| Boiling Point No. 08 - December 1985 |
By Maria P. Grech
In Saint Lucia, as in many other parts of the Third World, there is a heavy and continued dependence on charcoal as a fuel source for domestic cooking. But, although most Saint Lucians are aware of the growing threat to their forested lands if this dependency continues, there has been no noticeable slackening off in the use of charcoal for domestic purposes. In an FAO report dated 1974 the forested area of Saint Lucia was given as 21%. Today it is estimated at less than 11%, a critically low level when one considers the vital importance of the forest as a water catchment area.
To combat further degradation, Saint Lucia's Forestry Division has been taking stringent measures against the unauthorized clearing of forest land and programmes have been implemented in some rural areas to encourage the production of fuelwood as a renewable resource. There have also been very successful demonstrations of Waclaw Micuta's 'Polish Stove' which is a fuel-efficient burner of waste wood rather than charcoal. This one-pot, metal stove generated a good deal of interest but never progressed beyond the demonstration stages, mainly because of a lack of funds for a pilot stove-building project. However, even had the funds been made available, the initial cost of the stove to the housewife, would still have been an inhibiting factor. (Editors note : see article 'Miha Metal Brazier', this issue, for a lower cost stove designed by W. Micuta et al)
Demonstrations of other clay stoves like the 'Lorena' and the Guyanese FAO have aroused interest but few converts. Of the estimated 93% of the households who use charcoal for all or part of their cooking, the coals are, in almost every case, still burned on the traditional clay coalpot.
Certain beliefs and fears are, at least in part, responsible for the slow degree of change. But even where change has been effected it is completely negated in the overall picture by the population growth which has burgeoned from just under 100,000 in 1970 to an estimated 135,000 at the beginning of 1985. In many cases, the reluctance to switch to the cleaner and easier use of LPG (bottled qas) is not prompted by an inability to cope with a new cooking method. Instead it is brought about by pitifully low income and the real and insurmountable barrier of economics .
Current prices for coal pots and clay cooking pots, locally called 'canaries' were checked out recently for this article. Coalpots range from $3.50 to $5.00. Cookpots from $3.50 upwards according to size. In the 'Coal' market just a few yards away a heap of charcoal was priced at $1.00, for a box probably containing about 20 pounds, was $8 - $9 and a small sack of about 50 pounds was $20.00. Compare these figures with what would appear to be minimum expenditure for a housewife wanting to make the transition from coalpot to gas stove.
A simple table-top threeburner gas cooker - $124 - $145.00 Deposit on a small (20 or 30 pound) as cylinder - $ 75.00 Cost of regulator to fit above - $ 25.00 Three aluminium pans (small, medium and large) - $ 43.00 (a 'family' size pan is $27.00)
Expenditure required for complete set-up
Compare this on the other hand with the cost of a coalpot, three or four cooking pots of different sizes and enough charcoal to last a week; a total amount of less than $30.00 - or one tenth of the outlay required for the other equipment. Even if the traditional clay coalpot is later replaced with an imported, metal model it will only cost $41.00.
A recent Government survey estimated the use of charcoal at 17 pounds per week when it was the only fuel used, and gas at 6 pounds where gas was used exclusively. The cost to either consumer would be about $7.50 a week but for the gas user there is no 'pay as you go'. She has to find the money to have her gas cylinder filled as soon as it becomes empty and if she can't do that, or if, as is often the case, the gas is not available, then she had hefter have her coalpot still at hand. Here, the main advantage is that her fuel can be bought in quantities as small as $1.00, or just enough to cook one meal. The disadvantage is that a good deal of her time will have to be spent coaxing a sluggish fire into life, much of it early in the morning, so that her family can start the day with a mug of hot tea or coffee. This exercise will have to be repeated later in the day in order to prepare a mid-day meal, and if she wants to do anything more ambitious than a stew or a pot of boiled groundnuts it means more time still spent juggling with the pans in an attempt to cook and keep the food hot on her single fire.
Already, 46% of Saint Lucian households use qas, either alone (6%, or in combination with charcoal or firewood (40%. For them the coalot in its present form is an adequate supplementary or back-up appliance. But for the 53% who are limited to its use because of constraints of housing and income there is still a need for a better more fuel-efficient cooker. It would help not only to improve their lifestyle, but to reduce the demands on a fuel source that has a long way to go before it can be considered 'renewable'.