Every day late in the afternoon, women lugging bags of sticks on their back spill out of the brush onto a highway just south of the Equator. Men pass on motorbikes, one after another, hauling bags of charcoal. Boys trudge along with a single log slung over their shoulders, as if they’re toting a baguette.
Deep in the trees, Debay Ipalensenda puts down his ax and joins this forest parade, which is slowly destroying one of the world’s most important landscapes, all to cook a meal.
The scene plays out not only on this stretch of road in the Democratic Republic of Congo but all across the 1.3 million square miles of rainforest across the Congo Basin, home of the second largest old-growth rainforest in the world.
It’s a ritual that in its ubiquity is a tragedy. And not just for generations of people who have no means to prepare food other than to cook it over open fires, but also for the entire planet as the carbon-absorbing forests so critical for slowing global warming are taken apart tree by tree and in some cases branch by branch.
The logging industry in Congo uproots precious old-growth trees for use in furniture and home construction, contributing to the destruction of forests — particularly when not regulated properly. On top of that, entire swaths of forest are burned to make way for farming.
But the raiding of the forest by regular people in search of cooking materials is surprisingly destructive as well. That’s partly because felling and burning trees unleashes stores of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it acts as a blanket, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the world. But in addition to that, cooking with wood fires and charcoal — wood that is burned until it is reduced to almost pure carbon, which burns longer and hotter — affects air quality from particles emitted in the smoke.
Nearly 90 percent of Congo’s 89.5 million people rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking, according to World Bank estimates. Congo lost more than 1.2 million acres of primary forest in 2021, mostly from residents clearing land for farming and for collecting wood for fires and charcoal, according to Global Forest Watch.
Mr. Ipalensenda is part of the booming trade that is supplying a growing population. As he chopped at a tree trunk, the thud of his homemade ax echoed across the forest. He doesn’t want to be working there, in the trees, where he slings the ax for hours on end. He once had bigger plans.
“My dream? Well,” he sighed and paused, leaning on his ax as a yellow butterfly flitted past his face. “My dream was to be a doctor.”
Mr. Ipalensenda, 33, graduated from high school and planned to attend university. Then his father fell ill and died. Suddenly, it was up to him to financially support the family.
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“Now I’m a charcoal maker,” he said.
The job was one of the few available to him in the smattering of tiny communities of mud-brick houses that line the edge of the forest here. Everyone, after all, needs a way to cook meals.
Most of the forest depletion in Congo is a matter of survival. Despite its vast treescape, fierce rivers and abundance of gems, minerals and metals, the country is one of the world’s poorest. It is also one of the world’s least electrified.
The power grid barely exists in this nation of glaring inequalities. That’s true even hundreds of miles away from Mr. Ipalensenda, in the capital, Kinshasa, where the flashy hotels and nightclubs gloss over the reality: A relative few people even there, in one of the Africa’s biggest cities, use gas-fired or electric stoves.
“I have electricity and it changed my life,” said Israel Monga, one of the lucky ones, as he stood on a street on a steamy afternoon. But Mr. Monga has connections: He is an electrician who works for Société Nationale d’Électricité, the national electric company.
The story is different for almost everyone else.
Less than 17 percent of the entire nation has access to electricity, according to the World Bank, and those with electricity are accustomed to problems. Small flames regularly burst from the scant few electric wires strung over Kinshasa, and blackouts are common. Earlier this year more than two dozen people were killed when a power line snapped and fell onto a crowded market.
Bakeries where baguettes and a doughy cassava bread called fufu are made typically rely on charcoal or wood for cooking. So do the stalls that sell the popular dish, chicken mayo, with its saucy blend of onions and peppers. And so do countless people indoors, in their kitchens at home.
Most of Kinshasa’s residents rely on branches and briquettes that are carted into the city by the truckload, every day, the product of countless charcoal makers and wood gatherers raiding trees in rural areas outside the city.
At one busy market on a recent morning a saleswoman who called herself Mama Rachelle was standing amid dozens of nylon bags overflowing with charcoal that she was selling for about $30 a bag. Nearby, men unloaded a truck filled with 100 even bigger bags — some six feet tall — of briquettes made from trees that had been cut in a province just to the south of Kinshasa. A truck behind it contained double the number of similar bags.
“The government is pushing us into the forest,” said Diatumwa Lototala, one of the sellers, explaining that the lack of job creation had left him with no other type of meaningful work.
A man approached our small group of journalists and before we could introduce ourselves, he began shouting: “I know what you’re doing. You’re writing a story about climate change. You’ll write it, but we’re not going to benefit. Not us. We are suffering here,” he said, declining to give his name because he was angry at the general state of life in Congo.
His frustration is widespread.
Congo has huge potential for clean energy. Some researchers think the Congo River, which winds through the country, could be harnessed to power the entire continent. The nation’s government for decades has been trying to get more hydropower facilities online.
However, a plan to create more dams, which could bring capacity to double that of Three Gorges Dam in China, has stalled, in part because the project has been mired in disputes between international companies bidding for the work. The hydropower system that exists now is dilapidated and mismanaged.
In the meantime, politicians, academics, activists, global financial institutions and businesspeople all have tried to come up with solutions for how to wean families from charcoal. A few projects provide clean energy to a patchwork of communities across the country. Some are designed to train residents to build the kilns where charcoal is made with less wood, or to make eco-friendly charcoal from organic waste.
But none of that has yet reached Mr. Ipalensenda. He heads into the forest daily, snaking for hours, barefoot, between trees in swampy land. Half of the trip takes him through thigh-high water in a patchy forest where clusters of trees have already been chopped.
“We’ve been taught that by cutting the forest it will make oxygen disappear,” he said. “It makes me worried, of course, but what can you do when you see the only way to feed your family is to cut trees? There is no other choice.”
As Mr. Ipalensenda reached a fallen African rosewood tree that he was in the process of dismembering, he called out to his co-workers who were tending a nearby kiln. The tall, leafy square kiln, some 20 yards long and 5 feet high, was perfectly stacked — larger logs on the base, smaller branches and leaves at the top. Soon the men would set it on fire, a process that slowly smolders the wood and sends thick smoke leaking out its sides.
Charcoal making is so common here that briquettes are scattered across the ground, crunching under foot, even deep in the forest, where they lead like bread crumbs to large kilns. Mounds of gray ash from old kilns are as easily spotted as termite hills.
Trunks with hacked branches are on display, too. Local families usually collect their own branches for cooking, and the charcoal is often sold at markets in Mbandaka, the nearest city, where trunks of split trees with blood-red cores that are prized as slow burners also await buyers.
One evening in March, Edela Nyabongi was sitting in a red plastic chair, a dog curled around her feet as she fanned her cooking fire and fed it with small sticks, when her neighbor, Eyenga Ekwabe, approached and dipped a stick in the fire to take the flame back to her own house. Without a word, Ms. Ekwabe walked home and lit a pile of wood beneath a black pot etched with her name. Her one-room house quickly filled with thick smoke.
Ask anyone in this area how many trees they’ve cut and they can’t help laughing. Who could possibly keep track?
“Too many,” said one man, hauling a bag stuffed with briquettes of charcoal that scraped together as he walked.
“Thousands,” said another, carrying two dozen branches and a machete stuffed in a bag on his back.
“We will never run out of trees,” said Petros Mola, a charcoal maker, expressing a commonly held view in the region.
However, the danger of deforestation to future growth is real. While felling old-growth trees releases carbon into the air, even cutting smaller trees removes a forest canopy crucial to blocking the sun, which can be harmful to entire ecosystems of plants and animals.
Patrick Ikonga and his wife, Nana Mputso, stood in the center of a still-smoldering square of land about as big as a city block that they had cleared by setting it on fire. Small green shoots of newly planted corn were bursting through the charred ground. Bees swarmed a felled palm tree where sap was being collected to use in wine.
Like almost everyone else, the couple would like a different life. “It’s true,” Mr. Ikonga said when asked whether he worried about the future of the forest. “By cutting the trees the forest begins to disappear.”
But he had to think about how to make a living for his family. He planned to replace the towering trees on his plot that he had burned by planting palm oil trees. And there was still work to do. Mr. Ikonga needed to hack out the charred trunks that remained, to sell them for making charcoal.