On the trail of Sierra Leone’s illegal charcoal burners

It’s a clear December morning in the hills of the Western Area Forest Reserve in Sierra Leone. Although Guma Lake - one of the country’s main supplies of drinking water - stands less than twenty kilometres from Freetown, it is a world away from the heat and dust of the capital.

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© Jonathan Bundu / Climate Tracker / GCCA+

“It was early, with good weather conditions to capture stunning images,” says photographer Jonathan Bundu. “Living in the city which is so hot and polluted, I felt great peace. The air was cool and fresh, the feel of the colours was serene. The green scenery, the blue sky and the right temperature all gave me a great picture.”

But despite the picturesque outlook, all is not well in the forests which surround Guma Lake. The area is one of the last remaining strongholds of West African rainforest, but illegal logging has deforested some of the steep slopes, leading to mudslides including one in 2017 which killed more than 1000 people and left 3000 homeless.

Jonathan, accompanied by two forest rangers from the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), is on the trail of illegal charcoal burners who are known to operate in the forest. The tell-tale remains of previous charcoal pits are scattered throughout the undergrowth. Each pit uses around 40 trees and can produce around more than 11 tonnes of charcoal worth around US$800. The charcoal is then sold in bags for cooking.

“As we worked our way through the forest, the rangers explained to me that all these areas are supposed to be protected, but poachers involved in the illegal charcoal business and those in the timber trade are ravaging the forest with extensively logging,” says Jonathan. “The NPAA has fought a hard battle to keep the forest intact from poachers who logged or burn charcoal. But as we moved into other forest areas that have been ravaged, you can see that the forest was ‘weeping’, with trees cut down indiscriminately and pits set up for the burning of charcoal.”

Jonathan’s assignment was part of a project funded by the EU’s flagship climate change programme GCCA+. Working with the non-profit Climate Tracker organisation, GCCA+ have commissioned young photojournalists to document projects across the world showing both the challenges and solutions of climate change.

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Forest Ranger Abdul Salam destroys an illegal charcoal pit in a protected area.
© Jonathan Bundu / Climate Tracker / GCCA+

In the latest tranche of assignments, 20 photographers will be asked to illustrate environmental projects supported by the GCCA+ in 10 different countries. Themes will cover solar and other renewable energy, nature-based solutions, climate displacement, coastal resilience, climate finance, gender, waste management and mangrove restoration. Photojournalists from Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania and Asia will be invited to take part.

“I like to work on climate change stories and photos to show our generation the amount of damage we have done to our beautiful planet earth. I think we need to be serious about climate change because it is altering our way of lives, with regards nature,” says Jonathan, who lives in Freetown. “Our air is polluted, and we have had harsh weather conditions lately. In Sierra Leone for instance, we use to have six months of dry and six months of rain, but now that’s all changed.”

Back on the trail of the charcoal burners, it doesn’t take long before the team come across a site which is still smoking. “Of course, the people involved in the charcoal production run away, knowing that they will be arrested if they are caught. We need more robust measures because while the charcoal business is causing a small-scale destruction, timber logging is the master killer of our forest and has caused so much devastation to our country.”

The rangers get to work dismantling the pit while Jonathan takes more pictures. “I was touched by a photo I took of a lizard that had died. It was on a tree which had been cut down and was covered in some sort of poisonous water. I think that’s what killed it. I used to roam through these forests when I was a kid, when they were intact. It makes me sad as I walk through them now and see how they are being destroyed.”

GCCA+ Programme 

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© Jonathan Bundu / Climate Tracker / GCCA+










sierra leone

© Jonathan Bundu / Climate Tracker / GCCA+