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5. Urban woodfuel trade

5.1 Geographical setting
5.2 Flow mechanism
5.3 Pricing system in the fuelwood trade
5.4 Gender aspects of the urban woodfuel flow
5.5 Woodfuel related living patterns

5.1 Geographical setting

Kandy urban area is the region's main service centre. Its population increased from 26,386 in 1901 to 114,950 in 1993, and then rose to 118,398 in 1995. This increase is associated more with the expansion of services than the growth of industries. The existing land use system in the Kandy urban area is characterised by a high percentage of residential uses, parks and open spaces, reservations, lakes, roads, commercial areas etc. (See Table 30).


Land use type

Area km2

% cover







Public and semi public






Parks & open spaces









Lakes, roads & other






The urban area depends heavily on outside areas to meet the woodfuel requirements of the residential, commercial (eating houses) and industrial (bakeries) sectors. Although free gathering is also noted, it is for self-consumption and is a means of reducing the pressure on household incomes and ensuring a supply of energy for cooking.

The well-developed road network has enhanced transport linkages with other areas. In fact the 3 main routes running to Kandy from the southwest, north and the east are important in providing various types of wood from the forests and rubber plantations. It was noted that the bulk of rubber wood is transported through the route running from southwest and some from the north. The forest wood is transported through the routes running from north and east, which are connected with the dry zone areas. (see Figure 8).

5.2 Flow mechanism

For convenience the flow mechanism can be described as having two components, although in fact these are closely interrelated: the first consists of those activities which take place before the woodfuel reaches the urban wood depots, or the mechanism between producers and urban dealers, and the second consists of those activities which take place after it reaches the depots, or retail distribution. The wood depots are the centres of urban delivery systems. Urban wood depots occupy the hub of the commercial flow mechanism. To study the commercial woodfuel flow mechanism and pricing system 11 fuelwood depots located in Kandy were selected. (see Figure 8 for locations).

(i) Delivery systems to urban wood depots

The urban woodfuel flow system can simply be described as a commercial woodfuel system or woodfuel business. The purpose of studying Kandy urban area was to understand the woodfuel business, marketing and trading activities, intermediaries involved, price composition, processing and also the delivery system to the end users. The reconnaissance survey revealed that fuelwood depots are scattered throughout the area and perform multiple functions, other than acting simply as "depots". In this study representatives of 11 fuelwood depots, almost all located within Kandy urban limits were interviewed.

As has been noted earlier, fuelwood depots provide focal points to investigate the "receiving mechanism" and the "delivery mechanism". The research on the receiving mechanism enabled the researcher to construct a complete picture of the interregional flow or the rural -urban flow. Unlike in the rural areas, where only a few intermediaries are involved, the rural-urban mechanism is characterised by well-established intermediaries. No links operate directly between producers and consumers and the whole flow system consists basically of a series of commercial transactions with the end users connected with the wholesalers or fuelwood depots through deliverers. Similarly the suppliers have no direct contacts with the consumers, so the links are through the commercial hubs - the depots. This implies that the wood depots form the "hubs" of the commercial system or the fuelwood business. (See Figure 9).

This simple flow process is organized around the activities of a number of intermediaries. In this respect, the commercial woodfuel flow is manipulated by the intermediaries without involvement of the consumers or the producers. The fuelwood produced in state forests, state rubber plantations and the private sector mainly comes through this system. The intermediaries involved include:

Contractors - Private individuals who undertake the responsibility to clear the lands. They undertake activities like harvesting, trimming, cross-cutting, digging out roots, and stacking for sale. The trading process starts with the stacked fuelwood.

Dealers - In about 35 percent of the cases stacked fuelwood enters the trading channels through a dealer. Dealers deliver only about 30 percent of this share directly to wood depots.

Transporters - The transporters are engaged in buying the stacked wood in cubic metres, either directly from the contractors or from the dealers. About 70% of the fuelwood purchased by dealers is delivered to urban depots directly. Transporters are involved in about 50% of the cases. It is important to note that many dealers interviewed mentioned that they have their own conveyances, lorries, to transport fuelwood from clearing sites to urban depots.


Urban fuelwood depots - Transporters and dealers have contacts with urban fuelwood depots, so the system is a well-established one. Urban fuelwood depots do not merely act as "fuelwood depots", or as a marketplace, but are engaged in wholesale buying, processing, retail trading, and supplying the door-step deliverers or the distributors. As a result, a number of activities are performed at urban depots and the responsibility of getting sufficient stocks is borne by them. The situation suggests that the commercial fuelwood flow to the Kandy urban area is through three main channels.

The general flow pattern from producers to urban depots shown in Figure 9 gives an idea of the level of engagement of different intermediaries, (see Table 31). For example, while 25 percent of the total handled by the contractors is directly delivered to the depots, another 40 percent comes through transporters. The remaining 35 percent comes through the dealers. Of this amount, 30 percent, which is about 10 percent of the total that goes to depots, comes through transporters, while the remaining 70 percent, which is nearly 25 percent of the total received at depots, is directly delivered by the dealers. This implies that one half of the fuelwood in the flow mechanism is delivered by transporters, so they are the main intermediaries. Where transporters and contractors are the same group of people (which has been noted in the field) at least 65 percent of the process is controlled by this group.

(ii) Delivery system from depots to users

One specific feature of the flow from depots to end users is that the urban fuelwood depots are the processing centres at which billets of wood are split into smaller units for delivery. This is of great importance in the whole commercial flow mechanism because when the unit of trade changes after processing a different pricing system is introduced.



% share traded through intermediaries


i. Direct delivery


ii. Through transporter


iii. Through dealers:

a) delivered by dealers


b) through transporters


Urban depots


At the depots most of the fuelwood which has been purchased in cubic metres in billets form is split and sold by weight. The split fuelwood is sold in kilograms to the distributors. The normal unit is known as a 'hundred weight", which is nearly 50 kg. About 20-30 percent of the fuelwood is sold at depots in units less than 50 kg to the households. 70-80 percent goes through wholesalers and is sold in hundred weight units.

The main activity that takes place at fuelwood depots is the splitting which is done by hired labour. Traditional technologies like iron-wedges and axes are used to split the wood. Then it is weighed and sold to the distributors. This is done either by the depot owners or a person in-charge of the depots. The delivery of commercial fuelwood to the end users thus takes place after the fuelwood reaches the urban depots. As shown in Figure 10, this is mainly accomplished through small-scale traders. The delivery mechanism is rather complex. The fuelwood depots deal with processing, and are also engaged in delivering both processed and partly processed fuelwood to the end users. This implies that the woodfuel flow or distribution system includes self-collection of wood by users, delivery by depots and retail distribution by traders. For instance, 10 percent of the wood is delivered without splitting to the commercial users by depots, and 90 percent is processed. Then 10 percent of the processed wood is delivered directly to the commercial users by depots; 5 percent goes via retail sales at depots; while 85 percent is sold wholesale to retail deliverers. At the next level retailers deliver 90 percent to domestic users while 10 percent is delivered to the commercial users (see Figure 10).

The patterns in the flow mechanism between depots and end users reveal that greater control over the distribution is exercised by the wood depots. Just over 23 percent is delivered directly by the wood depots (see Table 32). Fuelwood depots hire tractors when needed for delivery. Out of 11 wood depots representatives interviewed 5 use hired bullock-carts to deliver the split wood. Of the total fuelwood handled by depots, 26.6 percent goes to commercial uses. This includes 10 percent unsplit billets which goes directly from depots to bakeries and 9 percent split wood most of which goes to hotels, restaurants and eating houses. Only 7.6 percent goes through retail traders to the commercial users, hotels, restaurants etc.

The field information reveals that among the consumers of the commercial fuelwood the household or residential sector is the largest. This sector utilizes nearly 74 percent of the total. Nearly 69 percent is distributed by the retail traders, this portion is composed of split wood. The primary mode of distribution is carts: bullock-carts deliver about 82 percent while the remainder goes in hand-carts. Although depots are not involved in retail distribution, about 4.5 percent is sold directly for household consumption, primarily to those who live in the neighbourhood.

The distribution or retail delivery mechanism is dominated by carters. In fact this system is dominated by about 16 carters and, as noted in the field, these often cheat consumers by selling underweight amounts or poor quality wood - wet or raw fuelwood. Nevertheless, doorstep delivery is the most convenient for the consumers. For the households who cannot afford to buy and stock fuelwood, its daily distribution is most suitable, particularly for women who have to bear the brunt of collection.


Hub of the system



Delivery system/mode

% going through different actors

End users

Wood depot

Wood depot

Billeted wood

direct tractor delivery


Commercial users- bakeries

Wood depot

Processed- split wood

Direct cart delivery


Commercial users- hotels, restaurants etc.

Wood depot

Processed- split wood

Direct retail- sale, hand- carry, head- loading


Households domestic use

Retail trader/ deliverers

Processed-split wood

Retail deliverers,
Bullock carts,
Doorstep delivery


[7.6] Commercial users -hotels, restaurants etc.
[68.9] Domestic users

Although enumeration of the daily distribution of woodfuel was not done in this study, according to the information given by the wood depots a total of about 7,000-11,000 kg of fuelwood is handled by 11 depots per day for all urban consumers. Although this tends to vary tremendously, the situation reveals that nearly Rs. 16,800-26,400 worth of fuelwood is traded daily in Kandy city only through the flow mechanism centred around fuelwood depots. All 11 depots deal with wholesale trade while retailing is primarily done by the carters who are men. The annual volume of trade is highly variable, and the estimations given by the depots reveal that at least 2.5 - 3.5 million kilograms of fuelwood is traded annually in Kandy city. This implies that the annual flow of billeted wood from outside areas to the urban area is in the range of 2500 - 3500 cubic metres per annum. This has to be taken as a generalised figure because it is not possible to give proper estimates due to the weight variations among fuelwood types and also the problems related to the conversion of stacked wood measured in cubic metres into weight units. The primary mode of transport to depots is the lorry , and then the processed wood is delivered primarily in carts. The important point to note here is that there is no consistency in the flow system and no recorded information is available concerning the intermediaries, thus all the figures are no more than rough estimations. The deliveries to the depots take place when wood is available. For instance, the rubber wood is available only at clear fellings. Similarly, it has been reported by the carters and wood depot managers that they often have to wait several days for wholesale deliveries. The whole system of trade is informal, and as a result the trade is often below the estimated average. Another point to be noted here is that no women are involved. Although they are the primary porters of wood in the domestic sector in rural areas, the urban income opportunities in this sector are allocated strictly according to gender roles and are dominated by men.


5.3 Pricing system in the fuelwood trade

The pricing mechanism is also very complex because it is decided by the intermediaries. There is no state agency which controls the price. Figure 11 shows the intermediaries and junctures in the chain of flow at which the price is increased. While it increases as it moves on with the increasing number of intermediaries, the amount received by the producer is still low, (see Figure 11).

The difference between the price paid by the consumer and the price paid to the producer is Rs. 1.97 cents. Of the Rs. 2.40 paid by the end user for a unit (1 kg.) nearly 43 cents go to the producer. This also varies according to the type of woodfuel, location, personal contacts with the transporters, and the distance to the market. The percentage coming down the line to each juncture starting from the consumer is an interesting phenomenon. Eighty three percent of the price paid by a consumer to the retailer (which is Rs. 2.40 per kg) goes to the urban fuelwood depots. According to the analysis this includes the cost of wood and transportation, stacking, processing, municipal tax for space occupation (depots occupy open space) and the management and a profit. Inconsistencies in the information given by all wood depot managers make it clear that they try to cover up the profit margin and exaggerate their costs. Calculations revealed that only 5 cents per kilogram goes for splitting. Then only about 27.5 percent paid by the consumer goes down to the next juncture, to the transporters and this includes the cost of wood, transportation and profit. Then, the 23.3 percent of the end price goes down to the contractor and this includes 17.9 percent that goes to producer and all other costs involved in harvesting, cross-cutting etc. The scenario emerging out of this 'funnelling down mechanism' discloses how the total price (Rs. 2.40) paid by end users goes down the system (see Figure 12).


Further analysis was done to see the percentage retained by intermediaries at their respective junctures. Accordingly, of the price paid per one kilogram which gets divided among intermediaries, 17% goes to the retail deliverers, 56 percent to wood depots where only 5 cents is spent per kg for splitting, 4 percent to the transporter, 5 percent to the contractor and nearly 18 percent to the producer for his investments.

Those who are involved in this trade mechanism earn an income out of the system. For instance, contractors keep nearly 13 cents per each kg of fuelwood; transporters (lorry transportation) keep 10 cents; urban fuelwood depots keep 24 cents for unsplit wood and Rs. 1.34 cents for split wood; the retail distributor keeps nearly 40 cents. The outstanding feature is that as fuelwood moves along the trade mechanism the price increases significantly. At the centre of this flow mechanism - at the fuelwood depots - more than one half of the price paid by the consumer is retained. Smaller units become profitable and as a result, fuelwood splitting increases the profit margins at the depots.

Finally, the amount earned by the producer for his investment is closer to the amount earned by retail distributors per unit. Due to the lower profit margin in this process up to the level of wood depots the small-scale producers are discarded from the system. For the same reason small scale fuelwood flow from rural to urban areas does not occur. The transporters' profit margins are small, so by transporting more they can increase the profit per lorry load of billeted wood which contains nearly 20 cubic metres.

As the mode of transport (which is primarily the bullock cart) does not require any fossil fuel it is a manageable system with a small investment. All carters interviewed mentioned that they sell at least 800-1000 kilograms per day. One cart load contains nearly 800-1200 kilograms of split wood. At least Rs. 1,920 worth of split wood is sold per day and the earnings for their labour, cart and bull is about Rs. 320 per day. As has been mentioned, it is really a struggle for the carters because there is stiff competition among them, but they confine themselves to their own specified areas by mutual agreement.

To understand the whole system field observation was made covering the transportation of a lorry load of rubber wood from Mawathagama area to the fuelwood depot located in Asgiriya and then the delivery to the households. The specific information gathered is given in Table 33. According to the fuelwood depots fuelwood sales have declined, particularly during the past 10 years, due to the adoption of gas (LPG) for domestic cooking. But, whatever the problems the wood depots have to face their net returns are extremely high when compared with those of all other actors involved.




Selling price 1 kg.

Amount received per unit

Net cost

Return to the intermediary
















Wood depot










(Calculations were based on field observation in Asgiriya).

5.4 Gender aspects of the urban woodfuel flow

The commercial woodfuel flow, as has been mentioned earlier, is primarily controlled by the large-scale suppliers and it is an interregional phenomenon. Only in the distribution of split-wood does the flow mechanism involve the retail distributors. This section examines how the socially constructed roles and activities of men and women have influenced the division of activities in the flow mechanism. The activities in the commercial flow of fuelwood to the urban markets are not identical to those noted in the rural sector particularly in the process related to home consumption. The urban woodfuel flow starts at the level of tree felling, which operates with the primary objective of clearing land.

The whole process emphasises the singular importance of men's labour, (see Table 34). All on-site activities or the activities at production sites are performed by men. Once wood for the market is stacked, the remaining twigs and small branch wood are gathered by women for home consumption, but this takes place only if the management allows women to collect them. The actual trading process is also dominated by men, from the level of selling stacked wood to transporters/dealers, then to depots, including processing and distribution.

There are two matters to be examined here. The first is the exclusion of women in the commercial woodfuel flow process/woodfuel business. The second is related to the disparity between the self-consumption sphere, where women's labour plays a major role and the commercial sphere from which women have been excluded. The gender disparities show that the fuelwood business does not provide employment opportunities for women, or an income. Women are not engaged in tree felling, trimming, cross-cutting, stacking and transporting to the urban fuelwood depots, nor they are in the delivery system from wood depots to the end users. There are no paid work opportunities for women in this mechanism, so the cash returns from the woodfuel business are enjoyed exclusively by men.

























Why two contrasting pictures have emerged with regard to gender performance was a very sensitive question. Because each picture is affected not only by the activities but also by location, and the purpose of attending to the activities. Obviously it is not completely due to the masculine nature of the work. The village situations analyzed earlier show that women are more heavily engaged in the process of fuelwood flow than are men. This is confirmed by analysing global experiences which show that the task of providing fuelwood is connected with home maintenance and so is seen as women's work. "Fuelwood" is in the domain of women. When it becomes an income earning opportunity and employment venture men have the privilege of reaping the benefits.

There are technical reasons behind this situation as well. The field discussions revealed that tree felling, the use of equipment like hand-saws and transportation are all outside the domain of women's conventional work. No men believed that women had the skill to do such tasks. So the woodfuel business which involves large-scale operations has never been conceptualised as women's work, nor as a possible area for women to be employed on a daily wage basis. Fuelwood development for the generation of employment and income has not been taken into consideration by development agencies, indeed even those which focus heavily on income generation and employment opportunities for women have paid little attention to the potential of this sector.

Along with the conventional ideology regarding the masculine nature of the activities involved in the commercial woodfuel flow, the commercial context of the activities influences their allocation. The conventional division of responsibilities displays a clear distinction between women's work and men's work in the commercial woodfuel flow. This distinction prevails between gathering for self-consumption and harvesting for commercial supply. Free gathering is seen more as a task related to household maintenance, while commercial supply is seen in the context of employment and income generation for which men are responsible. The work which does not directly bring an income is performed more by women. This is why women's engagement in trimming and collecting branchwood for household consumption has not been considered important. Not only are those twigs categorized as "leftovers" but they are also not valued in terms of their contribution to household energy consumption.

Another question which arises under these circumstances is whether the level of operation has gender implications. Whether large scale production has, as in many other situations, been kept under the control of men needs examining. The large-scale operations for land clearings, and the harvesting and gathering of fuelwood for small quantities for daily consumption are divided in a gender specific manner and coincide with conventional gender roles. These differences are also connected with the conceptualisation of fuelwood in one situation as a "by-product" of trees and in the other as a "major product" of trees. The visits to the plantations during the investigation made it clear that fuelwood is an additional source of income derived from the plantations managed for cash income, and it is produced from the last harvest of a plantation's life cycle. The survey of the rural situation revealed that, where women are heavily engaged, fuelwood is one product among many others and is usually thought of as being available throughout a plantation's life rather than only at the end of its life cycle. Women's lack of concern for growing trees specifically for fuelwood is related to these conventional practices. Perhaps on the same grounds women are being excluded from the systems operating inter-regionally.

5.5 Woodfuel related living patterns

The woodfuel business, although noted as a man's occupation, is a household survival strategy for those who are engaged as intermediaries in the flow mechanism, while in rural areas the fuelwood sales bring cash to meet contingency needs. For wage earners, for the casual labour in particular, it is an opportunity to earn cash. For instance, 2 to 3 people work at each wood depot splitting wood and selling them to carters. The benefits of the daily wage opportunities are enjoyed by their families. The wage income of a daily labourer is in the range of Rs. 140 to 240, which is equivalent to a local casual labour wage. Almost all the respondents interviewed mentioned that it is a means to support their families. According to the interviewees, as women have no formal employment in these families, it is a sole source of family income.

The discussions held with the families of fuelwood carters' showed that although it is the sole source of income only 60-70 percent goes for family use. Only in 4 cases did 90 percent or more of the daily earnings go to the family. The rest goes on carters' personal expenditures which includes lunch, 3 cups of tea, smoking materials and some alcohol. All the carters interviewed occupy very congested housing units, so the quality of life is rather poor. Neither the carters nor the women of their families believe that women could be involved in the woodfuel trade because the work is too hard for them. Therefore, it would be difficult for women to be integrated into the existing trade mechanisms and it is doubtful that they would be accepted.

Relatively better standards of living, with better houses with service facilities are enjoyed by the fuelwood depot owners. A repeatedly mentioned problem is the tendency for the consumption of fuelwood to decrease, and for the price that the consumers have to pay to the deliverers from outside to increase. They stressed three points in regard to this phenomenon. The first is the difficulty in getting better logs of rubber wood, because it is in demand as timber for making furniture and packing boxes. Rubber wood packs well and the wastage is minimal, the time spent on splitting is less when compared with forest wood, so depots get maximum returns from rubber wood sales. The second is the greater tendency by the household sector to use alternative, clean types of energy. Records at wood depots showed that their sales have been reduced by about 35-40 percent. The third point is the increasing price of wood coming from outside and the increased fuel price that affects the cost of transportation.

Under these circumstances, the future of the woodfuel business must be properly supported to make it a profitable income venture for the producers. The potential to promote supplies from hinterland areas and to connect hinterlands with urban markets has not been investigated so far. This is a way to contribute to the incomes of the small-scale rural producers, particularly to women. According to the women interviewed in the rural survey, if such mechanisms are developed women will be motivated to produce an excess of fuelwood and to consume fuelwood more efficiently, because every kilogram of wood that they can save will be sold for cash for household use.

Fuelwood transportation for commercial purposes is a man's job (A.W.)

Men dominate the commercial woodfuel trade (T.N.B.)

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