Dispatches from Rio and Nepal: Knife Fights Over Firewood -By ANDREW C. REVKIN
In the final hours of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, a reverberating theme has been “sustainable energy for all” — a push catalyzed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a stump speech on energy poverty that he has delivered many times over the past year. The most effective lines in these speeches draw on his personal experience growing up with no electricity in post-war South Korea:
I studied at night by a dim and smoky oil lamp.
Only when I prepared for examinations was I allowed to use a candle. Candles were considered too expensive to use for ordinary homework.
As those of us in wealthy countries ponder which light bulb to use, some 2 billion people still lack any night-time illumination other than kerosene or the like, with a similar number cooking on firewood or dried dung. The consequences for health, household income and the environment are enormous. At current trajectories for electrification and population growth in poor places, even by 2030 close to 1 billion people will still lack electricity.
I’m a fan of the right tool for the job. In many rural communities where a conventional power grid will never reach, solar systems can be the right tool. In others, tiny hydroelectric generators can do the job. In some places, the energy source could be gas generated from farm waste or manure. There are abundant success stories like that of Selco in India and Clear Star in Mozambique and Seacology in Southesat Asia.
But in other places, propane or other fossil fuels, or simply a more efficient stove for burning wood, may be the right choice. I’m convinced that in the world’s poorest places, the transformative power of access to affordable energy — enabling everything from homework to better health to a home business using a sewing machine — trumps concerns about climate implications.For a stark example of the costs attending business as usual, read the following “Your Dot” contribution from Elizabeth Hadly, a Stanford University biologist who’s been doing field work in Nepal’s Himalayan highlands focused on the impact of climate change on small mammals. She describes a shocking incident that occurred on her most recent research trip, as families running neighboring guest houses violently fought over a load of firewood:
We had been hiking for two days and were above 10,000 feet. The air felt fresh after our time in Kathmandu Valley, where brick kilns and fires generate a thick layer of smog that blankets the city. In one of the world’s treasured landscapes, birds of every color replaced each other as we ascended, matching the red, pink, white and purple rhododendrons. I scanned the forests for signs of the red panda since we were in one of the last strongholds of the species. There was no real understory, and although the trees were straight and tall, all but the highest branches were gone, leaving no cover for birds, much less the red panda.
My group was here to figure out which species of pika occupied which elevations in the Himalaya in order to set a baseline for how these animals will change as the climate warms. These cousins of rabbits cannot tolerate warm temperatures. Just before the ridge top that day we met a striking Tamang girl along the trail who welcomed us to stay at her family’s teahouse overlooking the slopes where the red panda was said to reside. This was one of only two teahouses built on the narrow ridgeline. At each, the family matriarchs were sitting outside in their Tibetan garb, knitting the woolen hats that are so popular among the trekkers who come here. I shared my binoculars and field guide with a young boy in the family who was tan from being outside and ready with his smile. He pointed to the birds he knew in the guide, miming the places in the forest where they lived. I scrambled around the rocks near their small cabbage garden, looking for evidence of pikas. We found none, and the Nepali student accompanying us translated that the boy had not seen them for a while. The boy said he thought the weasels had eaten them all in the last couple of years.
So I cupped my tea outside, waiting for the daily dinner of dal bhat (Nepali lentils and rice). Shrieks interrupted my reverie. Family members of the two houses went pouring down the hill. The boy so interested in my field guide was stealing wood from a pile collected by the son of the other family, who had done all the hard work by shimmying up the trees, cutting off branches as he climbed. A fight ensued. Both boys began waving their kukris (curved machetes) at each other. Their families—parents and children alike—joined in the fray, beating each other with sticks, pulling the women’s braids, grabbing at clothes, scratching, and screaming. The boys began hitting with their kukris. Afterwards all were bruised, some were bleeding, clothes were ripped and shoes were lost. A gash on the head of the mother from the other house was patched up by a tourist there as the matriarch in our teahouse asked me for medical help—fist-sized pieces of her hair came out, her face was cut, and as the evening wore on, large bumps appeared on her head and brow. All the while the families continued cursing at each other. The violence at this spectacular, top-of-the-world setting was jarring—the wood they were fighting over was for our evening’s cook fire.
For me, the pieces fell into place. Every day, young Tamang boys travel from higher elevations down to the upper tree line to collect wood. All the low branches were gone. The trees were being stripped bare where they stood, leaving no cover for the pandas, which ironically are a major lure for the tourists.
The contact people have with this exquisite world is more intimate than in more developed places. And for 10 days, I was able to share this intimacy: I depended on the wood collected from these trees, the water that was siphoned from melting glaciers above me, the cabbage and potatoes grown in small family gardens, and the rice and lentils carried upon the backs of my Tamang hosts. Although in my climb above 15,000 feet I had escaped the smog and chaos of the “modern world,” I was not in the least clear of humanity’s impact. Instead, I witnessed firsthand the escalation of tensions that result from depleting critical resources. Was this a glimpse of civilization’s past, or into our world of the future?
Source: NY Times