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Better management of wood and wastes

Woman carrying wood load, Niger (SOS Sahel International UK)
Woman carrying wood load, Niger
SOS Sahel International UK

The bright figure of a woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her head can be made out in the evening twilight of Niger. She is not alone - it is a familiar sight in the rural areas of the developing world as millions of women stream home, bringing wood for household fuel. For the rural and urban poor in developing countries, fuel wood and charcoal are a prime source of domestic fuel, and wood alone accounts for more than half of biomass energy used. It is the poorest that are the most likely to depend on wood for fuel, but deforestation and land degradation have led to concern about wood gathering practices.

Wood fuel is often harvested using methods that do not involve felling trees, so use of firewood is not always a major factor in deforestation. Many would argue that its impact is minimal when compared to the widespread destruction of clearing land for agricultural use. But during periods when crops fail, gathering of wood fuel can escalate, with more people depending on it as a source of income, to supply food and cash needs. However, factors such as lack of individual property rights, or restricted access to common land, can mean that the poorest who depend on wood fuels the most are often those without access to them. Moreover, common land which people do have access to is often badly managed.

Wood fuels are regarded by many as the most valuable products derived from the forest, and they can provide a sustainable source of energy if they are well managed. Other sustainable options include community wood lots which, unlike many food crops, can be grown on land that is marginally productive or has been abandoned due to degradation. Multiple-use forestry is a management model which protects forests by adding to their value. It combines production of timber, medicines, fruits and oils, so that the incentive to destroy a forest are outweighed by the benefits if offers. In order for conservation to be sustainable, research organisations such as the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggest that reducing pressure on trees through local management is key.

Exploring the options

Charcoal consumption in Africa is on the increase. Because it burns more efficiently than wood, and it is easy to store and use, urban populations rely on it heavily. However, charcoal can be a less sustainable option than firewood. Charcoal production is more likely to be a commercial activity, and as consumers are often removed from areas where charcoal is produced, they are unaware that while the fuel is cheap, it is also scarce. Although it has been suggested that charcoal is used as a 'transition' fuel - one to which families switch before using more expensive alternatives such as kerosene - in many countries, as incomes have risen, fossil fuels have not replaced wood fuels but are being used in addition.

Women transporting wood, Niger (SOS Sahel International UK)
Women transporting wood, Niger
SOS Sahel International UK

Techniques such as improving stove efficiency not only reduce dependence on wood fuels and save time spent gathering them, they also promote the use of agricultural waste products. In Bangladesh for example, rice husks are often burnt as fuel. Their use, however, is inefficient and unhealthy, which has led the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) a rice-husk briquette technology. The briquettes are of uniform density and quality (making them easy to market), burn more efficiently than unprocessed rice-husks and are a cheaper source of fuel than petroleum gas. They can be made using a variety of technologies; a screw extrusion press, for example, is small and can easily be transported and used in rural communities. They can also be hand-made by pressing the husks on a tray, but while this costs less the process is slow.

In Tanzania a similar technology has been tested to reduce pressure on wood fuels. In the heavily deforested area of Mwanza, the Mwanza Rural Housing Programme (MRHP) has developed a 'sustainable brick-fire' kiln. The kiln substitutes wood with rice husks, cotton waste and coffee husks to fire building bricks. With training and loans from the MRHP, so far enough bricks have been made to build 100,000 homes. In addition the project has created wood lots to increase forest cover, and has developed energy efficient stoves that halve the amount of fuel wood required. As a result of the initiatives, in 2006 the MRHP was awarded first prize by the UK based Ashden Awards for sustainable energy.

In the know

Wood fuel resources are a vital source of income for the poorest. However, there is often a lack of information available to small-scale farmers about which trees promote better resource management, and about alternative income generating activities. While some countries have tax breaks or subsidies to encourage development in renewable sources of energy, often such initiatives are not accompanied by improved infrastructure or training. But change is taking place, and technologies such as these promote better management of wood fuels and provide an alternative use for agricultural residues.

Date published: November 2006


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