By Tendai Marima
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bare-chested, Alan Siyampondo shovels soil onto a smoking kiln stuffed with burning teak wood to produce a batch of charcoal in the heart of Dambwa Forest Reserve outside Livingstone.
Nearby in the savannah woodland close to Zambia's southern border, another man prepares to turn his chopped logs into charcoal.
Despite concerted efforts to reduce deforestation, this season's poor rainfall - influenced by the El Niño weather phenomenon – is causing food and power shortages that could force more Zambian villagers to turn to the forests for fuel and income.
Sweating, Siyampondo takes a break from carving up the third teak tree he has felled in a week. After three days of toil, he hopes to fill at least nine 50 kg bags with charcoal blocks made from the red-colored wood.
“I have a garden at home, but the crops are small, so I have to do what I can or we will face hunger,” he said.
A bag of charcoal sells for 25 kwacha (around $2.50) in Livingstone, but the price is much higher in neighboring Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Dambwa Forest has been a protected area since 1972, and unlicensed charcoal makers are banned from making or selling the wood-derived fuel. But it is an entrenched cultural practice.
According to U.N. data, Zambia has one of the world's highest deforestation rates per capita. The Forestry Department estimates that 250,000 hectares to 300,000 hectares (617,800 to 741,300 acres) of forest are cleared each year. This is mainly due to illegal tree cutting, agriculture, charcoal production and human settlement.
A 2015 report from the U.N. Environment Programme said Zambia's forest ecosystems contribute an annual $1.3 billion to the economy, roughly 6 percent of gross domestic product.
Hardwood trees such as teak, mopane and mukusi are used in furniture-making and construction, while some timber is exported.
And with drought harming crop yields across southern Africa, officials say food insecurity and the struggling economy are pushing more people to cut down trees.
Food prices in Zambia’s southwestern maize belt have risen, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Meanwhile, the National Disaster Management Council of Ministers has warned that strong El Niño impacts could leave around 1.6 million people in need of food aid - double the current level.
“There is a definite increase in the exploitation of the forest by the rural folk because of the poor rains,” said Victor Chiiba, forestry overseer for Southern Province.
“There's a market for charcoal so those who have not reaped (a good harvest) are increasingly turning to other activities to make an income.”
Some environmental activists also attribute growing demand for charcoal to severe power shortages. Erratic rains have dented Zambia's hydro-electric output so much that long daily power cuts have become the norm.
“Everyone here is using charcoal - even the hotels are using it because of these power cuts, and there is growing demand for cheap fuel. If this carries on we are really going to lose our forests one day,” said Benjamin Mudenge who works with Greenpop, a South Africa-based social enterprise that holds an annual tree-planting festival in Livingstone.
Since it was set up in 2010, Greenpop says more than 14,000 trees have been planted in Zambia through its community and school awareness programs.
At the same time, there is concern that climate change has altered Zambia's deciduous miombo woodlands. The growing period for some species has been extended by up to 30 years, and Chiiba fears that raises the risk of older forests being cut down.
In an effort to combat the upsurge in logging, the Southern forestry department has persuaded some villages in the region to adopt local by-laws that encourage tree regeneration.
“We advocate for people to leave at least 1.5 hectares of their land uncultivated to allow a small forest to develop,” Chiiba explained.
In addition to radio and community outreach programs that raise awareness about the importance of planting and protecting trees, local activists have set up a volunteer ranger network.
At least 15 people from Livingstone and the villages surrounding the forest regularly patrol Dambwa alongside officers tasked with protecting the park and its wildlife.
But Wonder Kandenge, a volunteer ranger, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that while villagers support forest patrols, they were inadequately equipped for the task.
“We are a small group and we're trying to reduce cutting and burning, but much more can be done. We need more resources,” Kandenge said. “We are unarmed when we go to the forest and we meet people carrying pangas (big knives) and axes chopping down trees. How can we stop someone like that?”
On top of limited resources, drought has made the challenge of curbing deforestation in Zambia's woodlands even tougher.
The brief rains that showered the southern belt in recent weeks are unlikely to bring an end to the freshly hacked stumps and smoldering fires lining Dambwa's dusty paths – especially with elections coming up in August.
"We try and educate the village headmen and the people, but when the politicians come and campaign for votes, they tell the people they can cut the trees - and since we can't confront the politicians, we can't stop the people," said Kandenge.
(Reporting by Tendai Marima; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)