Sudan: Destitution, distortion and deforestation - The impact of conflict on the timber and woodfuel trade in Darfur


Executive summary


There is growing concern about the environmental impact of Darfur's conflict, now in its fifth consecutive year, in particular the impact on Darfur's forest resources, which were already being depleted at an estimated rate of one percent per annum before the conflict. This study begins to investigate these impacts by exploring how the trade in timber and woodfuel has changed since the conflict began, exploring the impact of the massive displacement of Darfur's population to the main urban centres, of the unprecedented international presence in Darfur, and of humanitarian programming. Commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), this is the first study by the Environmental Technology Task Force (ENTEC), designed to inform humanitarian programming and preparation for future recovery, in relation to alternative energy and construction technologies and how to promote them.

Stakeholders and livelihood adaptations since the conflict began

Prior to the conflict, the main uses of Darfur's forest resources were timber for construction and furniture-making; firewood for domestic and some commercial use such as brick-making; charcoal production; and for grazing. Trade was integral to the first three uses, with timber traded with Central Sudan and within Darfur.

Previously trade in timber and woodfuel used to be a central component of the livelihoods of just a few. Now large numbers of people are heavily dependent on timber and woodfuel for part, if not most of their livelihood. What used to be a coping strategy for rural households in times of stress - collecting and selling firewood during drought years - has become a strategy of adaptation in the current conflict as pre-conflict livelihood options have severely contracted for almost all groups.. For example, where trade in other commodities has collapsed (e.g. in groundnuts or clothes), some traders have switched to timber, firewood and charcoal. For farmers who have become displaced and are living in large IDP camps, collecting and selling firewood in towns is one of the few livelihood options available to them. And for pastoralists who can no longer sell their livestock as profitably as they used to, collecting and selling firewood has become a valuable alternative. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of breakdown of environmental governance in many rural areas.

The construction boom and impact on brick-making

Darfur's main towns, especially the three state capitals, have all experienced a construction boom since the conflict began, driven by the influx of the international community (humanitarian agencies and peace-keeping forces). House rents have increased four to sixteen times compared to 2003. Investment in property in Darfur's state capitals and in some other towns is now one of the most secure forms of capital since the conflict began (pre-conflict, livestock was the preferred form of capital), and can also be extremely lucrative. Those working for international agencies and UNAMID (previously AMIS) enjoy salary levels that make it possible to invest in property. And as the better-off from rural areas and smaller towns in Darfur have moved into the main urban centres, this has further fuelled demand for housing. The combined impact on brick production is staggering: it has increased at least four to five times compared with preconflict levels.

The environmental consequences are devastating. Rough estimates indicate that the brick kilns are consuming over 52,000 trees-worth of wood per year; and since the conflict began much of this is green wood. The brick kilns are occupying and in many cases destroying valuable agricultural land by digging up clay soils around towns. As the high demand for bricks continues (especially in El Fasher where UNAMID has established its headquarters and given renewed impetus to the construction boom), and as this is one of the most important sources of daily labour for IDPs and poor urban households, the solution to the current high levels of wood use has to lie in alternative technologies to burnt bricks. Some agencies are successfully experimenting with alternative brick-making technologies. Particularly encouraging is evidence that the brick-kiln operators are interested in alternative construction technologies, and are well aware of the negative Destitution, distortion and deforestation - Darfur 3 environmental consequences and unsustainable nature of current brick-making practices.

Timber for construction

The construction boom has also triggered a big increase in demand for timber for building, from local residents, the international community and IDPs. Between 2003 and 2005 international agencies were the main consumers as they set up the infrastructure for IDP camps. This has now levelled off as agencies shift from construction to maintenance. Nevertheless, demand for timber in Darfur's main towns is estimated to have increased two to three times since the conflict began. Trade in eucalyptus dominates Nyala market as NGOs buy narrow poles for shelter and latrine construction. In El Geneina and Zalingei a wider range of timber is being traded.

There has been a dramatic surge in demand for bamboo since the conflict began, favoured for its termite- termite-resistant and durable qualities, and because of the scarcity of other types of timber. The border areas of Um Dafooq and Um Dukhn are the main sources of supply of bamboo which grows wild and is said to be regenerating sustainably, although this requires follow-up.

For many other types of timber Jebel Marra has long been the main source of supply. Trade routes were badly disrupted early in the conflict, when FNC's plantations were destroyed and because of insecurity. Since 2005 these trade routes have more or less recovered as local production in private woodlots has increased to at least partially replace FNC's share of the market and as some local level agreements between different ethnic groups serve to protect areas of supply and to allow trade to resume. However, transport and transaction costs have rocketed. There are now 30 checkpoints between Jebel Marra and Nyala and a journey that used to take 3 hours now takes 8 to 10 hours.

The shortage of timber is most acute in El Fasher, reflecting high levels of deforestation in North Darfur. El Fasher's dependence on South Darfur for supplies of timber has accelerated since the conflict began. As timber prices have risen many town residents are replacing traditional timber construction with metal angle bars and zinc sheeting.

Of all markets, the timber market has probably attracted the greatest number of new traders. It is now highly competitive and profit margins are severely squeezed (apart from those fortunate enough and large enough to win contracts from the international agencies). New timber markets are springing up in some IDP camps, which are de facto tax havens, such as Abu Shouk camp outside El Fasher.

Although international aid agencies are increasingly aware of the potentially negative impact of some of their building practices on the forest resource of Darfur, there are still few that use alternatives to timber, such as metal angle bars. The latter are usually more expensive with implications for budgets and donor funding.