It is a picture all too familiar to all of us working in
development: a woman supporting a load of firewood almost as heavy as herself by
a single strap across her forehead. She has an hours walk ahead of her and
the fuel will last the family no more than a few days.
The scene might be almost anywhere in Africa, or parts of Asia
and Latin America. We have a renewable resource which is no longer being renewed
fast enough: every year this housewife has a few hundred meters farther to walk.
A relentlessly increasing demand: every year a few more children to cook for.
She is trapped in a vital but unproductive activity consuming more and more of
But there is one aspect of the picture which often goes unnoted
by those accustomed to addressing global issues. For her, this is a local
problem: where last year she gathered fuel the land has now been cleared for
agriculture, so she has to search beyond. But as far as she is concerned, it
makes little difference whether the rest of the planet is desert or virgin
Unlike an increase in the price of oil the fuelwood crisis
should be seen as an aggregate of millions of village-scale tragedies, rather
than as a single, global problem. This is not to belittle its significance. As a
commodity which plays a central role in the lives of half the worlds
population, the importance of fuelwood can hardly be over-emphasised. But it
does mean that we must take a different approach to the fuelwood problem to
those we adopt when addressing impending shortages of fossil fuels.
While the consequences of deforestation do have global
implications - as any climatologist will confirm - the problem is manifest on an
infinitely smaller scale and must be approached accordingly.
The tools of macroeconomic policy have little impact on the use
of firewood outside the monetised economy, and even on the micro level, we
cannot expect to find a single, globally applicable solution to so diverse a
problem. Rather we have to investigate ways and means of improving the situation
where it is most acutely felt: in the villages of the developing world.
Although the full diversity of the problem has only come to be
appreciated in recent years, the need for grassroots action was recognised at
the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy held in
Nairobi in 1981. In an initiative inspired by this conference, the United
Nations Environment Programme, in cooperation with the Bellerive Foundation,
established a project in Kenya to investigate measures to alleviate the village
This project has received continuous assistance and cooperation
from the Government of Kenya. I wish to express our gratitude to His Excellency
President Daniel Arap Moi for the personal interest he has taken in the
UNEP/Bellerive projects progress. The constructive links we have
maintained with the Government of Kenya are being consolidated, with ongoing
activities becoming an integral component of the district development strategies
of the Ministries of Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, and Technical
Training and Applied Technology.
Our efforts to reduce the consumption of fuelwood in large-scale
catering institutions have proved particularly encouraging. The success of this
programme is such that more than half the institutional stoves now being
installed in Kenya are models developed by the UNEP/Bellerive project. The
figures confirm that this will significantly reduce the nations fuelwood
Many lessons have been learnt in the course of this project. I
am pleased that, through this report, an opportunity has arisen to present, to
others working in conservation and development, all we did right, and wrong.
For by far the clearest lesson to come out of our activities in
Kenya is that no single initiative will ever be enough to reverse the fuelwood
crisis. Hence the importance of sharing knowledge and experience as widely as
possible amongst those working in the field.
If the problems are to be solved, it will be through the
combined efforts of hundreds of different organisations, each working to the
same end but in many diverse ways. We can learn from each others
experiences and argue about each others ideas. But we have only to think
again of the woman trudging home under her inhuman burden to recognise that
something must be done - now.
Sadruddin Aga Khan