Contents - Next


Clarity from crisis

In the 1970s and early 1980s, environment and development specialists repeatedly warned that forest loss through overcutting of wood for fuel threatened to damage soils, deplete water resources and force needy rural people to migrate from the land as their livelihoods collapsed. In some areas, notably Africa's Sahel, Brazil's Northeast and the highlands of Nepal, there were signs that this feared 'fuelwood crisis' might already have arrived.

International efforts were accordingly set in motion to find ways to boost production, to cut back household consumption of wood and wood-based fuels and to find other renewable power sources to guard against future household energy shortfalls. The 1981 UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, convened in Nairobi, Kenya, set an important lead towards these goals.

The resulting Nairobi Programme of Action (NPA) called, among other things, for new monitoring and assessment efforts to gauge the use of 'traditional' energy sources such as fuelwood and charcoal. It also recommended global steps to develop new and renewable sources of energy to replace oil and other fossil fuels, also thought at that time to be under imminent threat of a supply crisis. Although some assumptions on which these efforts were based did not fully reflect reality, the NPA led to a more comprehensive understanding of energy production and use, particularly in relation to wood energy.

Without doubt, fuelwood overcutting can multiply economic, environmental and social ills. But in most cases it tends to be an incidental sign rather than a primary cause of forest loss. Furthermore, it is now clear that woodfuels can be - and often are - produced and harvested along sustainable lines, to the lasting benefit of forests and all who depend on them. A better-informed, more progressive outlook on woodfuels and environment has also been nourished by fresh ideas about wood energy's potential as an environmentally sound power source for industry and, in all its applications, as a key to new sources of income and livelihood.

The global energy picture has changed, too. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) pledged to achieve, in Chapter 11:

'... efficient utilization and assessment to recover full valuation of the goods and services provided by forests, forest lands and woodlands'

and in Article 2 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change:

'stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system'.

Many development researchers look to sustainable production of biomass energy, including wood energy, to help tackle this challenge by reducing the use of fossil-based fuels and exploiting the natural carbon cycling function of plant life to the full.

This report discusses these trends by reference to examples from many countries which suggest viable ways to realise the development potential of wood energy without environmental or social drawbacks. It describes a changing role for wood energy in a changing world where fuelwood and wood-based fuels need no longer be associated with poverty or underdevelopment but could rank among viable modern options open to energy users everywhere.

A concluding section outlines development approaches that could, in the view of FAO, help deliver these benefits and overcome prevailing natural resource limitations and technical or institutional constraints.

David Harcharik
Assistant Director General
Forestry Department
Food and Agriculture Organization

Contents - Next