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Wood energy and livelihood patterns: a case study from the Philippines

E.M. Remedio

Elizabeth M. Remedio is Professor in the Department of Economics, University of San Carlos, Cebu City, the Philippines.

Trends in the socio-economic role of wood energy in Cebu Province, studied in 1992 and revisited ten years later.

In many South and Southeast Asian economies, some 20 to 80 percent of the energy demand is met by wood. Woody biomass tends to be used in traditional ways. For the most part, the entire system from production to consumption of woodfuel comprises informal unregistered activities involving several sectors of the community. In areas that have a market for woodfuel, its production, distribution, trade and consumption reflect a flow that has proved its efficiency through time. However, in some other areas where there is no such market, woodfuel has not become commoditized.

Woodfuel is not only used in poor and rural households. In many towns and metropolitan areas, woodfuel is widely used either as main, substitute or supplementary fuel by low-, middle- and high-income groups.

In the Philippines, fuelwood, charcoal and other forms of biomass energy make a major contribution to meeting the energy requirements of the population. The collection, distribution and trade of these fuels also provide income and employment to millions of Filipinos. Despite this importance, relatively little is known about how woodfuels are produced, managed, traded and consumed in the country. No single government agency is in charge of developing policy regarding woody biomass energy, since woodfuel is often considered inferior and a major cause of deforestation and environmental degradation.

This article illustrates the socio-economic role of wood energy in the Philippines through the results of a case study carried out in Cebu Province in 1992 and revisited in 2002.


The island province of Cebu is situated in the central Philippines, about 550 km southeast of Manila, the capital. It is a narrow strip of land about 5 088 km2 in area, stretching 220 km from north to south and only 40 km in breadth at its widest point. It has a total population of 3.356 million, consisting of about 676 000 households with an average household size of five ­people and a population density of 660 ­persons per square kilometre (National Statistics Office, 2002). Its capital, Cebu City, is the second largest city in the ­Philippines.

Cebu is characterized as the trade and industry hub of the central and southern Philippines, since only about 30 percent of the land is suited for agriculture. Approximately three-fourths of Cebu’s land area has a slope of more than 18 percent, and much of the island is dominated by a central mountain range that rises to over 1 000 m above sea level (Provincial Planning and Development Staff, 1987). During the nineteenth century, Cebu was already the focal point for trade and economic networks for the Visayas and Mindanao (the central and southern island groups of the Philippines), linking them to markets in Manila, the United States and Europe (Cebu Yearbook, 2002).

Cebu is unique in the fact that this island province has long been deforested. The World Bank (1989) reported that Cebu was 99.6 percent deforested. As long ago as 1870 the island was reported to be 94 percent deforested (Ahern, 1901; Poffenberger, 1990). If Cebu is known to have had no pristine forest for at least the past century, how is it that the woodfuel industry appears to be thriving? How is it that hundreds of families depend on the wood energy industry to provide them with incomes and livelihood activities? Where do the wood resources come from and for what are they used? Who are the key players? What socio-economic contribution does wood energy provide to the local economy?


Residential, commercial and industrial uses

Woodfuel is a major source of energy in the province, particularly as household cooking fuel.1 Reasons include its affordability (it is also gathered free in some cases) and the taste and preference of consumers. It is also used as a reliable supplemental and/or backup fuel. Some households, however, do not use woodfuels or are reducing its use because of its inconvenience, smoke and messiness.

In the commercial and industrial sector, a large number of prepared-food vendors such as restaurants, vendors of barbecue and lechon (traditional roasted pig, served at celebrations and increasingly sold commercially), bakeries, makers of poso (rice steamed in coconut leaves) and noodle factories depend on woodfuel. Institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons and industries such as blacksmiths and iron gate manufacturers, fashion accessory manufacturers and rattan furniture makers are among the highest consumers of scrap wood, coconut wood and charcoal.

Production and management

Contrary to common belief, not all woodfuel is sourced from natural forests. Woodfuel production takes place within several types of land use, such as tree fallow and shrub fallow, woodlots, tree plantation sites, reforestation sites, agroforestry systems (fruit trees or scattered trees) and brushland and shrubland areas. Most of the woodfuel production in Cebu originates from a handful of species: Leucaena leucocephala, Leucaena glauca, Gliricidia sepium, Gmelina arborea and Swietenia macrophylla. The practice of coppicing is found among many woodfuel producers, but woodfuel coppice lands are declining as a result of land conversion, e.g. real estate development and establishment of mango plantations. Woodfuel coppice lands are normally harvested in rotational patches every two to five years. Trees are cut and carried or transported to leveled areas where they can be split, bundled according to size of fuelwood or converted into charcoal.

In Cebu, charcoal makers generally use local techniques. In the ham-ak method, wood is piled on a slope above ground and then covered with grass, weeds, banana leaves and a layer of soil before fire is put to it. In the tinabonan approach, a charcoal pit is dug on a slope, filled with wood and covered with a metal sheet after lighting. The ham-ak approach generates more and better-quality charcoal, but requires close monitoring, 24 hours a day over two to three days. Tinabonan has the advantage of requiring less attention.

Trade and distribution

In Cebu, trade in woodfuel has been a thriving and sustainable informal-sector industry for at least five decades. The rural-to-urban trading and distribution network (see Figure), involving numerous intermediaries at various levels, provides income, jobs and livelihood to hundreds of families both in the countryside and in the urban centre. The system of woodfuel trading in the province varies depending on the location and distance of woodfuel production sites, the presence of growers, manufacturers, rural and urban traders, the type of fuel being traded and regulatory policies governing transport of woodfuel. In general, the woodfuel marketing system in Cebu appears to be competitive and efficient.

The existence of local woodfuel entrepreneurs willing to engage in the business is one decisive factor in determining the extent of biofuel production in a given area. Woodfuel trade in the province provides income and employment to an estimated 45 000 to 65 000 people. In general, the woodfuel marketing system in Cebu appears to be competitive and efficient. Roughly 150 000 to 200 000 tonnes of fuelwood (including coconut fronds) are sold per year, and roughly 40 000 to 50 000 tonnes of charcoal. The value of commercial biofuel trade in the province is between US$9.3 million and $12 million per year, and Cebu is only one of more than 60 provinces in the country (although the use and production of biofuels may vary among provinces).

Charcoal making and biofuel trade and distribution also provide seasonal income in many areas of the province, particularly for farmers whose primary income comes from growing and trading mangoes.

Coppicing of Gliricidia and Leucaena species is a common practice among woodfuel producers in Cebu Province, the Philippines; here, rapid regrowth of the coppiced stumps is visible just five weeks after harvest, with smaller branches left on the slope



A 1992 study looked into the patterns of production, consumption, trade and distribution of woodfuel on the island of Cebu (Bensel and Remedio, 1993). It came to an eight-point conclusion:

TABLE 1. Primary and secondary household cooking fuels used at all income levels, Cebu City, the Philippines, 1992 and 2002

TABLE 2. Summary of household biofuel consumption for Cebu City, the Philippines, 1992 and 2002

Woodfuel trade and distribution flow

In Cebu, woodfuel trade has been a thriving informal-sector industry for decades, providing income and employment to thousands of entrepreneurs
Left, sacks of charcoal of various quality grades and from different tree species displayed for sale in a typical urban charcoal market, Cebu City
Centre, an urban woodfuel trader selling sacks of scrapwood and wood shavings, Cebu City
Right, a fuelwood vendor’s display, Cebu City


Gender implications of wood energy use in developing countries

Rural energy, household time allocation, health, nutrition and gender form a web of complex interrelated issues that merit serious attention in the formulation of development strategies.

Energy is a basic human need, and in many regions of the world the burden of energy poverty is borne by women and children (FAO, 1999a). It is usually the women and children who spend long hours collecting fuelwood, often foregoing other valuable activities such as farming, education, recreation and rest.

Recent studies (FAO, 1999b) comparing perceptions about the labour involved in urban and rural woodfuel systems revealed gender-sensitive distinctions in the definition of heavy versus light work and safe versus risky work conditions.

Group discussions with communities in FAO’s Regional Wood Energy Development Programme for Asia and the Pacific revealed that woodfuel-related tasks exclusively done by men – tree climbing, tree felling, cross-cutting large trunks of trees and long-­distance transport using conveyances such as tractors, bullock carts and hand cars – tend to be considered heavy. Fuelwood gathering for home consumption and subsistence is considered a light task, even if women walk long distances with heavy head loads for hours; head loading is exclusively done by women. Heaviness therefore appears to be related not to the weight of the load, but to the strength of the gender performing the task.

The tasks carried out by men in cutting fuelwood are considered risky and dangerous, hence not safe for women to perform. Inhaling heavy smoke while cooking, which adversely affects health, and head loading are not considered risky or dangerous. The general observation was that whenever trading or cash was involved, women’s safety was a concern. However, most activities related to trade or distribution of biofuel for cash in some kind of market, including collection and transport, do not usually involve women. On the other hand, the domestic use of fuelwood, from production and collection up to consumption, is almost entirely dominated by women and children. No cash involved – only women and children’s labour.

In developing countries, fuelwood collection is almost entirely dominated by women and children (shown, India)



The consumption, production and trade of woodfuel continues to be an important source of livelihood in the Philippines. The use of multiple fuels has a long tradition, and woodfuel is used as either primary or secondary fuel at the household level.

The case study of Cebu is a good example. Despite the rapid urbanization of Cebu City, thousands of households in the City and Province of Cebu continue to depend on woodfuel as their primary or secondary cooking fuel. Commercial and industrial food preparation establishments also largely depend on woodfuel. The intricate, multilevel woodfuel system provides income and jobs for thousands of families and saves the economy millions of dollars in foreign exchange every year by preventing the need for imported fossil fuels.

Notwithstanding the significance and importance of bioenergy in both local and national economies, there is still a need to improve the productivity and efficiency of woodfuel production as it impacts on the environment. Likewise, government policies on the cutting and transport of fuelwood need to be reviewed. While many of these policies may be intended to underscore environmental conservation goals, some regulations involving transport permits and protected areas tend to discourage woodfuel producers from more efficient and sustainable management of forest and tree resources.

1 The use of other biomass residues besides wood is not great except for coconut fronds. Hence, the terms woodfuel and biofuel (also wood energy and bioenergy) are used interchangeably throughout the text.


Ahern, G.P. 1901. Special report of Captain George P. Ahern. Washington, DC, USA, Forestry Bureau, Philippines.

Bensel, T.G. & Remedio, E.M. 1993. Patterns of commercial woodfuel supply, distribution and use in the city and province of Cebu Philippines. FAO Regional Wood Energy Development Programme, Field Document No. 42. Bangkok, Thailand, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Cebu Yearbook. 2002. Cebu City, the Philippines, Sun Star Publishing.

FAO. 1999a. The challenge of rural energy poverty in developing countries. Rome.

FAO. 1999b. Gender aspects of woodfuel flows in Sri Lanka: a case study in Kandy District. FAO Regional Wood Energy Development Programme, Field Document No. 55. Bangkok, Thailand, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

National Statistics Office, the Philippines. 2002. Census 2000 final counts. Retrieved 2 July 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Poffenberger, M. 1990. The evolution of forest management systems in Southeast Asia. In M. Poffenberger, ed. Keepers of the forest: land management alternatives in Southeast Asia, p. 7-26. West Hartford, Connecticut, USA, Kumarian Press.

Provincial Planning and Development Staff. 1987. Cebu provincial profile. Cebu City:, the Philippines.

Remedio, E.M. & Bensel, T.G. 2002. Environmental and socio-economic impacts of biofuel use in Southeast Asia: a case study of Cebu Province, Philippines. Unpublished report for the project “Information and Analysis for Sustainable Forest Management: Linking National and International Efforts in South and Southeast Asia”. Bangkok, Thailand, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

World Bank. 1989. Philippines: environment and natural resources management study. Washington, DC, USA.

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