Magazine article American Forests

Wood-Starved and Footsore

Magazine article American Forests

Wood-Starved and Footsore

Article excerpt

The planet's poorest billion people are at risk from the global fuelwood crisis. But there is some progress.

Nearly half the people on earth soon may find themselves a little colder and a little hungrier as sources of cheap fuel for cooking and heating begin to disappear. Traditional wood-based fuels such as firewood and charcoal are becoming scarce as populations increase and forest land is converted to other uses.

For more than 100 million people, this shortage has reached crisis proportions. In just seven years the world population, now estimated at 5.5 billion, is expected to exceed 6.25 billion. Almost half--including nearly 600 million urban dwellers--may not have enough fuel to heat their homes and feed their families. By 2025, when the world population could reach 10 billion, finding fuel supplies that are reliable and inexpensive will be both a rural and an urban problem.

This need will give rise to innovative woodburning technologies as well as more tree planting. As if to prove that necessity is the mother of invention, the global fuelwood crisis is giving birth to an array of innovative energy technologies, new energy sources are being discovered, and new energy markets are emerging. But to understand what must be done, we must understand the processes that have brought so much of the world to the brink of disaster.

Nairobi, Kenya, is an example of a modern city where many residents rely on the old rural standby--wood. Although Nairobi is as cosmopolitan as New York and Paris are, some parts are blanketed in a perpetual blue haze that smells of woodsmoke and charcoal.

Urban poor everywhere suffer from inflation, overcrowding, poor sanitation, low wages, and the tax man. The cost of basic necessities rises each time a government devalues its currency, reduces subsidies, or tries to control fuel use.

Trying to find secure, dependable, and inexpensive fuel supplies in such an environment does more than just try people's patience. More time spent hunting for fuelwood means less time spent in tending to the rest of their lives. A never-ending cycle of searching for land, food, water, fire, shelter, and jobs binds them to a cycle of poverty, and adds to forest degradation in many places.

While nearly three billion people use wood and charcoal to some extent every day, for the world's poorest countries these fuels are a mainstay. People in countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and Bangladesh use wood and charcoal to meet more than 90 percent of their energy needs.

The poor are almost literally eating the forests and soils that sustain them. What capital has been produced and stored by nature is being consumed and not replaced. In the past 50 years, soil fertility has declined as erosion has claimed more than 2.9 billion acres of land. From 1850 through 1980, nearly 15 percent of the world's forest land was converted to other uses. In the 1980s, the reduction in forest cover was most evident in the tropics--a decline of 36.9 million acres per year.

The viciousness of this cycle becomes apparent when fuelwood supplies constrict and substitutes must be found. In the periodically drought-stricken villages of Africa's Sahel region and the underdeveloped districts in arid south Asia and northeast Brazil, wood-starved villagers use dung and stubble from their fields as fuel. Scouring fields for fuel robs the soil of vital nutrients and reduces crop yields, hence increasing the probability of hunger.

In addition to maintaining hearth and home, woodfuels--wood and charcoal--also power economic activity. Small entrepreneurs rely on a stable supply of wood to fuel cottage industries and operate kitchens in bars and restaurants. In Mexico, descendants of the Maya who live in Chiapas State are cutting firewood from the forests to operate cottage ceramic businesses. Selling pots and trays in nearby cities provides the cash necessary to survive and progress in a modern world. …

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