Replacement of Wood Charcoal in Haïti
By Max Massac, PE
The state of the environment in Haïti is deplorable and worsening. Close to 90% of the forests have been decimated for energy and construction. This devastation is having a dramatic impact on the agricultural and economic condition of the country, and contributes greatly to the current poverty level, as evidenced by the recent reports of famine in various parts of the country. With the destruction of the forests, there is less and less rainfall resulting in adverse consequences for the agriculture. Drastic measures must be implemented by the Haïtian people if this situation is to be reversed and the natural environment renewed. Converting from wood charcoal to alternative cooking fuels is one of the key requirements and a must if this situation is to improve.
The major cause of deforestation and environmental degradation in Haïti is the tree cutting to make charcoal. Over 70% of the energy usage in Haïti is derived from wood and other biomass. Million tons of wood charcoal are produced yearly in Haïti. It takes approximately two average-size trees to produce a ton of charcoal. Thus, in a one year period, several millions of trees are cut to produce wood charcoal. This charcoal is then sold and/or used for cooking and baking (baking mainly in bread bakeries). The wood charcoal industry is a source of income for many Haitians, who understand that their actions are ruining the countryís environment, but, at the same time, have no other choice to survive.
There are, however, other cooking fuels that are more environmentally friendly, more efficient and cost effective, and that can be more profitable than the wood charcoal. Primary among these is the use of natural or manufactured gas. Although Haïti has little or no natural gas, it is produced in abundance in other parts of the world and can be readily imported and distributed throughout the country. There are currently a few companies in Haïti involved in the gas industry, however they only meet a small fraction of the demand for cooking fuel. There is definitely room for these companies to expand and for new companies to be established in order to meet this demand.
The alternative is to actually produce methane gases in Haïti. This gas production can occur by applying proven techniques as used in many other countries. Bio-gases such as methane gas is produced from the decomposition of organic matter. In the U.S. we have many examples where the methane gas produced from land fills is piped out and utilized in useful energy applications such as cooking or power generation. There are also people who produce methane gas from the processing of animal waste through simple processes that yield methane with other by-products used for fertilization; this energy source has a huge potential in rural areas. These technologies can readily be applied in Haïti and, at the same time, be favorable to economic development by creating thousands of jobs.
The distribution infrastructure is also an area that needs to be developed in Haïti. Currently the only means of distribution is in small tanks (20 to 100 lb..) delivered by human or motorized transportation. This obviously adds to the cost of the gas to the consumer. A cost effective distribution system should be established. This will require the establishment of gas distribution lines fed from high capacity centralized storage facilities.
In order for the majority of people to use gas for cooking, they must have gas stoves. Most Haitians are not in an economic position to afford gas stoves in the conventional sense. However, there are various ways to overcoming this problem. One way would be to provide them below cost and amortize the balance of the cost of stoves in the gas price over a reasonable period. An other was would be to produce an inexpensive stove that most people would be able to afford.
Besides the use of gas, another option would be to import natural charcoal or coal. Coal is also abundant throughout the world and readily importable. Though not as desirable as gas, from the stand point of pollution and handling, it has similarities to wood charcoal and thus would not require the changes in cooking equipment required by using gas. This could be considered as a transitional option that would at least stop trees from being cut to produce wood charcoal.
Still an option would be to use solar energy for cooking. This concept has been around for a long time, and, at face value, would be an ideal option given the Haïtiís geographical situation. However, the use of solar energy for cooking requires certain changes in cooking patterns such as longer cook times and outdoor cooking which makes it inconvenient for most. Other drawbacks are the variation in the amount of sunlight available due to clouds and the inability to cook at night. Thus solar cooking is not as viable an option than the previously mentioned options but can have a role to play in eliminating the use of wood charcoal.
An important aspect of getting the vast majority of people to switch to alternative cooking fuels to wood charcoal is to provide them with the economic incentives to do so. This could be accomplished through a combination of steps by the sellers as well as the government. One such step would be for the importers to pool their resources together and buy in large volumes in order to take advantage of quantity price breaks and pass the savings on the consumers. The gas manufacturers should learn and apply modern techniques for gas production as mentioned above and also pool their resources to again take advantage of the economies of scale. The government should also minimize taxes to these gas manufacturers and actually provide them with tax incentives produce and to sell the gas in cheaply as possible. The government could also implement policies to make the alternative fuels more economically attractive than wood charcoal by minimizing all importation and manufacturing costs through elimination or minimization of governmental taxes and tariffs on this industry.
On the other hand, the government should strictly regulate the production of wood charcoal, tax it heavily, and eventually ban it altogether. Another role of the government would be to provide a distribution infrastructure by constructing a network of pipelines throughout the country to facilitate gas distribution.
Haïti is currently facing many crisis. Addressing the environmental issue will contribute to solving many other problems. Switching to alternative fuels for cooking will be a major step in reversing the environmental devastation caused by cutting trees for charcoal production.
I hope that the Haitian people will understand this reality and take the necessary actions to make a positive difference for themselves and their descendants in the years to come. I urge all investors interested in Haïti to seriously consider targeting the gas industry and making it a major force in combating the environmental devastation being brought upon the country by the wood charcoal industry, while at the same time developing an industry that creates many jobs and has great potential returns on investments.
HAES is in the process of organizing a major event called Haïti EnviroTech 98 on the environment that will take place in the fall of 1998. The impact of energy usage on the environment will be a major topic. Between now and the time of the event we plan on undertaking various activities to address the problem of using trees for fuel. We encourage all interested parties to contact us so that we can exchange ideas, pool our resources and have some concrete proposals and actions that can be expanded on at Haïti Enviro-Tech 98. If you are interested, drop us a note by standard mail, on our web site (www.haiti-science.com). or call us at (305) 621-1189.