| Diffusion of Biomass Energy Technologies in Developing Countries |
Effective diffusion of biomass energy technologies is vital to achieving economic growth and providing sustained food production in developing countries. The energy crises in many developing nations is twofold, encompassing both the need to reduce oil imports for the urban and industrial sectors and to sustain--or enhance--agricultural production and the rural economy. The crisis threatens the traditional subsistence technologies and jeopardizes the fledgling industrial capacity. It is, however, a complex ecological, developmental, and international phenomenon of which oil prices and supply are only one facet. In some countries it has had abrupt and devastating consequences, while in others its effects are long-range and more subtle.
The problem of energy places the provision of food and other basic needs at risk not only because of insufficient fertilizer or mechanization, but also because of environmental degradation and deforestation caused by expanding agricultural lands and the unrelenting harvest of firewood. Possibilities of growth through economic diversification are blocked, and the natural resource base is imperiled almost everywhere.
In the traditional sector of most developing countries, the diminishing supply of firewood is the most immediate cause of this growing shortage of energy. The process has become tragically circular. Briscoe's figures on the Bangladeshi village of Ulipur are illustrative, "In the last century," he writes, "the numbers of inhabitants have increased by 350 percent, while production of food grains and fuel resources has remained essentially the same. Since cooking technology is unaltered, fuel requirements have risen with the size of the population" (Briscoe, 1979). As population growth in Ulipur, and nearly everywhere else in developing countries, outdistances increases in the productivity of traditional technologies, food can be grown in greater quantity only by shortening periods of fallow or by clearing forested land. Removal of this vegetational cover further degrades the land--by the drought-flood-erosion cycle in the drier regions and through leaching of topsoil nutrients, flooding, and siltation in more humid tropical areas. As forest and bush are cleared for farming or depleted by overgrazing, the fuelwood search extends ever further, endangering the already marginal livelihood of the rural majority.
In the urban sector the energy problem is different, but equally critical in its impact. Increasing amounts of scarce foreign exchange must be allocated to importing petroleum fuels to keep the industrial base in operation and to meet the growing domestic energy needs--for cooking, heating, lighting, and transport--of an expanding population.
For urban and rural poor alike, economic growth is blocked by the energy crisis. The potential of social unrest is increased, and for many, survival itself is threatened.
Most developing countries have few fossil fuel resources, and for most the prospects of discovering any are limited. An alternative often advocated, but not seriously heeded, is reorganization of the world system of energy resource distribution in which a greater share of petroleum fuel resources would be reallocated, or at least sold more cheaply, to needy nations, out of some so-far-undiscernible sense of global fraternity. Such a radical transformation in the international system of conventional fuels distribution (or any other resource) seems unlikely.
There is, however, an alternative that warrants serious attention. It is to develop technologies for generating and using biomass-based sources of renewable energy. Reliance on these energy sources is, of course, as old as fire. What is new is the way such energy is generated and harnessed to meet human needs. Properly designed, successfully diffused--adopted, adapted, and spread--biomass-based energy technologies have the potential for reducing dependency on fossil fuels; for more efficient, economically and environmentally less costly means of cooking and heating; for providing urban dwellers with cheaper energy sources; for powering the small-scale industries essential for reducing urban unemployment; and for renewing the sources of biomass on which all these technologies depend.
Biomass energy technologies use resources that, although not evenly distributed, are available in most countries. Most are also nonpolluting. Relatively little foreign exchange is needed to acquire them; generally they can be replenished without major reliance on either external financial or material support. Melchor sees in the promotion of biomass-based energy technologies the potential for reducing income disparities that are a major source of tension in many developing countries. "The most important promise of this newfound use of biomass resource is that its very ubiquity favors social, political, and economic patterns that will encourage self-sustaining systems that carry the potential for promoting equity and the reordering of the rural-urban balance" (Melchor, 1981).
Such technologies will not only respond to developing countries' short-term energy requirements, but by fostering biomass production will also slow the devastating rate of deforestation and soil erosion that threatens long-term economic growth. Credits that now go for importing costly conventional fuels can be redirected to investing in development and restoring the ecological balance.
But few of the biomass energy technologies have been diffused on any scale among the developing country populations most in need. This is due not so much to the limitations of the technologies themselves as to a failure to adapt them to the variety of economic and sociocultural settings into which they must be introduced.
Briscoe, J. 1979. The Political Economy of Energy Use in Rural Bangladesh. Environmental Systems Program, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
Melchor, A., Jr. 1981. Options Immediately Available to the Region's Developing Countries to Lessen Their: Dependence on Imported Hydrocarbon Fuels. United Nations University, Tokyo, Japan.