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Editorial - Concerning wood energy

"To live, man must eat. To be edible most food must be cooked... close to half of mankind depends... On fuelwood...

This is the first of two special issues of Unasylva devoted exclusively to wood energy. As the magazine goes to press, this subject is also being prepared for examination at Nairobi, in August, by the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Four of the six articles in this issue are adapted from papers written for this meeting. The Conference was requested by the UN General Assembly. It will bring together scientists, economists and policy advisers from governments and international agencies, and will focus attention on energy problems of the developing countries. The title of the Conference strongly suggests that it is looking for long-term practical solutions.

One of the most important studies that will come before the Conference is from a nine-member UN panel, supported by FAO staff. It describes the present and future dimensions of the developing world's dependence on wood energy and identifies areas where fuelwood shortages are already serious. It then gives recommendations for dealing with the situation.

The Fuelwood and Charcoal Panel's report sums up the developing countries' energy problem in succinct words.

"Fuelwood and other organic fuels are the sources of energy for survival of the world's poor. To live, man must eat. To be edible, most food must be cooked... close to half of mankind depends... on fuelwood..."

From the report emerges "a situation of frightening proportions." Already there are more than 100 million who are "unable to obtain sufficient fuelwood to provide even minimum energy needs." Another 1000 million "are affected by lesser but unidentifiable shortages. If present trends continue, these numbers will have increased several-fold by the year 2000 to some 2 500 million persons."

The table on these pages, taken from the Panel's report, shows how all four regions of the developing world are affected and what is foreseen for them in the next 20 years.

The report says that because they lack wood, or other biological fuels, people in some areas of the world "are no longer able to secure sufficient cooked food to avoid hunger and malnutrition. In cold climates the mortality of old people and small children, who are less resistant, is increased, as houses cannot be adequately heated. In addition, apparently many, if not most, of the populations dependent on wood fuels are now suffering some physical or economic burdens in order to obtain fuel as supplies diminish."

In some places the need for fuelwood is creating ecological disaster areas. In parts of West Africa, the Sahel and the Himalayas, trees and woody vegetation have been cut for fuel to the point where the land has lost its agricultural value.

"The destruction of fragile arid land ecosystems... the erosion, flooding and siltation that have accompanied the removal of tree cover... threaten the agricultural potential and production of food on an alarming scale."

To imagine that in the next quarter century alternatives such as large-scale biogas programmes, solar energy, nuclear energy, not to say imported coal or petroleum, can be provided on a large enough scale for the needs of people in developing countries is much like saying "Let them eat cake." The populations in question are too poor and too remotely located for any fuel but wood, charcoal or animal dung.

Fortunately, as the Panel recommends - and as the authors of the articles in this issue describe in detail there are practical solutions. But no one believes that they will be easy to achieve. As the first article in this issue reminds us: Why have there been so many failures to provide self-sustaining fuelwood plantations in developing countries when, in fact, the techniques are no mystery? As usual, the solutions go beyond technology. They involve a nexus of technological, economic, socio-cultural and political factors.

The principal recommendation of the Panel is a political one, "The creation of awareness of the dimensions and nature of the energy needs that must be met by fuelwood and charcoal..." It urges "public expression by governments and the international community of their determination to implement the actions..."

Political will is once more implored.

The "poor man's energy crisis" does not involve petroleum; it is about wood, the residues of agriculture, and animal dung carefully patted into shape and dried in the sun. In some cases this energy crisis is or may become connected with the price of oil, especially where substitution and the transfer of fuelwood and charcoal from the countryside to the cities are involved. But basically the wood-energy situation has to be seen in its own context, which is rural, demographic and ecological. The agencies and people who deal with international development are aware of this and there are many indications that they are prepared to finance renewable energy resources projects of various kinds, in particular those involving wood energy. Furthermore, the environmental consciousness that is now widespread in developed and developing countries has given a sense of urgency to the need for management of existing forest reserves and reforesting of marginal lands.

One measure of the political will to deal with these problems is already reflected in the high proportion of FAO's field projects that are concerned with wood energy. It is now by far the largest area of immediate action being taken within the UN system on any renewable energy source. The FAO Forestry Department is currently executing more than 40 projects dealing with wood energy funded by a variety of multilateral and bilateral financial institutions.

Looking ahead, FAO has launched a major Forestry and Rural Energy Programme for developing countries that would mobilize capital and human resources in a variety of wood-energy projects. These projects would be tailored to the requirements of rural communities of all sizes, down to small villages and individual families.

One part of the programme aims at obtaining more intensive fuelwood production from forests that may now be suffering from improper management or may not be recognized as having potential for renewable fuelwood production. Another part will develop and spread the technology for more effective "end-use devices," from heat-efficient stoves for cooking and warming homes to practical and economical wood-burning generators for rural industries that are burning too much wood and charcoal wastefully.

The use of wood for fuel has been looked down upon within the forestry profession and relegated to last place, far behind paper-making, sawmills and watershed management. Perhaps this is another case of familiarity breeding contempt. In any event, the oldest and most familiar of all uses for wood must be re-examined in a new light.

T.M. PASCA, Editor

The fuelwood shortage in developing countries
Current and future dimensions in millions of people affected




Acute scarcity


Acute scarcity



















Near East and North Africa






Asia Pacific







1 532

1 441

Latin America
















2 770

2 225

Source: FAO report of the Technical Panel on Fuelwood and Charcoal to the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Nairobi. August 1981.

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