Member Countries
Mailing list
Contact RWEDP
FAO logo

The "Fuelwood Gap Theory" Rejected

Regional Study on Wood Energy Today and Tomorrow

Field Document 50, chapter 3 Table of Contents

Doom Scenario Nepal - Sources of Fuelwood - Oversupply of Yields from Deforestation - Pakistan Household Energy Strategy Study - Case Study: Cebu, Philippines - Land-use Conversion - Quotes

The "fuelwood gap theory", formulated in the 1970's, implied that woodfuels were consumed on a non-sustainable basis. The "gap" indicated that in many countries consumption was larger than the sustainable supply from forest land. It was then concluded that deforestation and forest degradation were largely due to fuelwood harvesting. This, of course, raised a lot of concern among national and international agencies regarding the future of forests.

When the fuelwood gap theory was proposed data on the origins of fuelwood were scarce and it was assumed that all fuelwood originated from forests. However, now that much more data have become available an entirely different picture has emerged. We now know that the majority of fuelwood (over 60%) originates from non-forest sources and the supply from these non-forest sources appears to be sufficient to "fill the gap".

The foregoing implies that fuelwood harvesting from forest land is not necessarily non-sustainable, and that fuelwood use is not necessarily linked to deforestation. Now, fuelwood use is no longer considered a major or general cause of deforestation, although, of course, in localised areas and under certain conditions, fuelwood use may contribute to processes of deforestation and forest degradation.

3.1 Doom Scenario Nepal

Back in 1976 the Energy Research and Development Group of the Institute of Science, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, published a study "Nepal, the Energy Sector" (ERDG, 1976). The study included predictions of the demand and supply of fuelwood, which was (and still is) the most important source of energy in Nepal. The predictions were built on the assumption that all fuelwood was derived from accessible forests, which led to an assumed 'fuelwood gap'. Two scenario's were developed, a base scenario and a second scenario based on widespread introduction of fuelwood saving stoves (ICS scenario).

As seen from Figure 1 it was anticipated that from the then estimated total forest area of 6.4 million ha, all accessible forest in the country (50% of total forest area) would be completely wiped out by the year 1990. In case of massive dissemination of improved stoves, this disaster would be delayed by 3 years only.

Nepal Forest Area Projections Figure 1: Nepal Forest Area Projections and WECS/FAO estimates

By now we know that this doom scenario based on the fuelwood gap theory has not come true, and the then available data were not correct. According to FAO estimates, Nepal still had 5.75 million ha of forest in 1993 (FAO, 1994) and 4.61 million ha. according to the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS, 1996). In hindsight one would have to argue a long way in order to explain the current situation and still maintain the assumptions of the 1970's. The case of Nepal is not unique; also in many other countries the fuelwood gap theory has led to false predictions.

3.2 Sources of Fuelwood

As yet, few systematic data are available on the sources of fuelwood consumed. An overview of available data is presented in Table 4.2 (see p.29) below. The weighted averages show that overall about 2/3 of total fuelwood consumed originates from non-forest land. This information was not available when the "fuelwood gap theory" was proposed.

3.3 Oversupply of Yields from Deforestation

For various countries a simple calculation suffices to, at least, throw serious doubts on the fuelwood gap theory. The calculation compares the total annual woodfuel consumption in a country with the yield from deforestation. If woodfuel need was the (or a) major reason for deforestation, one would expect that a substantial part (i.e. at least 35%) of the standing stock harvested per year would be consumed as woodfuel. For comparison, data from the period 1980-1990 were analysed. The results are presented in Table 3.1.

The results for different countries like Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Philippines show a large oversupply of wood harvested as compared to fuelwood consumption. Such results contradict the fuelwood gap theory. It is inconceivable that time and again people nation-wide would cut down several trees in order to use only 35% of one tree as fuel.

These results suggest that the fuelwood gap theory is suspect for other countries too.

3.4 Pakistan Household Energy Strategy Study

Using the 1991 HESS data, total annual yields of wood were estimated at 22 million tons against total consumption for 1991 at 32 million ton. This gives an national wood deficit of 9.7 million tons. If these numbers are accepted as being accurate and no changes in the wood consumption and supply situation were to occur in the immediate future, all of Pakistan's wood resources might be anticipated to disappear in the next 20 years.

This scenario will come true if and only if a carefully defined set of assumptions are not violated. This scenario assumes that, if all relationships defined in the base year are accurate and all other factors are held equal, then the projections embodied in the scenario will come true. That is, if nothing changes and there is no natural regeneration or recovery, harvesting, wood resources will be exhausted. The critical role of these strong assumptions is frequently lost over or completely ignored in the gap analysis. In reality, all other conditions relevant to wood supply are constantly changing, so the scenarios rarely come to pass. The massive forest destruction predicted in the gloomy scenarios has simply not come pass. No rural afforestation campaign can take credit for the survival of national forest resources. Rather, woodfuel resources regenerate well following harvesting and have provided large quantities of woodfuel on a sustainable basis. The HESS report also states "... it is unfair and simply untrue to claim that the continuing pressure to clear forest resources is largely attributed to fuelwood demand." (World Bank/ESMAP, 1993)

3.5 Case Study: Cebu, Philippines

Given historical land use patterns in the province, and current farming and tree-planting practices in the uplands, it is apparent that the issue of deforestation and environmental degradation in Cebu is far more complicated than often assumed. The role of woodfuel extraction and use as an agent in this process appears especially prone to misunderstanding. The current extent of deforestation and erosion in the uplands of Cebu appears to be nothing new. The vast majority of the island's rural residents have remained dependent on woodfuels and other biomass fuels for their cooking needs, while the commercial woodfuel trade in the urban areas continues to flourish with prices for these fuels having changed little, in real terms, over the last 20 years. Such evidence suggests that woodfuel extraction may have little to do with deforestation and resource denudation in the past or the present, and that current systems of land use and tree management in non-forested areas of the province may be capable of providing adequate woodfuel supplies for the foreseeable future (Bensel, 1993).

3.6 Land-use Conversion

In Vietnam national data for the period 1980-1990 show that a total of 800,000 ha has been subjected to deforestation whereas agricultural land has increased by 700,000 ha (Ministry of Forestry Vietnam, 1992).

In Sri Lanka between 1956 and 1984 natural forest shrunk by 750,000 ha. In the same period the area used for agricultural production and settlements increased by 833,000 ha (USAID, 1991).

For Pakistan, the HESS study reports that over a period of one century, 1880-1980, the population has quadrupled. In that period approximately 80,000 km2 of forest area was converted to other land. Cultivated land increased by 90,000 km2, and human settlements absorbed another 10,000 km2. (World Bank/ESMAP, 1993).

These country examples strongly suggest that the main reason for deforestation was the conversion of forest land into agricultural land and/or settlement areas and increased woodfuel availability may simply have been an unintended effect of this conversion.


Many institutions and researchers have also published their findings, questioning the fuelwood gap theory. A few are quoted here:

  1. "In most countries, forests are disappearing not because people want the trees to burn, but because they want the land under the trees for agriculture." (Eckholm, 1984)

  2. "Forests are predominantly cleared for agricultural land, not directly for energy products." (CEC, 1984)

  3. "Little attention is paid to changing land-use despite evidence that it is not the demand for fuelwood which creates deforestation but land clearance for agricultural production." (Munslow, 1988)

  4. "To arrest deforestation one needs to halt the depredations caused by agriculture rather than by fuelwood consumption. ... Indeed, if all woodfuel use stopped tomorrow, deforestation rates would hardly be altered." (Leach, 1988)

  5. "Despite a continuing emphasis on the contribution of woodfuel consumption to deforestation, it is becoming increasingly accepted that the primary causes of deforestation are more closely related to land clearance to support agricultural expansion." (Dewees, 1989)

  6. "The bulk of deforestation is due to processes that would proceed at the same pace with or without fuelwood use; and the bulk of the fuelwood in most countries originates from non-forest lands." (Veer, 1989)

  7. "Indeed, in the view of many, population pressure does lead to deforestation, but not because of the direct cutting of wood for fuel. Instead, population growth leads to pressure for more farmland, and natural woodlands are cleared to grow food." (Hurst, 1990)

  8. "Commercial logging, clearance for large scale ranching, in-migration following road construction or through government-sponsored transmigration schemes, flooding from giant HEP [hydroelectric project] schemes and other development pressure are all widely cited as contributing to large-scale deforestation. The exploitation of forests for fuelwood use contributes little to this process." (Mercer, 1991)

  9. "Rural people rarely fell trees for fuel use, and most depend on trees close to their homes. This means that trees outside the forest, within the agricultural landscape are the main source of fuel for rural people." (Soussan, 1992)

  10. "Indeed, there would be no forest left at all in the Himalayas if some of the predictions made fifteen years ago had been strictly accurate. ... There is now ample evidence that many of the early predictions of shortfall were exaggerated, or that local problems were used to suggest national or international disasters in the making." (WWF, 1992)

  11. "Rapid population growth, the need for agricultural expansion, ill-defined or non-existent property rights and distorted economic incentives fuel deforestation in most developing countries." (Bentley, 1994)

  12. "All the available evidence shows that the rural fuelwood requirement does not seem to lead to deforestation" (Ravindranath, 1995)

  13. "... in most cases, fuelwood collection is not a primary cause of deforestation. Furthermore, it is now clear that fuelwood production and harvesting systems can be, and often are, sustainable." (FAO, 1997)

Back to the top

Table of Contents

Comments, questions?
© FAO-RWEDP, 1999