Charcoal Is Not the Cause of Haiti’s Deforestation

John Dale Zach Lea, Ph. D. (Haiti Liberte)

is a widespread misconception that the use of charcoal (charbon in Kreyòl) is
responsible for Haiti’s massive deforestation. Charcoal supplies 75% of energy
used in Haiti. Without it, Haiti would be much more dependent on international
energy suppliers and aid.

          Deforestation is caused by farmers
clearing land for farming, often planting erosive crops such as corn and beans
on mountainsides inappropriate for such crops. When trees are cut for charcoal,
the roots are left, and the land is not plowed. Mesquite forests, Kasya, and
Neem are repeatedly cut for charcoal because the trees coppice (re-sprout) and
can be cut again in several years.

          The value of charcoal in the
Port-au-Prince market in 2007 was estimated at between US$110 and US$150
million. In comparison, Haitian mango exports were about $12 million in recent
years (which does not include, of course, the sizable value of
domestically-consumed mango). Cacao
are $8 million.

          Supply has kept up with demand. The
real value of charcoal has not increased substantially since 1978, despite
Haiti’s population doubling, thereby increasing demand for charcoal. In 1978, a
sack of charcoal sold for $3
in Port-au-Prince. In today’s dollars,
that’s $11.11 or 721 Haitian gourdes (HTG). Farmers in the southwestern city of
Jérémie recently told me their price is 500HTG per sack. Unless there has been
a major decrease in the size of the sack since 1978, the real value of charcoal
has not increased substantially. Charcoal would be getting more expensive if
all the trees used to make it had been cut and not allowed to regrow.

          What seems to have escaped most
observers and commentators is that much of the wood for charcoal comes from
trees that coppice after being cut down. In 1978, USAID had a reforestation
project in the northwestern town of Jean Rabel. It reported
that “while 2,000 ha [hectares] of trees are being planted through the
[…] Project, charcoal producers will be busily cutting down some 53,000
hectares of trees. The rate of deforestation will exceed reforestation by a
factor of 25.” However, the report also notes that “approximately one
million ha/yr of the total forest cut naturally regenerates.” The focus
has been on how much is cut, but, little is made of the fact that many of the
cut trees coppice, and the charcoaler comes back in 4-6 years and cuts them
down again.

          Charcoal saves Haiti substantial
amounts of foreign exchange. It is estimated that Haiti spends about 55% of its
foreign exchange on energy. Haiti gets 75% of its energy from local, renewable
sources. If Haiti had to purchase all of its energy from foreign sources, it
could purchase only 50% of its energy needs using all of its foreign exchange.

          Haitian trees provide the largest
portion of the energy used in Haiti, however, existing methods of making
charcoal allow 75% of the energy in the wood to be wasted. Thus,
renewable energy from wood equal to more than double the amount of
non-renewable energy that Haiti imports each year is wasted/lost in the
traditional charcoal-making process. This loss is partially the result of the
unwillingness to recognize the “elephant in the room” i.e. the misguided
government policies relating to charcoal in Haiti. It is generally understood
by science-guided individuals that wood-based energy is relatively
carbon-neutral while non-renewable energy is carbon-positive and is a major
cause of climate change. Current policy punishes charcoal for largely solvable
problems while promoting non-renewable energy which carries the largely
unsolvable problem of adding prehistoric carbon to the current atmosphere.

          Modern charcoal making techniques are
available that capture and use much of the energy not captured now. Wood
gasifiers produce woodgas that can be used to bake bread or fuel engines to
produce electricity or pump irrigation water. Small-scale gasifiers are being
used by rural women for cook family meals – and the by-product is charcoal. If
Haitian women, rather than men, produced charcoal in small-scale wood gasifying
stoves (charcoal retorts), they would likely use the previously wasted heat for
cooking and produce charcoal as a marketable by-product.

          Concerned professional and
non-professional engineers/inventors have largely solved the challenge of
safely venting the exhaust from household-scale wood and charcoal fueled
stoves.  The “problems” associated with
charcoal production and use can be solved if government policy encourages the
search for solutions rather than mistakenly blaming charbon for Haitian
deforestation. With appropriate policy, the Haitian charcoal industry can be
encouraged to purposely plant fast-growing energy gardens to protect eroding
hillsides, water sources, and national parks, while continuing to provide
income to much of the rural population and save much of Haiti’s foreign
exchange that would be spent on imported, non-renewable fuel.

          Charcoal is also an excellent fertilizer, thereby reducing the
expense of and dependence on petroleum-based imports.

          In September 2016, the United Nations
Environmental Program (UNEP) published a report of sustainable charcoal production in
Haiti’s South Department. It states: “Fuel-wood
forests are based on the principle of a rotating system for harvesting wood
from trees with the purpose of making charcoal, construction poles, or other
wood-based products. Typically, fast-growing tree species are planted and
allowed to mature for approximately three years, depending on the species,
after which point parts of the trees can be harvested on a yearly or bi-yearly
basis. By planting trees for this purpose, individuals and families are able to
accumulate an important form of capital (for example, wood for construction
and/or charcoal) that they can rely on for regular income or as a reserve for
large or unexpected events (such as illnesses, hospitalizations, funerals,

          “There are several
strong examples of fuel-wood forests in Haiti that have been operating for over
20 years,” the UNEP report concludes. “One of these is in the Maniche area of
the South Department and another in Desarmes.”

          Haitian policy
relating to charcoal is inconsistent. On one hand, the Haitian government
discourages charcoal production in Haiti. At the same time, it illegalizes
charcoal importation from the Dominican Republic, a measure which directly
protects and supports the Haitian charcoal industry. Charcoal maybe the only
Haitian industry that receives “import tariff” protection.

          Even the World Bank
recently published an interesting 2011 report on charcoal use in Africa. “In
contrast to its economic potential, environmental implications, and importance
for the energy security of a majority of the [Sub-Saharan Africa] population,
the charcoal sector is currently viewed almost entirely negatively in most
countries,” the report states. “Prevailing policies and laws tend to focus on
regulations, enforcement, restrictions, and, where possible, moving from the
sector altogether to other energy sources. However, if the sector was
formalized, and involved modern, supportive policies, this could create
employment opportunities and further broaden the revenue base for national and
regional governments.” Similarly, charcoal policy in Haiti could and should be

The author is an agricultural economist working with Catholic
Relief Services’ Sustainably Smart Projects based in Haiti. He can be reached