False predictions

For years, energy experts and foresters have believed that the poor will eat away the forests of the developing world like locusts in order to meet their ever-growing firewood demand.

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

False predictions

-- The firewood crisis has not resulted in a forest crisis. For years, energy experts and foresters have believed that the poor will eat away the forests of the developing world like locusts in order to meet their ever-growing firewood demand. But how much do we really know about the poor and how they meet their needs, about rural ecology, and about how human-nature relationships are changing over time? The latest survey of the National Council of Applied Economic Research based in New Delhi has thrown up numerous doubts about our long-held perceptions about rural firewood consumption and its impact on the country's forest. An assessment by Anil Agarwal.

Vanishing green

The twig gatherers of India would ultimately denude the landscape or so the forest bureaucracy believed

Soon after the oil crisis hit the world in 1973, the government of India set up a Fuel Policy Committee to assess the country's energy scenario. The committee noted in its report submitted in 1974, "Nearly one-half of the total energy consumed in the country comes from non-commercial sources such as firewood (including charcoal), cowdung and vegetable waste. The dependence on these fuels is maximum in the domestic sector. This has led to large-scale denudation and destruction of forests."

This belief of Indian foresters and energy experts has been built on a simple premise. On one hand, energy consumption surveys have consistently shown a very high order of firewood consumption and, on the other hand, the forest departments of various states of India have consistently shown very low levels of legal firewood production from Indian forests. Given this data, the obvious question has been: Where is the remaining firewood coming from? In the absence of good surveys, experts have rushed in to argue that the remaining firewood consumption is coming illegally from forests, which is slowly denuding them.

The Fuel Policy Committee noted in 1974: "The recorded fuelwood output (from Indian forests) in 1969-70 is about nine million tonnes (mt). The actual consumption of firewood is, however, reported to be of the order of over 100 mt, the balance of over 90 mt coming from unrecorded logging (from forests) and removal from 'treelands' outside the forest area." The report went on to warn the country that a serious firewood shortage would emerge by 1985 unless a massive programme to plant fast growing trees was not taken up by the government or efforts made to discourage the use of firewood by popularising substitute fuels. State-level studies also painted more or less the same dismal scenario. For instance, a study published in 1977 pointed out that 30 out of 45 districts in Madhya Pradesh - after taking into account the gross forest area and human population - were already suffering from a firewood famine. At that rate of demand, the study argued that forests in all but 16 districts of the state would have disappeared in another 20 years.

In 1990, nearly two decades after the dire predictions of the fpc had been made, I Natarajan, senior energy economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research ( ncaer ) based in New Delhi in a paper published in Margin entitled 'Firewood Balance in the Nineties', concluded, "...the gap between the demand and the supply from authorised sources for firewood is not likely to be bridged. It is likely that the rural poor would continue to encroach upon public land and forest for obtaining fuel for use in their kitchens.... The demand for firewood has exceeded its supply in the past. This has led to large-scale deforestation with associated harmful effects."

Natarajan pointed out in his paper that whereas many earlier studies conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s had shown that towns and cities were witnessing a transition from biomass-based fuels (like firewood and cowdung) to petroleum-based fuels (like kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas) resulting in a drastic decline in urban firewood consumption - from 16.5 million tonnes in 1978-79 to 9.5 million tonnes in 1983-84 - even though the urban population had increased during that period, such a change was not discernible in the villages. Natarajan argued that the switchover had become possible in urban areas, firstly, because most of the biomass-based fuels consumed in urban areas had been purchased, and, secondly, because subsidies provided to kerosene and lpg had made them cheaper than firewood. But in rural areas practically all the biomass-fuel consumed was collected. Not just the poor but also the rural rich met their cooking fuel needs through collection. "Under these circumstances," Natarajan concluded, "bio-fuel would continue to dominate the rural energy scene."

Based on his past surveys, Natarajan went on to estimate the future firewood demand for India for the years 1994-95 and 1999-2000 assuming a gdp growth rate of 6 per cent per annum from 1989-90 onwards. He also assumed that as the country's cattle population had not shown any growth in the recent past, cowdung availability would remain stagnant. Natarajan arrived at a total firewood demand ranging from 146.2 mt to 164.6 mt for 1994-95 and between 183.6 mt to 216.4 mt for 1999-2000 depending on the availability of kerosene in urban areas.

How the forests were left untouched
Changes in rural household energy consumption between 1978-79 and 1992-93: coal has dropped, firewood logs and kerosene have increased, while other sources have remained about the same
Items Quanity 1978-79 Tonnes of coal replacement (million) Percentage Quanity 1998-93 Tonnes of coal replacement (million) Percentage
Coal/sofr coke 1.143 mt 1.713 1.92 0.49 mt 0.584 0.38
Kerosene 414 milliom litres 2.279 2.55 1103 million litres 6.831 4.44
Cowdung 66.76 mt 20.087 22.51 86.73 mt 26.151 17.00
Crop Residues 29.53 mt 15.531 17.41 34.955 mt 20.530 13.35
Firewood logs 20.11mt 16.905 18.95 57.96 mt 49.989 32.49
Firewood twigs 58.74 mt 31.774 35.62 73.42 mt 44.785 29.11
Other   0.913 1.03   4.971 3.23
TOTAL   89.202 100.00   153.841 100.00

Natarajan argued that it is unlikely that firewood plantations can meet the estimated firewood demand. Nor will the biogas plant programme be able to do so. With just over one million biogas plants operating at the time of writing the paper with an average capacity of four cubic metres, the biogas plants could produce only about 5 million tonnes of coal replacement ( mtcr) of cooking energy. (One mtcr means one million tonnes of coal will be needed to replace the use of a different fuel). But as an evaluation conducted by ncaer had shown that the capacity utilisation of biogas plants is only 30-40 per cent, the total availability from biogas plants was unlikely to be more than two mtcr . Though the theoretical potential for family size biogas plants is estimated to be about 15-16 million, it is unlikely that such a massive increase will take place in their numbers in the near future. Efforts to improve energy conservation programmes through the introduction of efficient wood stoves during the 1980s had resulted in the installation of over five million chulhas by the late 1980s. If their numbers increased to 30 million, a potential saving of 15-20 mtcr of firewood was possible. But given the speed with which these programmes are progressing, Natarajan concluded that greater pressure on public lands and forests appeared to be inevitable.

For the first time the Census of India collected data in 1991 on the type of fuel used by different households. The census results also confirmed that of the 151 million households in India in 1991 (39.5 million in urban areas and 111.5 million in rural areas), 92 per cent in rural areas and 39 per cent in urban areas were dependent on bio-fuels.

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