There is an acute scarcity of wood, which is the main source of cooking and heating fuel for nine-tenths of the people in most of Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America. Some 2,000 million people - who make up roughly the poorer half of the human population depend on fuelwood as their sole or principal source of energy for cooking food and other household needs. Fuelwood accounts for at least half of all the wood used in the world each year, and for more than 85% of wood used in Third World countries. By any measure fuelwood is thus the single largest demand upon the forest, in particular in the rural areas of the developing countries where its use is concentrated. The prospects for fuelwood are alarming. Its supply must be essentially local, as its bulk and relatively low value do not permit long-distance transportation.
Fuelwood scarcity means that its collection is an exhausting chore that drains the energies of women and girls in many parts of the developing world. There are no reliable figures, but anecdotes suggest that injury and bites and stings from snakes and venomous insects while gathering fuel in harsh environments are a common cause of morbidity and premature death.
In some regions it is not fuelwood collection which has led to deforestation but clearing of land for agricultural purposes. For the majority in rural areas, the main supply of wood biomass is then the farm and the area around it. The conventional approach of growing plantations to increase supply does not take into account such site-specific conditions and the people actually affected by the crisis. Fuelwood is perceived a free resource in rural areas, making fuelwood production unattractive to local people.
Almost 40% of the world population relies on firewood and charcoal as a source of energy for cooking and heating. In 1979 fuelwood consumption in developing countries (excluding China) was 1,300 million cubic metres, already 100 million cubic metre short of requirements; an estimated 250 million people live in areas of fuelwood shortage. 1,100 million rarely have enough fuel to cook their meals. By the year 2000 potential demand, at present per capita levels, rises to 2,400 million cubic metres, but actual needs to satisfy minimum requirements would reach 2,600 million cubic metres. There is some parallel with the gap between demand for food and nutritional requirements. Because of the shrinking of the resource base, fuelwood production may be only 1,500 million cubic metres - 1,100 million cubic metres short of requirements. As a result, some 3,000 million people would face acute fuelwood shortages by the end of the century, with the result that many poor people will not be able to cook their food adequately. This can have serous nutritional and health consequences. The digestibility of food will decrease and the incidence of parasites ingested with insufficiently-cooked meat will rise; there are already reports of this happening.
Present levels of planting programmes do not offer much hope of alleviating the fuelwood situation. A recent survey of fifteen developing countries estimated that they would have to plant 669,000 ha a year to meet domestic fuel requirements in the year 2000, whereas current programmes cover only 63,500 ha, less than a tenth of what is needed. For the 60 million people of the Southern African region, fuelwood accounts for 80% of total energy consumption.
In any case, the bulk of rural energy over the next few decades will continue to come from fuelwood.