Sunday, July 19, 2009

Deforestation and alternative fuels

The causes and consequences of deforestation are something that I think about a fair bit here. I spoke with a visitor to Nyota who said that deforestation in Africa will continue until everyone has access to alternative fuel sources. I'd never thought about it in such terms, but I think he's probably right. People have to eat. They have to cook. To cook, they need fuel. For millions of people in Africa, the primary (or only) fuel source is wood.

The thing about deforestation for fuel wood is that it's insidious, subtle, and perhaps not noticeable at a glance. Fuel wood cutting doesn't usually take the big trees- other factors drive that cutting- but the small ones. The take the next generation of trees. What are the long-term consequences for these undercut forests? Probably relatively slow but steady degradation and associated loss of plant and animal diversity.

It's easy for Westerners to chastise cutting forests for fuel (charcoal comes from wood too) since we've long since switched to fossil fuels (i.e. natural gas) or electricity (likely powered by fossil fuels), but this simply distances us from the consequences of our resource use. Clearly our extensive use of fossil fuels has created a massive problem (global warming), so although it may preserve forests in the short term, encouraging a switch from wood to fossil fuels is not a viable long-term solution.

What are the options other than wood or charcoal? At Nyota we use a hot plate when we have electricity and kerosene when we don't. There are many initiatives in the villages to promote more fuel-efficient cookstoves to reduce the demand for firewood. Still, densely populated rural areas will continue to chip away at the forest. It seems that solar cookers should be a viable option here, but I haven't heard a peep about them. I wonder what the barriers are to widespread use of solar cookers?


EcoGeoFemme said...

I heard an NPR story on solar cookers recently. I can't remember why they aren't used more though.

Did you know you can see the smoke plumes from individual cooking fires from the space shuttle? It's amazing -- all these little plumes drifting together across the continent.

Alexandra said...

I liked this post because it made me think about a lot of different things. Deforestation, and other “environmental” issues are really tricky when you try to think of them as a global issue. I know it is a global issue in many ways, but there are so many different reasons things happen that trying to stop it from happening needs to take so many different approaches. Also, this post reminded me of a woman named Christina. She was the only other female in my master’s program. We always took our math and economic classes together. She was born and raised in Zambia. While we were in school, her husband and very young son lived back home in Zambia. They were only able to come over to the States once during our first year. For Christina’s second year, she went back to Zambia to do her field work. She was studying deforestation. More specifically, she was studying the woman’s role in making charcoal and the economics of that and its effects on deforestation. So, she went back to Zambia to do her field work. While there, she got malaria. She had only been home a couple months. The malaria went to her brain in just a day or two (cerebral malaria) and she died within the week. If she had lived, she would have been severely brain damaged. It was really shocking because although you know there are dangers of traveling everywhere, she was from Zambia and you really don’t think about people dying on their research trips. Plus, you don’t think about people you know suddenly just being gone from something like that. Christina was really smart and driven and loved her country and wanted to help women and Zambia’s environment. It’s a very sad loss.

I hope I’m not making you freak out. Your post just reminded me of Christina.

Karina said...

Oh Alexandra, your friend Cristina's story is so tragic! How awful for her family, and what a loss for science and conservation in Zambia. It is an important reminder that health is not something to take for granted, especially in Africa. Today's my day to take my malaria pill, and I'll think of Cristina.

EGF, I didn't know that you can see cooking fire smoke plumes from space. It seems like other fires would make a big contribution too. When I get home I'll try to look for some of those images.

Anonymous said...

I am really sad to hear of such a tragic ending to a young leader in the making for the Zambians. I am Zambian and whose quest is to see the women of Zambia switch to more ecological methods of sustaining thier livelyhoods. One of my goals is to reach out and educate the zambian women on the effects of deforestation and comeup with new innovative and cheaper ways of sustaining their livelyhoods..
My sincere condolences to Christina and her family on the great loss.. Anne KMM