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Rio+20 Dialogues: Are we felling forests to fuel our future?

Lively discussion illustrates the importance of getting biofuel policy right.

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Forests are an important source of energy for rural and urban households around the world. And many believe that renewable energy provision as part of a green economy will be the next biggest challenge human civilisation will face. However the assumption that renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, are completely environmentally friendly is often erroneous, according to participants in the Rio+20 dialogues on sustainable development.

“What may be seen as a renewable source does not necessarily mean sustainable if other resources used in the process (e.g. water, forested lands) are in limited supply,” said Mary Menton, CIFOR scientist commenting on hydroelectricity and its impact on forested lands in Brazil.

Rising oil prices and growing concerns about climate change have heightened commitment of industrialized countries to finding new sources of renewable energy, mainly aimed at expanding the production and use of biofuels such as oil palm, sugarcane, soy and Jatropha. But recent studies suggest that biofuels may not be as green as they seem, with thousands of hectares of forests being cleared around the world to meet a growing developed nation demand for biofuels.

On the other side of the world, woodfuels in Africa account for almost 90% of primary energy consumption, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It takes 7 to 10 tonnes of raw wood to produce one tonne of wood charcoal, making fuelwood collection an important driver of deforestation in Africa, a continent of nearly one billion people who have few alternative fuel sources.

These topics and more are under debate as part of the Rio+20 Dialogues, a tool for civil society to engage in the topics under discussion at Rio in order to produce a series of recommendations that will be presented to heads of state gathering in Brazil for the Rio+20 summit.

CIFOR, along with Yale University and the University of Sao Paulo, is moderating the dialogue on forests. Here are some excerpts from the ongoing debate (please note that these have not been edited). To have your say, sign up now at www.riodialogues.org/forests


Denis Gautier
Sun, April 29, 2012 at 11.51 pm

In the soudano-sahelian countries, we don’t know much about woodlands’ resilience when they are submitted to woodcutting, grazing and bushfires more or less without any control of access and use to commons. So first of all, we have to enhance our scientific knowledge on the resilience of this kind of woodland under these pressures to clarify the sustainability of a fuelwood production based on woodland exploitation. This is a key issue because, as I will try to demonstrate below, we do not have a lot of alternative to this woodland exploitation to provide the cities with fuelwood.

Of course, local people have to understand and agree on the forest norms of “sustainable exploitation”. The imposition of rules of “scientific forestry” to local people has demonstrated every where [has] its limits. It is the time now to elaborate these norms in common with the local stakeholders that means in terms a revolution of the “forest agent” posture. That is a key second issue if we want key stakeholders to follow sustainable norms of fuelwood exploitation.

Concerning the fuelwood plantations, till now, it has been a complete failure. From the 1970’s with the State plantations to the 1990’s individual plantations, passing by the village plantations (1980’s), very few of them have produced or is producing fuelwood that is sold on the market. First of all, they are very limited in area compared to woodland. And they are still too expensive compared to woodland. Maybe it can success being a credible option in the soudano-sahelian countries if the fuelwood is sold at its real price of a “sustainable wood”. But selling the fuelwood at it real price of sustainable production will lead to consumers’ riots in the cities. An option may be to subsidize these plantations, so that they can be competitive to woodland, but the problem is that most of these plantations are fast growing exotic species that are not appreciate by dwellers as fuelwood.

At least, concerning the improved cooking stoves, they have been promoted since at least 40 years. That is a very good solution for very poor results in terms of development. My question is how many scientific studies have tried to understand, with an anthropologic perspective, why the soudano-sahelian women rather prefer their three-stones fire to a improved stove? Very few. Maybe a dramatic increase of the fuelwood price may push them to adopt this kind of stoves. But after 40 years, a good assessment is needed, no?

Mary Menton
Mon, April 30, 2012 at 04.52 pm

Denis, Thanks for you comments. A few thoughts to add:

I would agree that plantations of fast growing exotics might not be the best answer, particularly if they are not seen as good sources of fuelwood by local populations. Are there examples of fast-growing endemic species that could be used? Are there cases in your region where the remanants from sawmills, of these exotic species or others, are being used sucessfully for charcoal?  In Peru, there are many examples of sawmills that convert remnants to charcoal production. How far can these types of activities go towards limiting the fuelwood footprint?

The issue of the social and cultural context behind the adoption (or not) of cooking stoves is indeed crucial. Technological advances will fall short if the social, economic, and cultural barriers for uptake are too great. There are, though, some studies and reports that address these issues (see links below for some) – do we need to go further? What are the priorities for further research on uptake of improved stoves?

Barnes et al. 1994. What makes peoples cook with improved biomass stoves? A comparative international review of stove programs. World Bank Technical Paper 242.

Troncoso, K. et al 2007. Social perceptions about a technological innovation for fuelwood cooking: Case study in rural Mexico. Energy Policy 35: 2799-2810.

Jan, I. (2012). What makes people adopt improved cookstoves? Empirical evidence from rural northwest Pakistan. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16(5): 3200-3205.

Denis Gautier
Mon, April 30, 2012 at 06.31 pm

Mary, Thanks for your comments.

There is no local species that can grow as fast as Eucalyptus or Acacia auriculiformis in the soudano-sahelian context. At least, Eucalyptus camaludensis is appreciated for house building. But even a local species like Khaya senegalensis that is very useful and presents one of the fastest growth of the local trees cannot compete in terms of biomass production with the exotic species. As a result, even if there are some plantations of local gum trees, the very large majority of the few plantations are based on exotic species.

However, a lot of local species have a good sprouting capacity, particularly the Combretaceae and some Acacia. This capacity offer to the savanna ecosystems a certain capacity of biomass regeneration. At the moment, this regeneration by sprouting is sufficient to avoid to the cities a shortage of fuelwood. But the question is: how long the savannah ecosystems around the main cities will stand this pressure from woodcutters? And can we still speak of resilient ecosystems when they lose their biodiversity to tend to almost monospecific stands regenerating only but sprouting?

It takes 7 to 10 tonnes of raw wood to produce one tonne of wood charcoal. Photo courtesy of Jeff Walker/CIFOR.

Otherwise, there are no sawmills in Sahel, so no remnants to make some charcoal with them. Some people try to build briquettes with the cotton stumps, but these briquettes are not very appreciated by women for cooking. There is may be something to do with the residues of the fuelwood exploitation that are usually left in the bush and useless.

Michelle Kovacevic
Tue, May 1, 2012 at 04.31 am

Thanks for your comments Denis and Mary. I went to a presentation at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference where Bob Scholes from the South African Council of Scientific Research expressed concern that Africa, being a newly emerging player in the biofuel production market, is the next continent that would suffer greatly from unsustainable food and energy production models. He also said that there was great opportunity for Africa to can learn from Indonesia’s experiences with palm oil and Brazil’s soybean and sugarcane industry. Does anyone have any idea what lessons in energy production that Africa could learn from these two countries?

Mary Menton
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 03.40 pm

Michelle, My first reaction to your question on lessons learned r.e. biofuels in Indonesia and Brazil:  that extensive deforestation is likely…

But, perhaps more optimistically, I’ve heard discussion in reference to the Brazil case of efforts towards more sustainable production (e.g. the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (http://www.responsiblesoy.org/) or the Better Sugarcane Initiative (www.bonsucro.org)).  I would love to hear from others as to the effectiveness of such initiatives and specific lessons learned that would be applicable to other cases.

And, r.e. the question of dams (“Given increasing energy needs, is the flooding of forests for hydroelectric dams and the drilling for oil in protected areas or indigenous lands inevitable? Is it “ok”?”) – as I look at the case of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, it seems that given the political and economic power of the lobbies supporting these types of projects, they may be inevitable. But, is it “ok” to flood indigenous lands? No, it is not. With these types of projects, it seems there are always groups who suffer tremendous losses that cannot possibly be compensated by resettlement packages.

Deon Geldenhuys
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 07.18 pm

Biofuel production in Africa is a dangerous game as water resources are already stressed in many regions and water is best used for cereal crop production. Biofuel production  uses a lot of water , causes deforestation and is unsustainable. Much of Africa has lots of sunshine for solar power and  wave and wind generated power along coastal areas should be utilized.

Bio fuels are not as environment friendly as some would have us believe.

In rural areas in south africa , villages are  being educated on utilizing cattle dung to generate Methane gas for cooking . Other areas in Africa are using solar sun cookers.

Mary Menton
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 11.35 pm

Deon, your point about the importance of water stress is very pertinent and brings again to the forefront the interconnections amongst the different Rio+20 themes. I also agree with you that the assumption that biofuels = environmentally friendly is often erroneous. What may be seen as a renewable source does not neccessarily mean sustainable if other resources used in the process (in this case water, forested lands) are in limited supply.

Deon Geldenhuys
Fri, May 4, 2012 at 06.46 pm

Brazil has much water , forests and land . Biofuel production will affect forest area but not have too much effect on water resources. A unnerving situation is emerging in forested areas there, regarding droughts becoming more frequent .It would be wise for Brazil to protect their valuable heritage from exploitation by other nations. Corruption amongst landowners and loop holes in the legal system must be addressed

A woman washes her laundry in a small river in oil palm plantation. Jambi, Indonesia. Photo by Jenny Farmer/CIFOR

…Biofuel production is a lucrative industry but an unsustainable one. Replacing hydrocarbons with biofuel does not help the environment much and the benefits are marginal . The world can do without bio fuels as it is not a necessity . Deforestation in Borneo and indonesia is taking place at a disturbing rate to make way for palm oil plantations .Corruption and greed is driving this process as countries like India import huge volumes of palm oil from Borneo for bio fuel production etc… in Brazil will also take place to make way for Soybean production for cattle fodder destined for the chinese market. Again economics plays a role as nations import rescources for their consumption .International Laws and collective collaboration is required to prevent abuse and exploitation of the environment

Victor Gutierrez
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 07.22 pm

Central to the topic of fuel production in tropical areas is scale. There are implicit trade-offs in terms of feasibility and social development that should be considered when implementing sustainable fuel cultivations.

Given current forms of trade, especially in the global context, many biofuel plantations are conceived economically attractive if they are performed at a large scale. Large-scale agriculture can reduce production costs and increase yield but they are very likely to expand into forest areas. All over the tropics there are abundant non-forest areas suitable for establishing fuel plantations that are un- or sub-utilized. Given the current economic model favoring large scale production, the feasibility for converting marginal non-forest areas into cultivations becomes difficult because most of them are already claimed or under dispute. Large investors prefer to avoid entering into land tenureship conflicts by selecting undisputed areas which are mostly covered by forests.

There are examples in the literature about initiatives by communities to implement fuel plantations, particularly oil palm, in their own lands. If the right incentives are set in place, these dweller can use part of their areas that have been already converted and where production is marginal for fuel production. Incentives include technical advice and subsidies or loans for early stages of the plantations when production hasn’t started. Initiatives  for small-scale production often fail because smallholders do not have the resources to transform and commercialize their products. This problem might be solved by a partnership with private investors who would be in charge of transformation and commercialization. Obviously such an approach would have to guarantee a fair compensation to producers in order to be successful.

Michelle Kovacevic
Thu, May 3, 2012 at 12:25 am

These are very interesting points you raise Victor and I’m particularly interested in your last comment about involving the private sector. Would you or any others be able to suggest what kind of incentives we need to give business to promote more sustainable and inclusive models for biofuels and biomass supply that places lower pressure on forests and distributes economic benefits more equitably?

Deon Geldenhuys
Fri, May 4, 2012 at 06.54 pm

The only incentives that business understands is profits. One way of curbing their drive towards biofuel related deforestation would be to encourage them to diversify into other fields of industry that do not affect forests and still generate profits for them

Mary Menton
Fri, May 4, 2012 at 12.50 pm

Michelle and Victor,

I think there are some important lessons learned from the timber sector in terms of community-company partnerships should be taken into account when developing such initiatives for biofuels. It’s important to recognize that while there are numerous cases of exploitative relationships between companies and local communities, there are some examples where mutual benefit has been possible. Colleagues from IIED have written on this in the past (e.g. Mayers and Vermuelen 2002. Company community forestry partnerships – from raw deals to mutual gains). Given the questions of scale, such partnerships may be the most efficient way for smallholders to enter the market.  However, mechanisms to support transparency and equity will be essential…

Certification schemes, and the niche markets those bring, could help provide incentives to the private sector to improve their social and environmental responsibility. But, again, the question of scale – are the niche markets formore responsible biofuels big enough and do they pay enough to compensate the costs of participation?

Edson Vidal
Thu, May 3, 2012 at 3:53 am

Tucuruí Dam on the Tocantins River, Brazil. Photo courtesy of International Rivers/flickr.

Dear Michelle and Mary I agree to much thing to you. But I think that in Brazil, although the hydroelectric to be cleaner of what use of diesel and radiation, could be implemented models of thermoelectrial using the residues of the forest management, and others ex. One example interesting of generation of renewable energy is of company Mil Madeiras (Precious Wood) of Itacuatiara:A company with forest certification created a power plant that uses waste wood from sustainably managed forests as a fuel, replacing electricity generated from polluting diesel generators, since 2005, to be burnt in the electric and thermal plant of vapor turbine to generate electricity for the Itacoatiara city, state of Amazonas, Brazil. A city of 80.000 inhabitants. Thus, beyond contributing with the supplying of clean energy, in a region long ago supplied 100% for generators diesel, the project contributes significantly for the reductions of methane emissions derived from the decomposition of the residues. The project consists of the application of the technology of direct combustion of residues of biomass for the simultaneous generation of electric and thermal energy and has covered about 70% the electric consumption the Itacoatiara city,AM, Brazil.

Mary Menton
Fri, May 4, 2012 at 12.54 pm

Edson, Thanks for sharing this example. Victor’s comment brings up the issue of scale – do you think these types of initiatives could work at a larger scale? Could bigger cities create plants that take in the remnants from a host of sawmills to contribute to a % of the city’s needs? What do you think?

Edson Vidal
Fri, May 4, 2012 at 09.42 pm

Mary, I think that is possible. In a region with a concentration of saw, some industries supplying residue would support an medium city, of 500 a thousand inhabitants, for example.

Deon Geldenhuys
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 07.48 pm

Flooding of forests for hydro electric use may be a necessary step to ensure adequate and clean power supply . Coal fired power stations are bad news  and trees or forests can be established  in other areas to offset the loss of forest area. Hydro power stations however must  be built in such a manner as to minimize the impact on the environment . They should not be seen as only energy generating structures but contribute to employment creation , fish ,agriculture , recreation , tourism , sport and complement the environment .Forest reserves should be created around dams where plants and animals can be protected and generate income from tourism.

Dams must be allowed to flood rivers downstream on a regular pre determined basis to ensure the well being of fauna and flora by delivering  necessary nutrients , seeds and breeding grounds for aquatic life .

Dams are not as bad as some think as they reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and have a cooling effect on the micro climate around them. They should be however built with silt build up in mind and precautions taken regarding earthquakes. The weight of water from new large dams can cause tectonic plate movement as was the case in China.

Drilling of oil in protected and sensitive areas will always be a major polluting factor in these areas. Oil drilling and gas flaring has a way of destroying the micro climate and pollutes the water and surrounds for many years. Oil is a serious problem and the production and use thereof must be phased out . Fossil fuel use is primative and  humanity must wean itself thereof and move on to more modern and cleaner alternatives.

Deon Geldenhuys
Sat, May 5, 2012 at 03.44 pm

It is not logical to destroy forest for bio fuel production and then call bio fuel green energy.

Illegal logging in the Amazon continues. Persons caught are given fines and the logs confiscated , but they return to fell more trees to pay for the fines.

…Brazils agri-scientists are amongst the best in the world and i am sure they are capable of managing their forests responsably.Brazil is destined to become a major role player in global food production. The reason for Brazils bio fuel program is strategic energy security.

A lot of attention is given to the brazilian forests but many other areas around the globe are being affected. The U.S.A scources over 30% of it’s mahogany and Birch wood from Peruvian forest.  China sources much of it’s wood from Russian boreal forest .

Edson Vidal
Sun, May 6, 2012 at 06.41 pm

Dear Deon, Thanks a lot for its valuable commentaries. But I would like to make some important commentaries on the use of forests for energy. First in Brazil currently it is possible to make cut in the Brazilian Amazon in 20% of the property, in the 80% remain is only possible to use the forest for sustainable uses: Sustainable Forest Management, Not Timber Forest Products Management, and other uses with low impacts that the cited ones above. what it was cited is the possibility to use residues wooden/timber proceeding from Sustainable Forest Management. This activity keeps 70% of the canopy forest, is removed only 2-3 trees for one hectare (10,000 m2) and keeps several other environment services as: protection fires, protection of the water sources, protection of significant part of biodiversity, ….. In fact one of the economic activities that can generate development with conservation. Other options have not had demonstrated resulted promising of low impact in biodiversity.. On the other hand an alternative that has demonstraded to be more efficient of what, for example, creation of units of conservation is the communitarian forest management, as told in the article of Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112711003215).

Deon Geldenhuys
yesterday at 04.27 pm

Dear Edson

Brazil is blessed with an abundance of  bio diversity. It is something that should be protected and nurtured . Increasing pressure will be placed on Brazil to supply wood to other Nations . One can see what the Chinese have done to their forests and bio diversity and they are now applying pressure on Brazil and Russian forests . China and the U.S.A  are the biggest importers of wood. Soya bean crops for cattle fodder destined for china is also unsustainable.

In northern Borneo  they have resorted to using their forests for eco tourism , protecting existing forest and establishing eco lodges , river tours , animal rehabilitation centers , indigenous people villages for tourism etc….

There is no easy sustainable alternative for better forest use.  Forest products should be replaced with alternative products such as Bamboo  production which also generates jobs and a new sustainable industry. We could possibly see  gene research producing ultra- fast growing trees that reproduce by taking cuttings . These trees would be tall and have dark green foilage . New forests could be established with these trees similar to todays pine forests.

Research on crops that compliment the forest and protect the bio diversity is also an alternative to forest use.

The projected climate for the Amazon is that it will eventually become savannah. The region has  experienced 2 droughts within the last 5 years possibly due to the el-nino / la nina  southern occillation .

Edson Vidal
6 hours ago


Thank you for your excellents suggestions. We go see what other people think to select the  that more has potential so that they are directed as recommendations in the Rio+20.

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