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World News

Japanese fire up Malaysia's mangrove coal industry

KUALA SEPETANG, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - A world away from Tokyo, Malaysians are toiling in baking heat to produce quality mangrove charcoal for Japanese customers who have helped revive this industry despite environmental concerns.

The coastal town of Kuala Sepetang, in the northwestern Perak state around 300 km from the capital Kuala Lumpur, houses factories that turn mangrove trunks into charcoal, with uses ranging from barbecues and making tea to purifying air.

The mangrove charcoal is considered superior to regular coal because it burns longer and produces less smoke. It is also used as a detoxifying agent in some traditional medicines.

Trade waned in the 1960s due to a switch from charcoal to cooking gas, but recent Japanese interest has helped drive sales to about $800,000 a month.

“It was at one time known as the sunset industry. Now, the Japanese are here, so it’s back on its feet,” said Chuah Chow Aun, owner of a factory where workers make $100-$200 a month in jobs ranging from transporting logs to harvesting charcoal.

Bark-stripped trunks of mangrove trees are baked in igloo-shaped kilns to remove water from the logs, leaving behind smoking charcoal collected mostly by local women, who work in the factories while their husbands fish in the nearby river.

Charcoal factory owners obtain mangrove wood from swamps where they are allocated logging areas by the government on a yearly basis, and boats lug the wood to the shore.

There are 336 kilns in Perak, said Chuah, with a total production of around 3,500 tonnes of charcoal a month.

The price of charcoal has risen by nearly half from about four years ago, he said, after a spike in Japanese demand that mops up around 60 percent of total charcoal produced.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Nearly half of Perak is covered with mangrove forest called Matang, the largest in the Malaysian peninsula, spread over more than 40,000 hectares covering nearly half of the state.

The government has a replanting exercise in place but there are environmental concerns about the dwindling forest that guards wildlife, protects against climate change and events such as the tsunami, by acting like a barrier against the Indian Ocean.

“I understand these mangrove trees are very dense and make good charcoal but this would be like burning the Mona Lisa to keep you warm,” said Glen Barry, President of Ecological Internet Inc, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation.

He said the mangrove harvest exceeded the number of mangroves regenerated, due in part to the fact that the trees take 30 years to mature.

But this may be a hard sell to the local people, who depend on the swamps to eke out a living in a state that is the second biggest on the peninsula by area but contributes less than 4 percent to the country’s economy.

“I’m not young anymore, what other job can I do?” says Mahteh Mah, a 43 year-old mother of three, wiping the sweat from her face on a dusty afternoon at the charcoal factory.

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