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The fuelwood crisis in Africa: An FAO round-table discussion

Michael Pickstock

MICHAEL PICKSTOCK is a special correspondent for the BBC.

This panel discussion has been adapted from a recent BBC radio broadcast in the popular series "The Farming World"

Pickstock: Stone-Age man really started something when he invented the first axe capable of felling trees, something which many people are now beginning to regret. Whereas the earliest farmers had to grow their crops on land that was naturally bare of timber and relied on dead timber to fuel their fires, their axe-wielding descendants could clear forest, expand their crop land and, incidentally, increase their population.

Ever since, agriculture and forestry have been competitors in land use and, in the face of the rapid rise in world population this century, the twin demands for farm land and fuelwood have diminished forests and fuelwood resources to alarmingly low levels. While everyone has been concentrating on enough food, millions of people are now in a tragic situation: they have food but not the fuel to cook it.

I have just spent a week at the Rome headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It was through talking to Marc-René de Montalembert that I discovered the extent of the desperate fuelwood shortage, particularly in Africa. He described the world tropical timber review carried out by FAO in Africa and other developing countries.


DE MONTALEMBERT:".. there is a need... to raise the awareness of African farmers to see trees as a complement to agriculture and not as an alternative."

de Montalembert: What this survey has shown for Africa is a picture which is really dramatic. First of all, there are something like 50 million rural people - we are talking essentially of rural people with no access to alternative fuels - who were deficient in their basic fuelwood supplies in the year 1980. These people do not have enough fuelwood in their surroundings to cook their food and warm their homes.

Pickstock: No matter what they do, how far they walk, nothing?

de Montalembert: They have no access to sufficient supplies! Besides these 50 million - we are still talking of 1980 - there were an additional 130 million people, rural people again, without access to other sources of energy, who were getting the minimum fuelwood supplies only at the cost of overexploiting the surrounding vegetation, the neighbouring forest. But this, of course, takes place at the cost of threatening their future supplies.

Pickstock: They arc on the way to joining the other 50 million?

de Montalembert: They are on the way to joining the other 50 million, who, in turn, are on the way to nowhere. What I would also like to point out is the fact that these 180 million people, who already constituted a major problem in 1980, will become close to 500 million by the end of the century if nothing is done on a massive scale.

Pickstock: That is just in Africa, too?

de Montalembert: Just in Africa south of the Sahara!

Pickstock: Marc-René de Montalembert is the coordinator of the Wood Energy Programme in FAO's Forestry Department. Something that he is very concerned about changing is the prevalent attitude that farming and forestry are competitors and mutually exclusive activities.

de Montalembert: There still exists, in many countries, the traditional sort of opposition between forestry and agricultural use of the land. The population sees forestry as being a valid use of the land but one which deprives them of potential benefits: trees are seen as obstacles to be removed.

Pickstock: They are willing to sacrifice the long-term benefits of trees, because of the long-term nature of harvesting, in favour of the quick return of a cash crop or a food crop?

de Montalembert: That is one reason. Another is demographic growth, which implies that they need more land to grow more food in the absence of any substantial increase in agricultural productivity. What is really needed is to change this attitude about forestry on the part of the rural people and demonstrate to them that forestry is an integral part of their environment, that they can protect and manage the forests and that they can use them for their own benefit. This, in many cases, implies very deep structural changes. Some of the responsibility for protecting and managing the forest has to be transferred to the local population, which will be motivated by receiving directly the benefits of the forest.

Pickstock: Are you asking people to consider forestry as part of farming and not as something different?

de Montalembert: Absolutely. It is an integral part of rural development!

Pickstock: The fuel crisis is not new of course, and during the past 10 years or more there have been many ideas for filling the widening energy gap - by solar power, windmills, water-turbines, and bio-gas to name only four. But for many millions of people in the immediate future, there is no real substitute for fuelwood. In that case it's a pretty depressing future, or is it?

de Montalembert: What is really completely different from before, and what makes the problem so new is, first of all, that now everybody realizes that there will not be a substitute for fuelwood in Africa, at least for the next 20 years. And so we have to work out fuelwood solutions. It is certainly not a picture without hope. The solutions, technically speaking, are well known. But if we are to work out fuelwood solutions which will have a real impact on the problem, they should be massive in nature.

That means that it cannot be government institutions which will implement these solutions. Solutions will have to be found by the people themselves. These solutions are, in a very few words, quite simple and complementary to each other. One is to bring existing wood resources under active management to mobilize the productivity of this vegetation.

The second solution is to plant more trees where there are insufficient supplies and where ecological conditions are sufficiently favourable to ensure higher yields than the natural vegetation. They should plant tree species which are suitable for these ecological conditions and species which can also provide benefits other than fuelwood, such as fodder or fruit.

And then a third aspect which is very important is conservation. There are a number of programmes now aimed at improving the conditions under which fuelwood is used. Currently only a small part of the heat contained in fuelwood, approximately a tenth of its calorific value, is utilized.

Pickstock: This is just because of inefficient fires, stoves?

de Montalembert: Because of inefficient fires, stoves, the manner of cooking, etc. Now, if you improve the entire chain - that means the stove, the equipment for cooking, the sort of food or preparation of the food - you can economize by something like a third or a half of the wood which is needed to prepare the same meal.

Pickstock: So, the need for trees is greatest in the arid and semi-arid areas - particularly in Africa, but also in Asia and the Americas. Christel Palmberg is responsible, in FAO, for finding and examining the genetic resources that exist in the hundreds of tropical and subtropical tree and shrub species - some of which are almost unknown, while others are exploited in one country or continent but are unknown elsewhere. The most urgent need is for trees that can survive wind and drought. Experts have now narrowed down their selections to several very promising genera, including Acacia and Prosopis, which until recently were rather despised as little more than scrub species only fit for goats to browse!


PALMBERG: "... once you get something growing in a completely barren area, other species, will follow little by little. For example, if you get some Prosopis tamarugo growing in the Chilean desert, birds will c come and sit on the branches and they will spread seeds of other species through their droppings"

Palmberg: They are very hardy species. The growing conditions are often such that nothing else would grow. Some of them need very little rainfall and grow in more or less pure sand and sometimes in very stony soil.

Pickstock: So we need to re-define, do we, what we mean by forestry?

Palmberg: Yes. Nowadays we really need to talk about arboreal species. Some of these shrub species are really incredible. For example, there is a South American species called Prosopis tamarugo, which grows in an area where there was a total of 9 mm rainfall in 20 years. Yet this species is able to survive and to grow. Of course, this means that there must be ground water somewhere. But there arc still very few species that can grow with 9 mm of rain over 20 years.

Pickstock: I wonder how long their roots are that go searching for the water. It must be a pretty deep root system.

Palmberg: The roots are several tens of metres long. And actually, when the plant first establishes itself, it will put down a very long root before it starts growing.

Pickstock: So when you first plant it, it seems to stand still above the ground because it is busy underneath the ground.

Palmberg: Exactly. This is the only way it can survive. Of course, one of the fantastic things about this is that once you get something growing in a completely barren area, other species will follow little by little. For example, if you get some Prosopis tamarugo growing in the Chilean desert, birds will come and sit on the branches and they will spread seeds of other species through their droppings. These species will be able to establish themselves under the shade of the Prosopis tamarugo.

Pickstock: And so you get a gradual sort of colonization and a spread of ground cover.

Palmberg: Yes. Gradually you will get some more plants in and you will get a more and more stable ecosystem that will be able to renew itself -which is what we want.

Pickstock: Survival and ability to crop in such harsh environments are two key characteristics when choosing trees, but another more important factor is the ability to grow fast. Farmers, who are used to annual crops, are not always interested in species that take decades to mature. So, as Mike Arnold told me, the FAO Forestry Department is also looking for what you could call "super-fast" growers!


ARNOLD: "We have to make sure we match the right species to the right site....One that impresses me particularly in terms of its performance e in a particular location is Calliandra calothyrsus.... It grows so fast that they can start harvesting the fuelwood within one year."

Arnold: We do focus on fast-growing trees in the wetter parts of the tropics, where the circumstances for tree growing are good. By widening our search and looking at unconventional species, we have been able to identify tree-shrubs which grow remarkably quickly and do reduce the growing of trees to the time-scale of farming. Another avenue that we are exploring in this way is the use of multi-purpose trees, trees that not only produce wood or shade and so on - things that serve the farmer's immediate needs - but which have saleable fruits or nuts and also edible forage that can be fed to the farm animals. In other words, trees which contribute to the economic well-being of the farmer as well as providing fuelwood.

Pickstock: I gather that you've been looking for some really super-fast growing trees and shrubs. Have you had any success in this? Are there trees that can almost be ready for harvest within 12 or 18 months?

Arnold: Some of the tropical leguminous tree-shrubs arc quite amazing in this respect. One that impresses me particularly in terms of its performance in a particular location is Calliandra calothyrsus, which is grown widely in Java as a fuelwood species. It grows so fast that they can start harvesting the fuelwood within one year. Also, its leaves can be fed to animals. It's an ugly bushy thing, something which foresters a few years ago wouldn't have recognized as a tree. But it produces an enormous amount of biomass and that's what we are looking for today in situations such as in Java, where what is needed is wood for fuel.

Pickstock: So there's no real reason why that shouldn't be introduced into Africa.

Arnold: Tree species are site-specific, of course. We have to make sure we match the right species to the right site. There have been earlier so-called "miracle" trees, like Leucaena leucocephala, enthusiasm for which became somewhat indiscriminate. It was introduced too widely into areas where it couldn't thrive and that, of course, can have a negative impact. So we do need to make sure that we get the right species for each particular situation.

Pickstock: Mike Arnold is now Chief of the Policy and Planning Service in FAO's Forestry Department but he was also one of the people who first developed and promoted the idea of "community forestry". And he still has an active interest in FAO's Community Forestry Programme. He told me, though, that whereas the idea of a "community" wood-lot, for instance, appealed in one part of Africa, farmers elsewhere sometimes preferred individual farm planting.

Arnold: In West Africa there seems to be strong community cohesion in many areas and communal wood-lots are proving quite successful in a number of countries - in Senegal and Benin, for example, two countries in which we have projects specifically directed at community forestry.

Pickstock: You seem to be saying by what you are not saying that eastern and southern Africa have not been as successful in this respect as western Africa.

Arnold: In eastern Africa, experience so far has shown that individual efforts by farmers are perhaps more successful than community-oriented efforts. There have been some very encouraging instances of spontaneous development of tree-growing at the farm level - in the United Republic of Tanzania, in Kenya, in Malawi. But there are also some countries in eastern Africa where cooperative activity is showing itself to be a useful way of developing this type of forestry, as in Ethiopia, for example, where the peasant associations have proved very effective in mobilizing people's efforts. School forests are a most encouraging feature of the whole effort to mobilize people to help them meet problems due to shortage of trees. The children themselves are very active and interested. And school forests often flourish in areas where more bureaucratic attempts at introducing forestry have failed. It seems more than likely that it is through the children that an interest in and a knowledge about trees are being introduced more widely into the family.

Pickstock: And hopefully attitudes will change for the better through the rising generation in other ways, too. For instance, as I heard from Marc-René de Montalembert, it has been the general practice, when clearing land for settlement projects, to fell and burn huge areas of vegetation - often when only a few miles away there are people desperate for fuelwood. We had been talking specifically about Africa so I asked Mr de Montalembert if his comments applied elsewhere.

de Montalembert: They apply, obviously. But what is probably different, especially in Asia, is the fact that the sort of agricultural economies that exist, for example, on the island of Java or in India have populations with an old tradition of very intensive agriculture where trees and crops are very, very closely integrated. This sort of tradition does not exist usually in Africa. Africa has different natural resources and a different experience in agriculture. Generally speaking, there is a need for an effort to raise the awareness of African farmers to see trees as a complement to agriculture and not as an alternative. I think what is needed there are more demonstration projects through which people will realize that greater benefits result from closely integrating trees in farming systems, rather than in keeping separate trees and rural lands.

Pickstock: So forestry should complement agriculture, not compete with it.

de Montalembert: Should not only complement, should be closely integrated with it!

Pickstock: Marc-René de Montalembert and his colleagues have given us plenty of "fuel" for thought!

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