Restoring the fragile land. Stoves that save firewood

ROUGH brown circles of metal, the rudimentary stoves sit on open shelves by the side of a dust-strewn road near the Zabr'e Daga market. The smallest stove (No. 2) costs 1,000 Central African francs ($2.40). The biggest (No. 5) is 1,300 francs ($3.20).

The sign above the stoves reads in French, ``Save wood and money.'' Another urges the benefits of keeping Burkina Faso green.

Almost half the people on earth -- 2 billion -- use wood to cook food. In Africa, trees are traditionally public property. Cutting down too many of them leads to wind and rain erosion.

Here in the Sahel, in Sudan, Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and elsewhere, population is growing at record rates. More and more wood is cut for fuel. More livestock devours more foliage.

One result: The scourge of lifeless sand spreads. When drought hits, villages wither. People flee.

African women stand a small pot on three pieces of rock and push thin sticks of wood beneath. The method is cheap and easy, but inefficient and destructive: Wood must now be brought into Ouagadougou from 32 miles away.

Already many African families eat only one cooked meal a day because they can't find enough firewood for more, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

The FAO, which held a forestry conference in Mexico City in July, recommends intensive tree planting in the third world as a whole, and better kinds of wood stoves that African women can afford.

``The problem is to get women to accept new stoves, new ways, new ideas,'' says Abou Salaam Drabo, planning officer with the Ouagadougou-based Sahelian committee to fight drought.

``Here in Burkina, city districts demonstrate how new stoves work every Saturday. The stoves can be metal, or made from mud bricks -- anything to stop heat disappearing into the air. . . .''

Burkina Faso is the first country in the Sahel to prohibit city residents from cutting trees. Villagers may cut only what they need (and none for resale). Anyone else needs a government license. A wood-cutting corporation has been set up to provide cities with firewood.

Whether the plan will work remains to be seen. Some experts at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London say that the importance of new stoves is exaggerated, because women are not prepared to cut firewood into short lengths or to keep stove doors clean or dampers working.

Yet alternative fuels -- charcoal, kerosene -- have not caught on in the Sahel. They are either expensive or unavailable.

One answer has been suggested by a firm in Mombasa, Kenya. The giant Bamburi cement company believes experts could cut trees in selected areas, then turn them into charcoal for fuel.

``It can work,'' a Bamburi executive says. ``It should be tried.''

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