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Woodfuel Flows

Supply sources - Conversion and processing - Distribution and trade - RWEDP activities - Further reading - Other issues in wood energy

A substantial amount of woodfuels is traded commercially through an extensive network of producers, middlemen and traders. Buyers of woodfuels are urban and rural households, commercial enterprises such as restaurants, food vendors and industries, e.g. food- and agro-processing industries.

A significant portion of the rural population is employed in this trade, and for some of them it is the only means to earn cash income. For many others, it is an additional source of income during the off-farming season. It is estimated that the labour employed in the woodfuel business per unit of energy consumed is 20 times greater than that for kerosene, which is its closest substitute among the commercial fuels.

Because of concern for forest resources, the commercial woodfuel trade is discouraged and even restricted in most Asian countries. Woodfuel traders need to obtain permits for tree harvesting, charcoal making and woodfuel transportation, which can be cumbersome and sometimes costly. During transport, woodfuel loads are inspected at checkpoints along the road. These restrictions act as a disincentive for planting trees on private land and they hamper the free flow of woodfuels, which means that many people face difficulties in earning an income from the woodfuel business, and many may not even try because of the obstacles. Removing, or at least differentiating the restrictions on the woodfuel trade would allow for the development of a healthy market for privately produced woodfuels. It also would provide better opportunities for rural people, especially women, to earn an extra income.

Woodfuel trade occurs mostly at small-scale and in the informal sector, so no comprehensive statistics of its scale and the number of people exist. Nevertheless, several studies have been conducted in recent years that give a picture of woodfuels flows.

Supply Sources

Sources of traded woodfuels are both forest and non-forest areas. Regarding formal supplies from forests, a country's forest department may sell woodfuels itself or it may issue permits to traders to remove wood from certain areas. Besides formal removals, woodfuels may be removed from forests without permits by people living near or in the forests. In some countries people are allowed to collect dead wood for own use, but a substantial amount is sold.

For traded wood from non-forest land, the situation varies per countries. In some cases, a permit is required to cut trees on private land. In other cases, only a transport permit is required. It is difficult to estimate the scale of trade of non-forest woodfuels, because a large amount maybe used for free or traded locally.

The major share of collected woodfuels is gathered for own use. However, where sources of collected wood are near large woodfuel markets in town and cities, a large share of the gathered wood may be sold, while the woodfuel gatherers will use other fuels such as small twigs, leaves, crop residues and animal dung.

Conversion and Processing

Between the locations of the resources and the consumption, the woodfuels are converted and processed at several stages. At the resource site, wood is cut, split, and bundled. Bundle sizes can vary greatly depending on the area and the end-user. Bundles can also be re-packed at intermediate stages of the trade. Small industries usually prefer larger pieces of wood and buy in larger quantities than households. Larger industries purchase wood in bulk by weight of volume measures.

Kilns used for charcoal making vary in size and type. They are often of the temporary type such as earth pit kilns and earth mound kilns, because wood supplies at one location are often temporary and small. In some cases, charcoal is made near the home of charcoal producers where it is easier to control the carbonization process. Wood used for charcoal making is generally of larger size than fuelwood, and may consist of all types of wood such as tree trunks, stumps and roots. After production, charcoal is packed in bags or baskets for transport.

Distribution and Trade

In the woodfuel trade we can distinguish between small woodfuel gatherers and occasional traders, and the larger full-time traders.

Woodfuel traderWoodfuel gatherers carry the woodfuel to local markets by head or back load and sell it directly to consumers and shopkeepers. Some truck and bus drivers act as occasional traders by buying woodfuels along the road and selling it to the market. In some countries trucks may carry a load of woodfuels back after delivering their goods. Transport of small quantities is normally considered to be for own use, so it circumvents the regulated trade channels.

Woodfuel trade by professional traders has various forms. The transport to the market in a town can be done by a rural trader, who sells it directly to an urban trader or end-users. In other cases several intermediaries can be involved both in rural and in urban areas. Some traders buy woodfuels from small producers and sell it to transporters. Others traders buy from local sellers along roads. In larger cities there may be a network of wholesalers and retailers.

Usually a permit will be needed for the transport. The permit has to be obtained in advance. It is usually issued by local authorities after inspection of the source and the amount of the wood. During transport the woodfuel load can be checked at checkpoints, to see whether the load corresponds with the permit.


Prices and conditions vary per country and area within a country. Nevertheless, the price structures in different countries show a common pattern. In the case of fuelwood, in general owners of trees account for about 20% of final sales price, while the wood cutters/collectors account for about 30%. Where the land/tree owner is the same as the cutter/collector, his or her share amounts to about 50-60%. Transport accounts for about 20-30%, while the share of traders is around 20-25%. In the case of charcoal, the owners of the trees together with the charcoal producers receive around 50%, transport accounts for 10-15%, while the share for the traders is around 30-40%.

RWEDP activities

Several studies on woodfuel flows have been conducted by RWEDP, e.g. in the Philippines (Cebu city), Thailand, the dry zone of Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan (Peshawar). An overview of these studies has been published as a separate report. In October 1995 RWEDP organised a regional training course on woodfuel flows and trade, attended by representatives from energy and forestry agencies in member countries. Subsequently, two national training courses on woodfuels flows and trade have been organised, i.e. in Pakistan and Myanmar. Currently several studies are being implemented, e.g. in India, and more national training courses will be organised when these studies become available.

Further reading:

Woodfuel Flows - An overview of four studies, RM30
Woodfuel Flows: Rapid Rural Appraisal in Four Asian Countries, Field Document 26
Report of the Regional Course on Trade in Wood Fuel Related Products, RM25
Patterns of Commercial Woodfuel Supply, Distribution and Use in the City and Province of Cebu, Philippines, Field Document 42
Woodfuel Flows in the Dry Zone of Myanmar - A Case Study, Field Document 39
National Training Workshop on Woodfuel Trade in Myanmar, RM 33

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© FAO-RWEDP, 1999