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Evidence for ecological sustainability of fuelwood harvesting at a rural village in South Africa

Swemmer, Anthony Michael, Mashele, Mightyman, Ndhlovu, Patrick Dlondack
Regional environmental change 2019 v.19 no.2 pp. 403-413
adults, biomass, coppicing, ecosystems, energy, environmental sustainability, fuelwood, harvesting, plant density, rural areas, savannas, social factors, stems, villages, South Africa
While the fuelwood crises predicted in the 1980s have not materialized, the potential for fuelwood demand to exceed supply remains for many rural areas, particularly in Africa where fuelwood is the primary source of domestic energy. The sustainability of fuelwood harvesting from a semi-arid savanna ecosystem was investigated at a rural village where shortages have been predicted. Repeated sampling over a period of 7 years revealed a stable supply of wood from harvesting areas. The number and thickness of stems harvested did not decline as expected, nor did the use of undesirable species. This is consistent with long-term changes in the structure of the woody layer of the harvesting area, where increases rather than decreases in plant density have occurred. The ability of local species to survive regular damage, coppice rapidly, and reproduce when still well below their adult sizes, together with social factors that limit the rate of harvesting, appears to have produced an ecologically sustainable harvesting system. However, the estimated biomass of fuelwood harvested was far below existing estimates of fuelwood consumption in the village, suggesting that fuelwood supply has not kept up with demand. Transformation of harvesting areas for housing and crop fields, rather than increasing demand, is the most likely cause of this.