Deforestation, wood cooking practices tightly linked, analysis of data suggests

Deforestation, wood cooking practices tightly linked, analysis of data suggests

Fact: There is ever-increasing deforestation.

Fact: About two billion of the earth’s 6 billion inhabitants cook with fuel wood.

Can there be cause and effect here? Many assert there is not. They cite lumbering and clearance for agriculture and roads as the only significant causes of deforestation. There is compelling reason to re-examine this assumption. If it is wrong, measures are available to curtail fuel wood consumption. 

It may be that use of wood for fuel in the household has not been the focus of economists because it has no defined "economic value," However in 1997, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization did report that 45% of all trees cut down were used for commercial purposes, the remaining 55% "for domestic purposes," not further specified. Analysts of deforestation appear to have focused on the commercial 45%, perhaps because precise use of the domestic 55% has been difficult to ascertain.

The problem was noted in 1995 by FAO: "There is no systematic fuel wood supply and demand analysis carried out regularly for the entire world. Data on production and consumption of fuel wood and charcoal are doubtful even in advanced industrialized countries."

However, information we have marshaled from FAO, and analysis of refugee camp experiences do provide insight. We outline and analyze these data below and draw conclusions from them. 


A group of distinguished scientists, led by George M. Woodwell, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, have recently published findings in the book, Forests in a Full World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). The title reveals the underlying theme that, "the transition from a world of abundant natural resources to a world of limits…[has created] intensified competition for all essentials." 

The book recalls that the overwhelming majority of people cooked with wood until the beginning of the 20th century. In that century, the world’s population quadrupled. Even though most then adopted fossil fuels and electricity for cooking, 2 billion people continue using wood. Because of the "population explosion," that amounts to 500 million more people than in 1900! How does that level of consumption compare with other uses of our forest resources?

The bulk of information on wood consumption in the household comes from the calculations of refugee needs. Even though fuel use in refugee camps is minimal in comparison with settled communities, this is a useful measure. In fact, it is the best one we have. We have drawn our data from the following experiences. 

Goma, Zaire: The situation in Goma was deemed particularly serious because of its sheer size, as well as its proximity to Viringa National Park, a major tourist attraction and important habitat for many rare animal species, including the mountain gorilla. 

By 1994, it became necessary to deliver fuel wood to Goma. Camp officials calculated the need, based on earlier un-cited studies, at 1.2 to 1.5 kilograms per person, per day. The cool, wet climate required heating of huts and of water, in addition to cooking. 

Dadaab, Kenya: Dadaab, was plagued by its closeness to the border with Somalia and the frequent presence of bandits in the area. Gathering wood was dangerous. Refugee women were frequently shot, raped, and murdered while foraging for wood.

Muiruri Kimani wrote a report for the German Organization for Technical Cooperation, GTZ, entitled, "Meeting Energy Requirements in Refugee Situations, 1995." In it, he fixes .7 kilograms per person per day as the fuel wood requirement for refugees. Dadaab is a warmer and drier place than Goma. The need there was principally for cooking, and possibly boiling water and camel milk.

Benaco and Lumasi, Tanzania: In 1995, Howard Frederick of CARE described studies done in the camps in Tanzania. Fuel consumption, measured in terms of per person per day, varied from 2.3 kg in the Benaco Camp to 2.9 kg. In the Lumasi Camp. Mr. Frederick found that some 35% of the maize meal distributed was sold by refugees, (probably for the purchase of fuel because CARE distributed only .75 kg. of wood).

Aisha, Ethiopia: Prior to the start of a Solar Cookers International, (SCI), promotion project in Aisha refugee camp, a study was commissioned by UNHCR. Its purpose was to provide a baseline against which to measure fuel wood savings with the use of solar cookers. A household survey fixed average fuel wood consumption per person per day at 1.05 kgs. A measure of the amount of fuel wood carried into the camp each day, divided by the number of camp residents, yielded the figure of 0.99 kgs. This figure was deemed "thoroughly reliable" by the authors. (Executive Summary, p. 2, 1997),

Kakuma, Kenya: An SCI sponsored study completed in Kakuma in 1999 determined a per person/per day fuel consumption of .8 kgs, for those not using solar ovens. This is slightly less than the figures cited for the other camps, perhaps because of Kakuma’s tropical climate. Furthermore, large families, like the many in camp from Somalia, permit greater fuel economy. And, sadly, these figures reflect no cooking at all on many days when there was no food to cook.

Elsewhere: In 1995, Matthew Owens, then of the Intermediate Development Technology Group provided the following unsourced information: 

"…the great variation in fuel consumption mentioned between camps may be a pointer to the way people respond naturally to increasing fuel scarcity by adopting more economical cooking methods. In Ngara consumption is 2-3 kg per person per day. In Dadaab, where fuel is more scarce but the food is similar, consumption figures are lower (1.6-1.8 kg per person per day) and in camps in Bangladesh devoid of forest they were found to be as low as 0.8 kg per person per day." (p. 22.)

Based on these refugee experiences, we can bracket individual needs for fire wood between a low of 0.6 kg per person per day and a high of 2.8 kg., (a figure which includes some heating). One kilogram of moderate weight dry wood per person per day would be a starkly minimum average. 

Multiplying even that modest number by two billion yields staggering figures. People consume: 730 million metric tons or 1,123 million cubic meters per year. (This figure is lower than FAO’s estimate of 1,890 million cubic meters per year in "State of the World’s Forests, 1997.")

How does that volume compare with the annual consumption of roundwood? In 1994, FAO reported that figure as 1,476 million cubic meters. 

These data place the annual consumption of wood for domestic purposes within 10% of all the roundwood harvested or mined from the world’s forests! Contrary to widely held belief, cooking with wood is a significant cause of global deforestation. It is past time to recognize this fact and to do something about it. 

And something can be done: The introduction of solar ovens and fuel efficient stoves. These are now mature technologies. Not only can they diminish wood consumption, they are vastly more economical than the costs of and subsidies for petroleum products. Solar energy is free. Solar ovens and fuel efficient stoves are capable of making a strategic contribution to forest conservation, as well as to quality of life and health.

Their time has come.

Barbara Knudson
October, 2002

Dr. Barbara Knudson is a founder and director of SHE, Inc. She can be contacted at

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