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The world of forestry

Wood energy

Wood energy

Recommendations of the Nairobi Conference

In regard to fuelwood and charcoal tile United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, which took place in Nairobi August 10 through 21, 1981, made the following recommendations:

Bearing in mind that fuelwood and charcoal constitute important sources of energy for large populations especially in the rural areas of developing countries; that adequate management of forest resources to provide fuel, food and timber requires the assessment of projected supply and demand and the identification of deficit areas; that their proper role must be seen in the context of the over-all energy requirements and the particular problems of rural areas of most developing countries, and notwithstanding financial feasibility, especially in agroforestry systems and that broad-based support and participation of men and women in the development, management and efficient use of fuelwood are essential taking into account the need for maintaining the ecological balance, the following specific actions have been identified:


(i) Assess and evaluate forest resources in order to estimate their present and future sustainable yield of fuelwood, to identify deficit areas in which reafforestation is both urgent and practicable;


(i) Intensify and/or establish basic and applied research on more productive species;

(ii) Support and promote work aimed at improving the efficiency of stoves and cooking utensils, develop low-cost stoves and promote their widespread use, taking into account social and cultural acceptability;

(iii) Improve preprocessing of fuels, including those presently wasted such as twigs, branches and dry leaves, for use in direct combustion and other processes and improve the conversion efficiency of charcoal making;

(iv) Develop promising fuelwood and charcoal substitutes or supplements utilizing other new and renewable sources of energy.


(i) Improve and/or establish forest management practices;

(ii) Increase and/or establish reforestation and afforestation programmes with selected and tested species;

(iii) Promote and support programmes, projects and activities to establish large-scale plantations including afforestation in deficit areas and woodlots, establish distribution, control and pricing policies, and improve conversion and utilization technologies (charcoal production and gasification, kilns, ovens). (Chapter II B)

Areas for priority action

The Conference decided that... priority is to be assigned to certain types of action and programmes... In particular the Conference recognizes that meeting rural energy requirements within the context of integrated rural development programmes including agricultural production and transportation, small-scale and rural industries, household requirements and socio-cultural aspects is of great urgency.

The following priority areas have been identified:

Rural energy. Of particular concern to developing countries is the need for taking urgent measures aimed at alleviating the acute domestic energy supply problem, particularly the fuelwood crisis, which is asuming alarming dimensions. One goal of the Nairobi Programme of Action is that during the present decade countries will undertake planned programmes with a view to ensuring that the energy needs of the rural areas can be met on a sustainable basis. To that end the following priority actions for transferring, adapting and applying mature technologies in rural areas have been identified:

(i) Widespread application of improved practices and technologies for the conservation and more effective use of natural forestry resources;

(ii) Establishment and acceleration of programmes for large scale reforestation and afforestation with selected and tested species, as well as for smaller scale woodlots and plantations of energy crops, particularly in arid, semiarid and deficit regions, as part of an effort to increase five-fold the annual rate of fuelwood planting and to meet effectively and sustainably the demand for biomass fuels by the year 2000;

(iii) Generalized rural application of locally available new and renewable sources of energy, in particular integrated systems where feasible, using mature or proven technologies.


Nairobi Conference called for more funds to go to third world energy needs and saw fuelwood and charcoal requirements as crucial

Lloyd Timberlake

LLOYD TIMBERLAKE is Editorial Director of Earthscan, at the International Institute for the Environment and Development, London. He wrote this analysis expressly for Unasylva.

On the second day of the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy (UNERG) here, some 1000 people marched through the streets of Nairobi carrying seedlings and bundles of firewood.

They walked up to the entrance of the huge conference centre and laid their burden, and their challenge, at the feet of Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau of Canada, Faelldin of Sweden and Edward Seaga of Jamaica, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and UNERG Secretary-General Enrique Iglesias. To the marchers, mostly women and children, carrying placards with slogans such as "Day-long journey for fuel - relieve us of backbreaking labour," Trudeau said "It is nice to feel that what we are doing inside there is connected to the needs of the people we were elected to serve."

A peaceful, symbolic affair, the firewood march got more coverage by the 700 journalists present than what the Conference finally did about the global fuelwood crisis.

True, the press, and the delegates, devoted a great many words to "the other energy crisis." With UNERG covering a diffuse collection of "new and renewable" energies ranging from solar cells and huge hydroelectric dams to peat and draught-animal power, the fuelwood shortage was the one emotive issue which plenary speakers and journalists could get their teeth into. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the more than 1000 delegates that,

"If the laws of nature are thwarted, renewable sources also will be exhausted. The indiscriminate felling of trees has denuded our forests with disastrous ecological imbalances affecting the very quality of life. In its sternest form nature retaliates against the scars of treeless mountainsides causing landslides and devastating floods and silting dams and rivers. Rainfall begins to dwindle and the desert resumes its deathly march."

It was repeatedly noted that half of mankind depends on fuelwood, charcoal, animal dung and agricultural waste for cooking and heating. The UNERG report on firewood said, "There is no alternative source of energy that could provide a viable substitute for fuelwood... within the next quarter century," and it recommended that the conference, as its most important objective, "make known the dimension and nature of the energy needs that must be met by fuelwood and charcoal." It quoted FAO figures showing that last year acute firewood scarcity affected 100 million people, that a further 1000 million people lived in areas deficient in fuelwood, and that "within two decades over 2300 million people will need to be provided with massive supplies of alternative fuels."

National reports to UNERG also stressed the crisis. Sudan noted that heavy reliance on fuelwood had led to "desertification, soil degradation and increased aridity." Sudan estimated it needed to plant 120000 hectares of trees annually, and was reaching six percent of target. It projected a wood production deficit soon after 1985. Kenya estimated it would need to plant about 2 million hectares in trees over the next two decades to meet fuelwood requirements.

Then as the work of UNERG, which consisted of drafting a "Nairobi Programme of Action for the Development and Utilization of New and Renewable Sources of Energy," moved into two closed committees a strange thing happened. The rich, industrialized nations stressed the fuelwood crisis and the need for action, while the Third World nations, many with acute fuelwood shortages, resisted this emphasis. Members of the UNERG secretariat tried to explain this line-up. They said that the developed countries would much rather concentrate on a poor-country-only crisis than on closer-to-home, long-term problems such as the transfer of energy technologies and the establishment of new funding agencies and international energy bodies. The "Group of 77" (G77) developing nations disliked what they saw as a patronizing emphasis on "poor peoples' energy;" they were at UNERG to get help in replacing the oil used in their industrial sectors, which costs many of these nations over 60 percent of their export earnings. Whenever firewood came up, G77 tried to expand the reference to cover the overall development of rural energies.

After two weeks of relatively frictionless debate (10-21 August), UNERG's Committee Two emerged with a long list of things to do in the 10 different energy fields being discussed here. These fill a large part of the Action Programme and appear as well in the recommendations.

Another Programme section identified "the fuelwood crisis, which is assuming alarming dimensions," as an area for priority action and recommended afforestation programmes "as part of an effort to increase five-fold the annual rate of fuelwood planting and to meet effectively and sustainably the demand for biomass fuels by the year 2000." The committee had decided against a call for the doubling of world forest cover as both unscientific and unrealistic.

Yet many wood-fuel experts attending the Conference as observers rather than delegates regarded the recommendations as a listing of the obvious, of the things any nation with the money and manpower would already be doing, rather than a serious "programme of action" offering priorities and a step-by-step approach. Philip O'Keefe, director of the Beijer Institute's Kenya Fuelwood Project, noted that the Programme did not deal with one of the key facts of fuelwood shortages: "There is a shortage of firewood not in the forests, where this conference is putting the emphasis, but on the small farms where the people live." Many nations have forestry departments dealing with forests as watersheds and suppliers of pulp and building materials, but not as suppliers of fuelwood. Forestry departments, agricultural extension workers and even energy ministries all ignore the problem are completely unequipped to deal with the problem - of getting trees planted on the surprisingly large percentage of wasteland on most peasant smallholdings, O'Keefe said. The perfect solar cooker, if such existed, and even a cheap, efficient wood stove, are unlikely to replace the open firewood fire, he added. For the fire not only cooks food; it provides light, to lengthen the peasant's day; it provides warmth; it is a social centre; its smoke keeps insects out of the thatched roof and dries the grain and produce stored in the rafters while also protecting it from insects. Several expensive new technologies - electric lights, heaters, insecticides, food driers - would have to be provided to replace each of these functions, O'Keefe said. Such down-on-the-farm details, messy and yet all-important, are completely missing from UNERG's Action Programme, giving it an air of unreality.

The other UNERG drafting group, Committee One, was charged with the responsibility of agreeing on the financial and institutional arrangements to help move the world from reliance on hydrocarbons into the new energy era. Depending on who one talked to, this committee either failed completely, or achieved a delicate compromise which will bear much fruit in the future. The United States delegation had come to the Conference with instructions to block commitments to either new multilateral funding or to a new UN energy body. It wanted energy responsibility given to the UN's Committee on Natural Resources, whose membership is limited and whose mandate covers water and minerals as well as energy. The 120 G77 nations wanted promises of additional money and a new body whose membership would be open to all UN members. At dawn on UNERG' last day, the rich and poor nations agreed in principle to additional funds for energy (but no figures given) and to the establishment of an open-ended "interim committee" whose tasks and funding would be decided by the UN General Assembly in 1982. The committee is not a permanent committee, as the G77 nations wanted, but it will be controlled by the UN Director-General for Development and International Economic Cooperation, Kenneth Dadzie of Ghana, as G77 insisted. The agreed Programme also recommended that the possibility of a World Bank energy affiliate continue to be examined, a stand with which the United States, which has virtually vetoed the establishment of such a fund, dissociated itself. Thus there is no money, at least in the Nairobi Programme of Action, and no new coordinating body to guarantee that any of the many splendid recommendations on fuelwood, and the other energy sources, get implemented.

Despite this, Dr Iglesias, a Uruguayan economist, hailed UNERG as both a success and a breakthrough in big UN conferences. He said it had avoided the trap of setting up face-saving funds which remained largely unfunded. This happened at both the 1976 UN Conference on Desertification and the 1979 UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development. He believes that the authority finally invested in UNERG's Programme by the General Assembly in 1982 will be more important than any last-minute "targets which remain theoretical and funds which remain non-existent." Besides, he noted, "the world is in a bad financial mood."

But he pointed out that the pledge of "additionality" - that is, more aid money specifically for energy rather than money taken from another sector and given to energy - led the Programme's financial section and had been agreed to by all nations: "Countries have the right to ask for money. It is in writing."

But finally, over the long term, the Conference was not about programmes or funds or institutions, but about raising world consciousness. Dr Iglesias said, "This issue (on new and renewable energies) has become a respectable issue." He noted that 80 ministers, most of them energy ministers, had attended the Conference, along with several heads of state, such as Prime Ministers Gandhi, Trudeau, Faelldin and Seaga, who are key figures in discussions of North-South relationships and of the "new world economic order." Gustavo Best of Mexico said that before these ministers came here they were forced, if they wanted to talk sensibly in Nairobi, to look around in their own nations, and find out what was being done on new and renewable energies. They returned from UNERG well briefed, especially on the importance of firewood and draught animals.

Some 5000 people attended the Conference, at which 125 nations were officially represented. UNERG forced all these people, these nations, to recognize the existence of a fuelwood crisis of serious proportions in many parts of the Third World.

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