Working with the Forest
Products Division and bioenergy
– a personal account

A full year working as Visiting Academic to FAO headquarters in Rome has been a great learning experience. It offered me organizational, cultural, professional and personal enrichment far beyond the other programmes I have ever benefited from in the past.

Organizationwise, the United Nations (UN) system was an overwhelming exposure. The UN (specifically FAO) thinks and works from a global point of view, compared with my microcosmic local and domestic ways of understanding and comprehension of the way things are. Facilities, infrastructure, structure of operations, modes of communication and, more important, the patterns of interaction and work ethic were all foreign to me during the first encounter. I have been used to traditional facilities, humble infrastructure, patron-client operations and a parochial work ethic.

Within FAO, it is a multiracial work environment. I had the most wonderful adventure of dealing or working with people coming from all over the world. The interaction, formal and informal, provided lessons my memory bank will hold for years to come. My students and my university colleagues, even my family, I imagine, will not have a dull moment as I share my stories and episodes with them.

Professionally, I found exactly what I wanted. Even more. A time blocked out to read, think and write. Armchair research is a desire difficult to realize in a third world university where education is more for commerce, than it is – a right. Faculty members like me serve more than 500 students per week, in addition to the multifarious extracurricular activities in between that one is obliged to perform. There is practically no time to read. No time to tinker around. No time to write or rewrite. Even, no time to think. It is simply going through the motions every day. Burning out even at a young age is not a surprise. Despite the clamour for quality, excellence, relevance and modernization in education, these are more of a lip service, than a reality. We simply cannot afford it.

One year of sitting on top of the huge knowledge-laden FAO, with its computer, library and publication facilities was for me a heaven – perhaps difficult for many who are not searching for scholarship to comprehend. The Saturdays and Sundays spent in front of the monitor was not work at all, but a joy to savour until the last minute.

Wood Energy has been a research topic coursing through my veins since 1987 when I first became involved in Non-Conventional Energy for the Government Office of Energy Affairs under the Office of the President of the Philippines, as researcher and economist. The 12 months within Forest Products Division, and particularly with FOPW under the guidance and supervision of Miguel Trossero, was an eye-opener as to how Wood Energy should and must be understood from a global perspective.

The building blocks of climate change, i.e. the Kyoto Protocol, forestry and its carbon relevance, bioenergy and other renewables, dawned on me as a multidisciplinarity too huge to encompass at one single moment. The knowledge I have amassed within the subject of Agriculture to include Forestry, Sustainable Development and others that make up FAO is a contribution great enough to pass on, fervently hoping I will make a mark in the young minds that I help to mould every day.

The chance of sitting in meetings and presentations, involvement with other bioenergy-related institutions (e.g. IEA), organizing meetings, writing papers for conferences and many other daily chores, were all much appreciated tasks since it brought me into the realm of research and understanding the world about me.

What is important for me is the education I obtained within the spheres of my discipline and, in return, what significant contribution I can offer FAO in terms of research and publications I have generated during the year of my programme and will generate in the years to come as I continue to collaborate with FAO. These matter most since I came as a scholar, and as a scholar I must return.

On the personal front, I gained recognition within my university; moreover, I gained not only recognition but friendships as well, within the circle with which I came in contact during my FAO days. These made me grow and will continue to make me grow. The experiences have enhanced my calibre as a professor and as a change agent, whether in academic circles, industry boards, government agencies, or just the simple farmer and fisherfolk with whom I will come in contact in the near future.

Veni. Vidi. Vici. Not I, but FAO and Italy on me. Now, I pass it on and pay forward. (Elizabeth M. Remedio, Cebu City, the Philippines)

[Prof. Remedio of the University of San Carlos, the Philippines, worked with FAO’s Wood Energy Programme from February 2000 to February 2001 under the Visiting Experts from Academic and Research Institutions Programme.

More information on the FAO Partnership Programmes can be found on FAO’s Web site at: www.fao.org/geninfo/partner/default.htm]



The following is an exchange of e-mails from the Stoves list (stoves@crest.org).

This is probably a stupid question but, if you are going so far as to make torrified wood, why not go the one extra step and make charcoal? By going the extra mile, you are able to collect all the oil from the wood, and sell, at a good price, I might add. (John Flottvik, jovick@island.net )

Conversely, why, instead of going through all that trouble to turn sawdust into charcoal briquettes, why not make it into sawdust briquettes.

Having briquettes means having fuel in standard shape, size and mass. Look at what people have done with lumps of fuel of standard size and mass. There is the Pyromid stove and the much maligned Weber Kettle BBQ. But they work; they do exactly what the manual tells you they do. Why? Because someone has painstakingly done test after test to arrive at numbers, patterns and times to ensure the desired behaviour.

The same thing can be done for wood. If you detest the downdraught mode, then you could follow the Pyromid strategy. With wood briquettes laid out in a certain pattern and with provisions for a supply of air at the right spots, I am sure a burner with many small smokeless flames can be realized. And it uses all of the combustion value of the wood. (Peter Verhaart, verhaarp@janus.cqu.edu.au )


Health risks through charcoal manufacturing?

The following message was posted on the iac@iac.agro.nl list-serve and has generated a lot of interest and controversy. Mr Johan Lejeune, Coordinator of the FAO Forestry Department’s EC-FAO Partnership Programme, has been following the issue; a selection of various correspondence with him follows.

Letter from an owner of a guesthouse in Namibia catering for foreign tourists

In Namibia there is very excessive charcoal production in single, unfiltered, steel kilns. This creates unbelievable air pollution and, as a result, a lot of health problems. There is no question that charcoal manufacturing creates jobs – but it is absolutely necessary to manufacture charcoal in a better way to protect human health and nature.

Sometimes our house is filled with the smell of charcoal. It is sometimes impossible to sleep at night. Also we are suffering from headaches, burning eyes and nasal and chest problems. A blood test showed carbon monoxide in our blood.

The reason is that at times more then 200 kilns are functioning at once in a limited area of approximately 2 000 ha. About 1 000 tonnes of charcoal were produced at a distance of not more than 1 km from our house. Last year, in an area 10 by 10 km, about 3 000  tonnes of charcoal were produced. These activities all take place in a valley and all the smoke and gases are trapped for a long time, depending on the wind and prevailing weather conditions.

Here, in Namibia, no one knows about the health risks of carbonization, nor of the impact to our environment. Therefore, please can you send to us by e-mail the following information:

• Which kinds of health problems are known to be caused by charcoal manufacturing?
• Which gases (and in what quantity) are produced per kilogram of charcoal?
• What is the impact to the environment of this production?
• What is the impact of such excessive charcoal production on regional weather conditions, the climate and others?
• Do you know something about environmentally friendly systems to produce charcoal?
• Do you know about a research centre related to our questions here in Africa?

We need your information as soon as possible because we fear that our health problems will worsen. Soon we will have some discussions with officials about that problem. (R. Wagner/E. Zamzow, in Namibia; e-mail: moselle@out.namib.com)

Reply from a Ph.D. student in the
United States

The brick kilns for charcoal-making kilns and especially the large rectangular kilns (Missouri style) are more efficient and less polluting than the traditional earth-mound kilns. The traditional earth-mound kiln (commonly used throughout Africa) has a wide range in efficiency and emissions, depending on operator technique and care. This is due to the fact that parts of the earth-mound kiln can collapse during the process, leaving an opening for the wood to just combust away (leading to low efficiency). If an earth-mound kiln is tended carefully and skilfully, it can be almost as efficient as the brick kiln. In our experiments with earth-mound kilns, there was most likely an artificially high level of care and skill involved (a kind of outside observer effect). So, generally, there is a much greater potential for inefficiency, and the consequent large amount of airborne emissions, with the earth mound. The semi-permanent brick kilns and the permanent, industrial-scale rectangular kilns do not have this problem.

One way to reduce emissions would be to provide charcoal-making training, especially to small-scale, rural charcoal makers who may not pay too much attention to their earth-mound kilns (since the wood is "free"). Another option would be to promote the construction/dissemination of brick kilns or large rectangular kilns. (Mr David M. Pennise, Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley, USA; Dpennise@uclink4.berkeley.edu )

[Mr Pennise can be contacted for more information about greenhouse gas emissions through charcoal production.]

Answer to Mr David Pennise’s remarks by an FAO wood-energy specialist

I totally agree with your observation regarding the earth-mound kiln and the "observer effect" when one starts being interested in the carbonization process. That observer effect frustrated us in our comparison trials in Africa. When the traditional charcoal maker feels that he is viewed and observed he raises his profile in his family and community and therefore does all what he can to succeed in the trial we are monitoring. He even goes to tend the kiln at night, something he never does in normal circumstances.

We had quite a lot of experience with dissemination of improved charcoal making techniques. The main problem is poverty and lack of materials. We have given, free of charge, chimneys and vents made of scrap metal, bonded together with metal thread or wire, but these materials are normally scarce in an African village and can be put to (better) use for other things, such as the repair of a leaking roof, or to make a spade or other working tools. This is frustrating.

Another experience was to sell the chimneys (for a few United States dollars or less), which the charcoal producer was able to pay back after one or two kiln-firings. The chimney could last for more than one year, but again poverty and subsistence living made it hard for the charcoal maker to "invest" in these tools, despite the fact that he is convinced that its use produces more charcoal than his traditional earth-mound kiln method.

In some cases we have seen a social structure preventing the use of high-yielding kilns: the village chief did not approve that such "modern" tools enter the village or his territory.

In another case we have seen "security" being a problem. One night the chimneys "in action" were stolen. The owner described it as a "risk" to have such "expensive" materials unattended in the bush. He stopped using the method. In general, we have observed the same risk with wood itself. When wood is cut it should never be allowed to dry in the sun and wind, because it might be stolen during the night. Packing it into a kiln and lighting the kiln as soon as possible is the best way to prevent theft! For the African charcoal producer, this is much more efficient than letting the wood dry for a week or two! Drying wood before carbonization is a real mystery in Africa. Many are convinced that it is not a good idea to use dry wood because the control of the fire in the kiln is too difficult in the traditional earth-mound kiln. Flare-ups and holes in the mound are more frequent with dry wood. The kilning temperature is higher with dry wood because of the primitive technique and therefore the charcoal obtained is too pure, more brittle, containing less volatile. As a consequence the charcoal is lighter and does not sell so well.

I also agree with you that when the wood is free it is hard to convince people to use better methods.

We found that the improved conversion techniques work better in places with high wood scarcity such as in Chad, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. Moreover, when wood is concentrated such as near a sawmill, the improved methods also work better. (Johan Lejeune, Forestry Department, FAO)

Some Web sites about charcoal and flaring off systems:










For more information, please contact:

Johan Lejeune, Forestry Policy and Planning Division (FONS), Forestry Department, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.

Fax: +39 0657055137;

e-mail: johan.lejeune@fao.org;


[For more information on emissions from charcoal kilns, please see Thailand in Country Compass.]


Need Energy – Plant a Tree:
organic charcoal

We recently received a request for financial assistance for an organic charcoal project in Brazil. FAO is unable to assist financially but, since the subject is interesting, we would like to share our exchange of e-mails. Perhaps one of our readers can suggest funding opportunities for this initiative.

We are working on the development of a project to use seeds from a palm tree of the Amazon Forest for making charcoal, which has a really interesting heating potential. We think it can be a part of the solution for the use of trees as energy.

How can we develop this kind of project? Is there some way to get international attention or help?"
(Mr Eder Zanetti, Rua Francisco Alves Guimarães, 322-601, Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil CEP 80050-210; e-mail: robi@ineparnet.com.br )

We would be interested in knowing more about your project, e.g. size of the seeds, quantities involved, timing: all year round?, or a particular season?, etc.

The seeds are 3 inches around and 2 inches thick, with a great heating power. They are traditionally used by the indigenous people for cooking the rubber [latex] from the rubber tree. The tree produces the seeds all through the year, as far as we know, and has an extensive distribution in the Amazon region – five estates. A single tree produces around 50 kg of seeds!

We are looking for people who would be interested in trading the product worldwide. It is a very good charcoal for home heating since it has a small smoke emission. (Mr Eder Zanetti)


Sugar mill in Nicaragua

Aplausos para Uds. Congratulations for the development of a job well done.

I live in Canada, but I am from El Salvador. I read about the energy function in a sugar mill in Nicaragua. I believe it is an excellent model to be replicated and implemented in other countries, in which oil is used to produce electricity and become a very expensive proposition.

In the community-economic development concept, the San Antonio sugar mill’s sustainable development model to produce clean and cheap biofuel is a success story for many factors: the project took into consideration all stakeholders and networked the myriad possibilities from the energy impact, economic impact, rural employment impact and the community impact.

I think this is great and I encourage you to keep up with this sustainable development initiative. (J. Antonio Alfaro, Manitoba, Canada)