In this blog, I want to focus on the case of Haiti, where 93 percent of people (2.2 million households) cook with solid fuels and some 80 percent of urban households use charcoal as their primary cooking fuel. This fuel has implications on health – burning charcoal exposes cooks and family members to harmful Indoor Air Pollution (IAP) like PM2.5 and others – and on the environment, especially forests, since charcoal is made from wood.
But where is this charcoal coming from? And how does it just keep coming?
A new national research report entitled, “Charcoal in Haiti: a National Assessment of Charcoal Production and Consumption Trends”, conducted in Haiti between 2016-2018 by the World Bank, the nonprofit organization J/P HROand the Haiti Takes Roots Initiative, tackles these questions:
Charcoal is primarily consumed by urban populations without access to lower-cost fuelwood from wooded areas. The research tracks the actual volume of charcoal traveling into Port au Prince over different periods in 2017.
Port au Prince—with a population of over 2.6 million, or approximately one-fourth of Haiti’s entire population and dwarfing the next largest urban centers of Gonaives (356,000) and Cap-Haitien (274,000—is the largest charcoal consumer in the country.
Using Port au Prince as a hub, this research uses a “count” methodology, whereby enumerators positioned every major road, intersection, and agricultural feeder-road count and classify passing charcoal trucks.
During three time periods covering low season and high season of charcoal production (August, October and December) 69 enumerators were set-up at 23 different roadside stations for continuous 24-hour monitoring to count passing trucks. During the data collection, these enumerators logged a total of 384 hours of observations totaling 10,404 unique enumerations of charcoal vehicles heading toward the capital.
The research also finds – contrary to some popular perceptions – that very little of this charcoal is coming over from the Dominican Republic, estimating that only 2.28 percent of the total charcoal consumed in Port au Prince comes from its neighbor.
The report underscores 2014 evaluation of forest cover estimates for Haiti showing that forest coverage in Haiti is significantly higher than previously believed – covering approximately 30 percent of the land surface.
The convergence of these three things – over 400,000 metric tons of charcoal flowing into Port au Prince, nearly all of which originates in Haiti, and a persistence of a forest cover equating to nearly a 3rd of the surface area of the island – suggests that at least some portion of the charcoal presently produced in Haiti is made with renewable biomass resources.
This fact alone changes the dialogue around charcoal. Typically thought of as the major driver of deforestation in Haiti, the production of charcoal from renewable biomass resources means that charcoal production in Haiti is, at least in part, sustainable. Changing the narrative presents opportunities for investments in agriculture and natural resource management to improve planning and practices for charcoal value-chains.
Charcoal remains an undesirable cooking fuel choice for health reasons. However, despite targeted investments in the cooking fuel sector, Haiti’s movement up the fuel ladder is happening slowly, meaning it is unlikely that Haiti will reduce its reliance on charcoal anytime in the near future.