro, with Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, a local NGO, says this simple change — not cutting all the way to the ground — allows the trees and their root systems to survive, and the forest to completely regenerate. “So we believe that after 24 years, these trees will be ready for charcoal production,” Mtoro says, starting the process all over.

But the real incentive for scaling up the sustainable charcoal project has less to do with its environmental impact than its economic one. Now, not only does the individual selling the wood make money, but the whole village benefits economically. By instituting an additional sales ‘tax’ authorities are also able to plough previously unregulated funds toward things like forest conservation, clean water systems, new school buildings and, even, in Kazeuka’s village, universal health care. Mtoro says these kinds of benefits have transformed local attitudes toward forest protection. “Why? Because the community knows they can benefit from that forest,” Mtoro says. “So protection of the forest becomes very high.”

To read more about this ingenious initiative http://www.tfcg.org/