Thinning forests resulting in fuelwood shortage
August 19, 2018
Fifty years ago, the Earth was annually losing forests the size of England. Today, the world loses 14 hectares of tropical forest every minute, mostly due to agriculture to support growing populations and fuelwood for cooking fires.
Yes, fuelwood is now a culprit in deforestation.
In Africa, Asia, South America—continents where large populations rely heavily on fuelwood for cooking—women, and children who bear the burden of looking for fuelwood, are walking longer hours just to search or cut trees for firewood.
Lack of fuelwood: The next energy crisis
Almost 2 billion rural people in developing countries do not have enough wood to cook their meals. Their number will grow to 2.5 billion by 2025.
Fuelwood supply and demand are coursed through head loads, camel trains, donkey and bullock carts, bicycles and shoulder loads. Ultimately, fuelwood ends up in cooking fires.
So says Earthscan, a London-based information think tank on environment issues citing United Nations Sustainable Report “Understanding Fuelwood” by Phil Barry Munslow and Phil Okeefe.
“The fuelwood problem has been isolated as an ‘energy crisis’ issue. Interventions to date have concentrated on narrowly defined technical options for supply enhancement or demand constraint. But there has been a failure to understand the fuelwood problem correctly,” it said.
“And unless developing nations adopt a serious and a no-nonsense approach to save its forests and woodlands, fuelwood will be the most serious energy crisis for the next 50 years,” it warned.
Rising fuelwood demand
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) figures show that from 2000 to 2004, Southeast Asian countries have been using more wood for cooking with Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines as the top users, followed by Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Forest loss is acute in these countries, the second of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots. According to the 2005 report conducted by the UNFAO, Vietnam has the second-highest rate of deforestation of primary forests in the world. More than 90 percent of the old-growth rainforests of the Philippines have been cut.
Other Southeast Asian countries where major deforestation is ongoing are Cambodia, Indonesia, and Lao PDR.
Their combined fuelwood use is responsible for the deforestation of 72 percent of forests in the five-year span.
In South Asia top fuelwood users are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan, accounting to 77 percent to 79 percent of total forest loss in the region, also in the five-year stretch. By region, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China are the top fuelwood consumers.
It would seem unfair to blame housewives—particularly those who toil the land—because generally, women farmers are known links to biological continuity.
To dispel such notion, the UNFAO made a study and noted that until 1980, firewood demand was a minor cause of deforestation. Women and children were collecting and using mostly branches and twigs while leaving trees standing.
But after that decade, due to rapid population growth in the rural areas, trees, big and young, started to be cut purely for fuelwood.
Often, young trees were the first to be cut, including those in reforested reservations and sanctuaries, UNFAO reported. When the small trees were consumed, fuelwood gatherers de-branch bigger trees causing many to die. Eventually, when the big trees dry and die, they are cut, UNFAO concluded.
The deplorable predicament worsens deforestation, and further aggravated by farmers clearing lands for livestock and crops.
To this day, forests are fair game as forest fragments crumble to almost daily cutting and gathering for fuelwood.
While not quite deforesting the globe, these problems are undermining the well-being of hundreds of millions of people in at least two continents—Asia and Africa.
Fuelwood consumption exerts pressure on the resource base if it is increasing at a rate higher than the growth of trees.
Inefficient stoves compounding the problem
Most rural folks in poorer Third World countries cook over open fires. The most common is the “three-stone fire,” the fire set between three stones bricks or whatever to support the cooking pot.
But this open fire system is wasteful and inefficient. As more wood is burned and wasted, more fuelwood is gathered, more trees cut, more forests ravaged.
To employ measures to improve fuel efficiency, there is a need to sustain a campaign for more efficient rural stoves.
Traditional stoves used inside rural homes have to be replaced by more energy-efficient stoves that don’t soot homes and cause upper respiratory ailments to family members.
Using alternative resources and solutions
THE UNFAO’s Fuelwood Program said 43 percent of the Philippine rural population depend on fuelwood for energy but is seldom using other forms of biomass like plant matter and animal wastes.
Until recently, most biomass consumers lived in rural areas. As populations have grown, and the number of trees has decreased, searching for fuelwood has indeed become a demanding task.
In the Cordillera Administrative Region, the Cordillera Ecological Center (CEC) has developed an alternative fuel for cooking from the oil of native tree Pittosporum resineferum.
CEC developed this as the region’s fuelwood supply for rural homes in all six provinces has become so scarce. It is becoming scarcer every day. Creeping deforestation has left many towns with less than 30-percent forest cover.
“The rate of deforestation is much faster than reforestation efforts. In many places, there is no deforestation to speak of,” said Dobbels Wallang CEC’s environmental specialist.
To many farmers, collecting firewood was a two-hour task 50 years ago. Today, it is almost an entire day expedition—every day.
“There are less and less dead trees and branches to cut,” Wallang added. “You are lucky if you can bring home a body-load after a day’s hunt,” he added.
Answering with woodlots
Because of the seriousness of the problem, the CEC is going around the rural areas training farmers on tree raising and tree planting by turning vacant spaces into woodlots.
The project calls for planting fast-growing nitrogen-fixing and multi-use tree species that yield branches fast and cut for firewood.
These include Pinus kesiya, Alnus japonica, Flemingia macrophylla and Calliandra calothyrsus.
More than a hundred woodlots have been established in at least six towns that continuously supply fuel needs of rural homes.
CEC raises yearly thousands of trees that are distributed to farmers groups, schools and civic organizations that help in reforestation efforts through community-based approaches.
In the Cordillera region, indigenous forestry practices are being popularized to answer the shortage of fuelwood, such as the muyung or pinugo, lakon or batangan, tayan, and lapat.
These are traditionally inherited woodlot properties and are privately owned that serve as primary sources of fuelwood, construction materials, food, and medicines.
They are storehouses of flora, containing from 100 to 264 tree and plant species, mainly indigenous, and endemic in the region, 90 percent of which are useful.