Inside Malaysia’s traditional charcoal factories, fire is life

Charcoal kilns are a critical source for national energy, but they’re also a cultural relic that goes beyond the brick

Philippe Durant
September 27, 2022
Inside Malaysia’s traditional charcoal factories, fire is life
A Pakistani worker moving out the first charcoal logs from the kiln.

In the heart of Malaysia’s Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve, blazing sparks crackle from the heart of an igloo. The curved brick-built kilns are the hub of the Kuala Sepetang charcoal factories, where a decades-old tradition of producing energy persists against the rising heat of climate change controversy. 

For 62-year-old Puan Zaniah, the structure is also her place of work and the backbone of her daily routine for the past 30 years. 

She arrives at 4am every day when the air outside is at its coolest, with her team, which consists of 10 relatives. She has a persistent cough and back pain, which she claims she can handle, even with the heavy workload.

“If two kilns are ready with charcoal, we do two the same day,” Zaniah said. “One at 4am, the second after eight…The charcoal is our life.” 

At 40,000 hectares, Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is the largest sustainable mangrove forest in Malaysia. These mangrove trees, together with the surrounding salt water provide optimum raw materials for high-quality charcoal. The process has remained in the careful hands of a few small factories since 1940, using the same traditional methods to produce the charcoal. 

Kuala Sepetang Mangrrove

Each owner has several kilns in their factory which are used in turn so that charcoal production remains continuous. It is a time and labour intensive operation, often manned by Malay families.

This particular factory is operated by a Chinese family and a group of Pakistani immigrants, some of whom have been working at the mines for over a decade. They’ve become slowly accustomed to the manual labour and the stench from the surrounding swamp area.

Portrait of a Pakistani worker after finishing loading the truck
The Chinese factory boss waiting for the extraction next to weighing scale

They get on well during the working day, but when the shifts end, their paths split. The locals go back home to their nearby village while the ‘foreign workers’ return to employer-provided housing where they live as a community. 

“I have been here for almost 35 years,” said another woman working at the factory. “Now, my children are all grown up and… those who lost their jobs are [on] temporary work here with me.”

Transporting the wood from the forest relies on the tidal conditions of a neighbouring canal. Local contract companies are paid to cut and transport the wood. 

Boats bringing the logs from mangrove forest during high tide

Six igloo shaped brick kilns surround a large shed. Each structure is plastered with very fine clay and sand to seal the kiln completely. No air can be allowed to enter, or the quality of the charcoal will be threatened. 

Log by log, the kiln is stacked and filled by hand. Fifty tonnes of wood will produce only ten tonnes of charcoal. 

Once the fire is lit, it must be kept constant and burning for fourteen days. Workers in three shifts check temperature consistency and top up the wood every three to four hours, to sustain the fire. 

“If it is too hot inside when the kiln is opened, we have to postpone,” said one of the local workers.  “No salary for that day.”

Loading the kiln with mangrove wood logs
Burning wood in the only kiln opening

Even the slightest  slip of temperature could result in oxygen leaking within the kiln, creating flames inside and burning the wood. When there is no longer any vapour, the workers shut down the fire and seal the kiln. It will take yet another seven days to cool it down completely. 

Only 30% of the final charcoal production stays in the local market. The remaining 70% is exported to Japan where dealers pay a premium for this highly prized Kuala Sepetang charcoal. 

The factories play an important role in the local economy, providing jobs for local families but only few can endure the hard labour, heat, and early morning starts. The predominantly Chinese businessmen producing and selling the charcoal are doing well and many are expanding their factories and building more kilns. 

Checking and feeding of the fire

Once a standard feature of a Malaysian household, charcoal fuel has come under recent scrutiny as the government and private sector explore more sustainable energy sources, such as hydropower, and capitalise on the country’s high solar potential. Renewables currently contribute 18% to Malaysia’s energy mix, and the nation is working towards its national goal of fulfilling 31% of total power capacity through renewables by 2025. 

As the slow, but seismic energy shift continues, the Kuala Sepetang charcoal factories are growing their presence as a cultural site for international visitors. Tourists come to the area to view the fishing eagles, fireflies and to enjoy the local seafood. For some, the main interest lies in the mangrove forest and its beating heart of flames.But for Zaniah, the igloos are not a player in national energy trade or a cultural relic. They are a vibrant breathing force, as much a part of her as the aching back or her close-knit colleagues. “This is the life of our family.”

Inside the charcoal factory, stacks of timber are dimly lit by the outside light
portrait of Puan Zaniah, who has been working in the factories since the 19080’s, having her cigarette break
A factory worker gets ready to take another log
Kilns at the Kuala Sepetang charcoal factories
Exhausted but still smiling after two consecutive openings and seven hours of work in extreme conditions
Mother and kids collecting small bits of charcoal and packing them
Awi, one of the youngest workers, surrounded by clouds of dust as he works in the factory
Charcoal factory workers in the midst of their shift

Photos by Philippe Durant for Southeast Asia Globe. Text by Philippe Durant and Amanda Oon

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