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December 23, 2014

Mozambique: Forest Fired

Mozambique's forests of rich hrdwood trees become bags of charcoal to sell at local markets.

  • Charcoal Pit

    The hollowed out remains of a charcoal pit reflects the image of a burial ground for Mozambique’s hardwood trees. Once an area is cleared and all that remain are smaller, less valuable trees, charcoal makers move on to find a new area for work.

  • Skilled

    These skilled axmen can fell a tree in a matter of minutes. Once on the ground, they work to cut the trunk into pieces, preparing it for stacking and ultimately burning.

Chopping down Mozambique’s forests of rich hardwood trees and turning them into bags of charcoal to sell at a local market may give temporary relief to economic hardships, but in the long run, these deforestation practices only cause more poverty and destruction in an already poverty-stricken nation.

Since 1990, Africa has lost more than 10 percent of its forests. To most, this is just a statistic. To Jurg van Dyk, a South African who’s worked in Mozambique for more than 20 years, it’s a visible and concerning reality.

He’s not an environmental expert, just a former civil engineer turned missionary. But Jurg sees the effects of deforestation around him. Acres of native hardwood trees have been cut down and turned into charcoal and lumber or exported to make paper, furniture and more. Because no one plants new trees, once-forested areas are now covered with low-lying shrubs. “If [Mozambicans] do not look after their resources, the next generation and the generation after that will not have these resources,” Jurg said.

Deforestation is driven by poverty. To put food on the table, men cut down trees, which Jurg said are considered worthless because they don’t produce edible fruit. They construct enormous piles of logs blanketed with dirt and grass and light the piles on fire. After about a week of burning, all moisture evaporates from the wood and leaves chunks of charcoal the men sell as cooking fuel in their villages.

As Mozambican teacher Alberto Mariano Danza, who goes by “Bento,” sees the impact of deforestation first hand: many of his eighth-grade students miss school to help their parents make charcoal. Bento wants these young people to learn how to care for indigenous trees and practice sustainable forestry by replanting what’s been cut down. “It’s their responsibility to know that God put what’s in front of us — not only to cut and make charcoal,” he said.

While cutting down trees sustains impoverished families, Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, based in Mancelona, Michigan, said this is a short-sighted solution to poverty. “In the long-run, deforestation doesn’t alleviate poverty,” he said. “It makes it worse.” 

Van Dyke has spent his career talking about conservation from a Christian perspective. Cutting down trees cannot be a solution for the poor because deforestation holds innumerable dangers for a country and community, he said. Some of these include: increased national debt by having to import wood products after deforestation; a lack of plant and animal diversity; climate changes; decreased CO2 removal; increased erosion; lowered soil productivity; and water quality changes. All these lead to less productive farming, which many African communities have historically relied on for their livelihoods.

Poverty is just one of the factors driving deforestation in Africa, Van Dyke said. It’s also caused by foreign demand and governments that fail to enforce conservation laws. Some countries import wood and wood products even though they know they’ve been acquired unsustainably — meaning a tree hasn’t been planted to replace the one cut down.

With 10 percent of its forests wiped out in two decades and very little education about sustainable forestry practices, the problem of deforestation in Africa looks immense. But Van Dyke knows change is possible. He points to an organization called A Rocha in Kenya. Through community-based conservation projects, ecotourism and environmental education in schools, clubs and churches, A Rocha has helped preserve threatened habitats near Kenya’s coastline.

In this organization, Christians have taken seriously their call to care for the earth — a call Van Dyke said the Bible makes “very plain.”

Missionaries and pastors don’t need to make heroic efforts when helping locals learn to care for the environment. Their jobs are to serve and protect, Van Dyke said.

Because humans are made in the image of God, they have the unique ability to see the needs of other creatures, van Dyke said. And because of the authority given to them in Genesis 2:15 — with Hebrew verbs van Dyke said are best translated “to serve” and “to protect” — they have a responsibility to care for the earth, to work toward the ultimate redemption and reconciliation that Christ achieved through his death and resurrection.

“The world is entering a period in history in which traditional Christian missionary organizations … are uniquely positioned to affect the preservation of species and their habitats,” Van Dyke writes in his book, Between Heaven and Earth.

Men like Bento and Jurg are eager to see change come to Mozambique. Most African cultures live for today without planning for tomorrow, Jurg said, so something as simple as replanting trees will require massive changes to Mozambicans’ worldview.

“It’s almost changing their culture, in a sense, to start planning for the future,” Jurg said.

“It takes time to talk to the families, to educate them so we can find a solution,” Bento said, “how to survive and how to take care of ... what God put in front of us.”

These two men want to see change come to Mozambique. Deforestation only adds to the poverty in the country and creates an ongoing environmental crisis. Through creation care missions, individuals can learn about the effects of deforestation and the need to care for the earth through reforestation. And while TEAM doesn’t have current workers in Mozambique, the door is open to partner with organizations to send qualified workers into the country to work with Mozambicans, while spreading the gospel.

If you’re interested in serving with TEAM in a creation care role, visit for more information.

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