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close this book Diffusion of Biomass Energy Technologies in Developing Countries
View the document Acknowledgements
View the document PREFACE
View the document OVERVIEW
View the document 2 ENERGY AND DEVELOPMENT
View the document 3 NEEDS OF THE POOR
View the document 5 TECHNICAL FACTORS
View the document BIBLIOGRAPHY


The immediate beneficiaries of biomass energy technologies should be the poor, both rural and urban, in developing countries. Their energy needs give this study its focus, not because biomass-based technologies can entirely resolve their nations' difficulties with escalating petroleum prices, but because of the immediacy of their energy needs. Their overwhelming reliance on biomass for fuel--principally on firewood, crop residues, and dung--gives the diffusion of improved biomass-based technologies critical implications for alleviation of their energy problems.

Most rural people rely principally on human and animal muscle power in their work as subsistence farmers, herdsmen, fishermen, cash cropping smallholders, and plantation laborers. Clearing and plowing the land; planting, cultivating, and harvesting; and threshing, pounding, grinding, and storing are all done largely by hand, with some help from draft animals and a few simple tools. Most crops are transported from field to household and to the local market on foot or animals. Firewood, used mainly for cooking, is the principal fuel.

As food consumption outstrips the productive capacity of such traditional, low-energy farming systems, lands are lost through overcultivation, overgrazing, erosion, and soil exhaustion. Clearing forests for cultivation and to meet the growing urban and industrial demand for fuelwood can destabilize the natural resource base and lead to diminished agricultural productivity, intensified fuelwood shortages, and an increased need to purchase food and fuel. Consequently, a growing portion of the already reduced productive capacity of the rural poor is redirected to market sale. In many areas a single cash crop-coffee or sugarcane, sisal, tobacco, or pyrethrum--monopolizes the best remaining land and the preponderance of the labor force. When the rural population's requirements for food and fuel must be met by cash purchase, the money that farmers earn through sale of their property, produce, or labor often is inadequate. As their farmlands are degraded through overworking and erosion, or are lost altogether to meet the need for cash, their economic position progressively worsens. As herdsmen raise more livestock for market, their herds overgraze available pasturelands and they, too, grow steadily poorer.

Those who do not remain in rural areas to cultivate their overworked farmland, or who do not migrate elsewhere in the countryside in search of farm work or forested lands to clear, move in growing numbers to the towns and cities, usually to begin a frustrating search for alternative means of making a living. In the towns there generally is little industry to absorb this unskilled influx of job seekers. Urban unemployment and underemployment are rising. Even those who find work are frequently unable to earn enough for their material needs or for social services like education and health care. Morehouse and Sigurdson's (1977) pessimistic projection on employment in India typifies the situation in many developing countries. From 1961 to 1971 the number of landless agricultural workers in India, for whom these conditions are particularly acute, increased to 90 percent.

To maintain the urban poor and to contain political unrest, the governments of many developing countries, with support from assistance agencies, endeavor to hold down prices for farm commodities and fuel. This further discourages rural producers, who then join the flight to the towns, making the problems of food and fuel supply still worse.

Those whose growing energy needs might better be met through biomass energy technologies also include the small-scale entrepreneurs --food processors, artisans, manufacturers of household goods, machine parts, and export commodities--who often share some aspects of the marginality of life among the urban and rural poor. Their needs are similar, and their role is critical, for generally they have more capital. Less constrained, they are often the innovators. And it is their sector of the economy that frequently allows for that expansion and diversification of production essential to reducing unemployment and achieving economic growth. For those in the monetarized sector of the economy, the diffusion process is less complex, since it is primarily controlled by economic factors; for those in the subsistence sector, it is more complex, since it is dependent on nonmonetary social and cultural factors.


Most rural people make their living by labor-intensive farming. In times of stress, gathering wild plants, fruits, leaves, nuts, berries, and roots, and hunting animals are important ancillary activities. Plants are also often a source of materials for artisans and builders or for herders' shelters; for instance, palm leaves for thatching roofs, banana fibers for making rope or twine, exudate chicle for chewing gum, copals and dammars for varnish, bark for cloth and canoes, seeds for food or oil, and roots or bark for pharmaceutical needs. In India, literally millions of people are employed for part of the year in forest gathering. When cover is cleared for new farmland or for fuelwood, the supplies are endangered.

In Bihar in central India, hundreds of arrests and many deaths have resulted from a "tree war." The controversy began in 1977 when the Bihar Forest Development Corporation started to replace the natural sal forests with teak. The peoples of Bihar use the sal for construction, eat its fruits, and sell the seed oil for industrial uses. The sal tree is also used in religious ceremonies. Teak has value only as commercial timber. In late 1980, a gathering to protest further encroachment was fired on and thirteen men were killed. An uneasy truce exists, in which teak planting has been halted for the time being.

In some areas, especially in Africa and the Middle East, subsistence cultivators live in a sometimes contentious but symbiotic relationship with neighboring herdsmen. As herds are increased in response to market incentives, the pressure on available pastureland grows. Competition with farmers over migration routes and access to pastureland increases at the same time that bonds of reciprocity, often based on the exchange of food grains for pasturage rights and dairy products, break down. As livestock trample or graze off available vegetation, farmlands continue to spread, and land is set aside for game parks, herders are forced to constrict or redirect their traditional and ecologically balanced nomadic patterns; the vegetational cover is further diminished; the fuelwood shortage is intensified; and the process of ecological devastation speeded (National Academy of Sciences, 1981).

Fishermen frequently share a parallel problem as the encroachment of farmlands diminishes the forest cover on which they rely for cooking and heating fuel, boat building materials, and food. Mangrove swamps, essential for fish breeding and shore protection, are harvested for charcoal.

The food-producing and food-gathering techniques of rural people in most developing countries and their access to markets have kept their populations at subsistence level. Food surpluses are characteristically small or may be bought by state purchasing agencies at low prices to support urban demand. The population is engaged much of the time in the quest for food. Except where intensive irrigated agriculture or commercial crop plantations are possible, opportunities to acquire wealth are limited. Generally, there has been neither the surplus wealth nor the time for such traditional societies to develop the institutional complexity often equated with modernity and progress.

Yet there is evidence that traditional patterns of subsistence, before they were thrown off balance during the colonial and postcolonial periods, were more in harmony with the natural resource base than are the modernizing societies that have succeeded them. Farmlands were left fallow longer, to regenerate naturally. In areas of permanent agriculture, trees were an integral part of home gardens or compound farms. Herdsmen's patterns of migration were more wide ranging and less ecologically destructive. Fishermen frequently lived in a more stable relationship with neighboring farmers with whom they traded. The situation among the rural poor is one in which an equilibrium based on centuries-old, delicately calibrated patterns of land use has been badly disrupted. The firewood shortage in rural areas and the high cost of conventional fuels in urban centers is symptomatic of a population growing dangerously out of balance with its environment.

By promoting increased biomass production and greater reliance on more efficient biomass-based energy technologies at all levels, this ecological disequilibrium could be brought under control or reversed. With half the world's population dependent on biomass fuels, the need for this is urgent.


Successful diffusion of biomass energy technologies in developing countries depends upon understanding how the poor are accustomed to organizing their productive activities, regulating their social relationships, keeping order, and maintaining the normative beliefs that are essential to social stability everywhere. It is into this sociocultural context that new biomass energy technologies must be introduced. If they do not fit, they will not be diffused, regardless of their technological promise.

Many of the rural poor meet most of their needs, including their need for fuel, outside the money economy. Often patterns of exchange operate within the context of the kin group, through associations, or through other community structures to allocate rights to land and tools, to organize work, and to structure the distribution of the products of work.

However, money and markets are becoming more important. Cash is required to meet a growing number of subsistence needs, including fuel. For people accustomed to having most of their material wants satisfied through cooperative work with their kinsmen and neighbors, who do not customarily trade their labor for cash and who would never think of selling their lands, this new requirement for money is frequently hard to meet. For unskilled migrants from rural areas where fuelwood is still free, the need to purchase fuel for cooking and heating is often an unexpectedly harsh requirement. Nevertheless, the commercialization of energy eases the diffusion of technology to solve supply problems.

Many productive relationships among rural people in developing countries are still structured by kinship. The introduction of innovations designed to utilize biomass energy more effectively must take this into account. Rights and obligations derived from position in the family remain a major organizing principle in the life of the individual and community. Ties of kinship based on marriage or descent are often crosscut by associational links--membership in age grades, voluntary associations, and mutual aid societies--which lend added strength to the fabric of traditional society and determine the organization of most economic activities. Among the poor in urbanizing areas, such associational ties often serve as a valued alternative to familial relationships that are hard to sustain in an urban setting.

Still other factors affect the structure of the economic order. Age and gender play a major part in determining both the division of labor and the right to make economic decisions. In stratified social systems, class or caste position usually determines the worker's prerogative to control the products of his work and his place in the overall system by which economic rights are determined and benefits distributed.

The political organization generally derives its structure from the kinship-based social system that must be understood if community decision makers are to be effectively mobilized. This is particularly characteristic of Africa and Asia, though rural communities are increasingly being absorbed into national bureaucratic structures. Typically, village elders and other community leaders are selected from among the eldest responsible male members of the community's leading families. The poor in most countries play only a peripheral role in politics and are frequently excluded almost entirely from participating in those decisions--including decisions on technology and on the definition of their own economic best interest--that most affect the work they do and how it is rewarded.

The system of relationships that characterizes this sociocultural setting is invariably sanctioned by the prevailing system of beliefs and practices that defines right and wrong, states social norms, and generally justifies the existing order, usually on the basis of religion. Natural events often are perceived as the manifestation of religious or magical forces, sometimes leading to a fatalism that may lessen enthusiasm for innovations that promise to correct problems seen as beyond human control. This belief in supernaturally based systems of cause and effect can critically influence the outcome of energy interventions that fail to take these perspectives into account.

In most developing nations, these traditional societal structures are overlaid by new governmental institutions, which vary in the particulars of their form but are almost universally marked by weakness and instability. Generally these institutions lack both the sustained financial and human resources, especially the managerial and technical labor power, necessary to plan and maintain complex, capital-intensive, long-term development programs. Too much time and effort is necessarily absorbed in simply keeping up with current operations and forestalling economic and political collapse. Inefficiency and corruption lead to lack of inputs and marketing failures. Reliance on external economic support is almost invariable.

National administrations are generally dominated by males drawn largely from the elite. Politically, their powers are often democratic in principle, but authoritarian in practice. Outside major population centers, they frequently lack the personnel and material support necessary to maintain even routine administrative control. Their capacity to supervise and support development projects is generally even more limited. Because of this institutional weakness, assessment of national resources, including critical energy resources, is often very difficult. The situation is paradoxical. For, as Dickinson candidly puts it, "Developing countries, even though they are poorer than we [the developed countries] and cannot support our institutions, want to obtain for themselves the apparent result of our institutions" (Dickinson, 1977),

Sensitivity to efforts to export "appropriate" (perceived as second-rate) technologies can be keen. It is important to ensure a more accurate view of the problem. For, as Singer writes, "critics of the concept (of appropriate technology) sometimes argue that it in effect establishes two different standards and will therefore create and perpetuate a technological gap. This is a misconception. The gap exists in the fact that some countries are poor while other countries are rich. The task is to reduce or eliminate this gap--the economic gap. Different technologies will serve to reduce the economic gap and hence, ultimately, to eliminate the need for different technologies. . . . If we misdefine the problem by declaring that the gap is a technological gap and then try (disregarding the economic gap) to apply exactly the same technology to the two groups of countries, the real economic gap will widen further instead of narrowing" (Singer, 1977).


The rural and urban poor in developing countries do not have equal access to their societies' available fuel resources. However, in rural areas where society is less stratified and the majority of people are engaged in subsistence farming, inequality of access to cooking fuels is less marked. Where fuelwood is abundant, most members of a rural community have more or less equal access to it. Most fuelwood is gathered in the course of other activities, going to and from the fields, to the well, to gather wild foods, or returning from market. However, where severe shortages occur, members of a family may have to travel long distances to gather wood, to the exclusion of their other activities. Each household collects wood for its own needs. Gathering fuelwood for sale is a relatively new activity, except on the outskirts of urban areas. The value of fuel is often not calculated in monetary terms. Disparities in distribution may go unperceived.

New fuelwood projects imply changes in land use and, often, controlled access. Plantations to supply urban fuel can compete with supplies from the landless poor and jeopardize their livelihood.

The degree of communal equity should not be overstated. Among many farming peoples, some herdsmen and fishermen, and especially among craft specialists, there may be considerable social stratification, even in small communities. For example, in India and Sri Lanka, and, to a lesser extent, in Indonesia, both personal position and family status in a caste-ranked system are important determinants of access to productive goods, including land and tools; the right to engage in certain economic activities; and the prerogative to share in the benefits of many economic endeavors.

In nearly all developing countries, even in those that are otherwise not highly stratified, women generally are assigned tasks by their male kinsmen or are otherwise constrained in their activities. Often they have no control over either their own labor or its product. The same is frequently true for members of socially inferior classes, castes, and ethnic groups. The result is that those who will be most affected by an energy innovation--a Guatemalan wife "given" an improved wood-burning stove by her husband, for example, or an Indian "untouchable" charged with collecting dung for a biodigester--may be excluded from the decision to undertake such innovations. This exclusion may be reflected in the way the individuals accept the changes these innovations require.

In the urban sector as well, the poor do not have equal access to economic benefits. Consequently, special measures may sometimes be necessary to ensure that the poor are given the opportunity to participate in planning and implementing biomass energy technologies intended for their benefit--technologies that can only succeed if their resistance is overcome.

In some countries whole sectors of the population, members of differing ethnic or tribal groups, may be excluded from participating equally in development programs of political regimes that are either indifferent or hostile to their interests. Regions such as the Senegal River Valley in Mauritania, West Irian, the Brazilian Northeast, and the territories of tribal or "national" minorities in India and China may fit this category. Such populations are often among the poorest in their nation, and their energy needs are frequently most severe and least likely to be met.

It is to be expected that biomass-based energy interventions, like other technological innovations, will prove to be neither egalitarian in their impact nor socially neutral. Writing on the relationship of India's modernization efforts to poverty alleviation, Jequier observes that "technology in general, and large scale modern technology in particular . . . tends to accentuate the social and economic differences between the small minority which can profit--or benefit--from it as consumers or producers and the vast majority of the population living at subsistence levels in the rural areas" (Jequier, 1976). Equity does not proceed automatically from either technological or economic growth or development. Rather, it appears to be the product of particular sets of institutional arrangements.


The need for cooking fuel is critical. Means for meeting this need include agroforestry or firewood plantations, improved wood-burning stoves, more energy-efficient techniques of food preparation, and more efficient charcoal production and use. In some circumstances, biogas and alcohol fuel production may also be used to meet rural fuel needs.

Where the potential exists for increasing food production through more extensive use of mechanized farm implements and irrigation, energy is also needed for pumping water; for food processing--milling, grinding, and winnowing; and for transport.

Herdsmen and fishermen also often face fuel shortages. In arid regions the watering of herds would be easier if mechanical rather than human energy were available to power the pumps (though overgrazing around wellheads is a potential consequence unless watering is carefully managed). Fishermen could increase their catch if a less expensive source of fuel were available for motor-driven boats.

For all those in rural areas, a less expensive source of energy is needed for domestic lighting. Energy to ensure a potable water supply is a serious limitation nearly everywhere.

The energy requirements of the urban poor are similar; fuel for cooking, bathing, and heating, for cooling and refrigeration, for lighting, and for small-scale industrial enterprises must all be acquired through cash purchase, often with meager cash reserves. For small entrepreneurs, energy is needed for the industrialization necessary to diversify the economy, increase productivity, and create employment. For governments of developing nations the spiraling cost of conventional energy is felt most acutely, because it affects industry, the essential transport and communication systems, and such government-sponsored services as health care and education.


Dickinson, H. 1977. Transfer of knowledge and adoption of technologies. In: Introduction to Appropriate Technology, edited by R.J. Congdon. Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA.

Jequier, M., ed. 1976. Appropriate Technology: Problems and Promises. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris, France.

Morehouse, W., and Sigurdson, J. 1977. Science, technology and poverty: issues underlying the 1979 UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 33(10):21-28.

National Academy of Sciences. 1981. Staff Report: Environmental Degradation in Mauritania. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Singer, R. 1977. Technologies for Basic Needs. International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland.