Have you ever stopped to think about where your charcoal comes from? As consumers, we carefully select the meats, seafood, and produce we grill over it, ensuring it's either organic or sustainable. The charcoal, however, doesn't receive the same consideration. An investigation by UK-based Earthsight revealed that many popular brands fail to mark bags of charcoal briquets that are contributing to the deforestation of Paraguay's dry tropical forest Chaco.
South America is one of the largest exporters of charcoal, with the Chaco region becoming a main source. This region has faced a faster rate of deforestation due to agricultural practices than any other forest. A large portion of Paraguay's economy is made up of beef and soybean exports, which has resulted in forest clearing that turns felled trees into charcoal. What may sound like a seemingly symbiotic relationship between agricultural growth and resources is anything but.
Chaco's biodiversity is a refuge for endemic species and migrating birds. Precious wildlife such as capybara, tapir, peccary, and jaguars call it home. It is also home to many indigenous people that take shelter in the forest. Most notably the nomadic indigenous Ayoreo, who are the last 'uncontacted' group outside of the Amazon basin.
As Reuters reports,
"While the Paraguayan constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous people, they do not have the right to withhold consent for intensive agriculture projects on their customary lands."
With the beef and charcoal industry becoming a lucrative business, charcoal sources should be investigated to ensure that this industry isn't thriving at the expense of a people that call Chaco home.
Some Paraguayan firms that sell Chaco charcoal to the UK and United States declare the source, while the countries themselves do not. Grocery stores, gas stations, and other retailers throughout the UK and the United States are guilty of selling unidentified bags of charcoal from the Chaco region. Bags often have misleading labels like "recycled wood" as distributors are failing to mention the sustainability of the resource.
An investigation done by Earthsight traced charcoal samples from large European and United States grocers - like Aldi and Lidli - back to Bicapar. Bicapar is Paraguay's largest charcoal exporter that has a production facility hidden in Chaco. Their bags claim to be from "recycled and controlled sources", although Earthsight's investigation has reported otherwise.
While Bicapar may be the largest charcoal producer using trees from the Chaco region, they are not the only ones. One US charcoal distributor named Jealous Devil - available on Amazon and Ebay - marks its bags as a "sustainably harvested" product of Paraguay. This most likely means a product of fallen trees from Chaco.
Within the first three months of 2017, 70 percent of Paraguay's charcoal exports left for the EU. While the numbers are not as large, the USA still receives a significant amount of Paraguayan charcoal. With bags misleading or failing to identify the true source, it's up to the people to take action.
Supermarket investigations on charcoal products is a start, but if the problem is to be solved, policy needs to be put in place. Like the food we eat, the charcoal we choose makes a difference in the grand scheme of things.