Subsidize Propane, Please!

By Matt Marek on Tuesday, March 7, 2006.

charbonEnvironmental reforms should be at the forefront of the agenda for the president elect of Haiti. If they aren’t soon enough there won’t be a country to be president of.

Charbon, as charcoal is called in Haiti is a major resource for cooking. It is what people all over the country use, from the fritay ladies (fried food vendors) on the crowded streets of Port-au-Prince to the fritay ladies deep in the mountains. It is the cash crop of the poor. Suppliers are currently fetching about 25 Haitian dollars (about 3 US) a bag, the shipper is getting about 45 to 50 Haitian dollars (about 6 US) a bag when arriving at the port. At the rate of current production it looks as if a serious brush fire is about to consume the already sparse green canopy of Haiti’s countryside. And what is being done to stop it? Well nothing that has significantly curtailed production and nothing that has been culturally adopted to effect the consumption. Sure a few small-scale alternative fuel projects such as the Recho Mirak (Miracle Stove) which is a redesign of the common charcoal stoves used in Haiti. It simply encases the base of the stove where the charcoal burns intensifying the heat and slowing the burn rate. There is also the briquette, which is a very efficient, environmentally recycled product. It won a McArthur Foundation grant, but that doesn’t mean much here, too many people are still using charcoal. Although these initiatives are well intentioned they haven’t caught on for years and they aren’t going to anytime soon at least not soon enough to address the serious problems as a result of the massive deforestation to produce charbon. The problem is the demand is too high and the alternatives are too few.

On a recent trip out to the Grand Anse department of Haiti I observed some very frightening scenes. On a bike from Jeremie to Pestel I saw yards along the road filled with piles of charcoal sacks stacked 10 to 20 high waiting to be transported. There contents initialed the bags with the letters of the owners’ name. And I couldn’t help but notice the larger the pile of charbon in the yard the nicer the house. The port towns along the coast docked waiting boats as the trucks made numerous trips out to the mountains to pick up the cargo. Boat of charcoalSailboats were carrying over a 100 bags of charcoal per trip that would take 2 to 3 days to arrive in the capital. I spoke to one man lingering around the Pestel harbor who understood the dangers of the industry and unprovoked he said, “In 2 to 3 years the Grand Anse won’t have trees.” And whether 2 to 3 years is accurate or not is irrelevant. The mountains are on fire with charcoal pits smoking all day long in a country that is 90 some percent deforested this isn’t a good sign.

For environmental purists the consumption of another resource like propane may not be the answer but for Haiti there is no other. First the government should outlaw the production of charcoal and at the same time subsidize the alternative which would be small propane cooking tanks. Under other circumstances this may be the responsibility of the consumer but the initial cost of purchasing the tank is a barrier. When this barrier is overcome, subsidized, the personal expense is only a refill which is comparable to buying charcoal and at times less expensive because it is less influenced by other cost variables. There would be a cultural transition period but this cooking method is already ahead of the other alternatives being promoted in Haiti.

The president elect is an agronomist so he understandsSmoking mountains the situation. Many Haitians outside of Port-au-Prince depend on their land and so will their future generations so it is in their best interests to adopt the reforms. The situation in Port-au-Prince will only get worse with increased migration so it is in the residents’ best interest to reduce the demand by adopting the alternative method (propane), which, would decrease the migratory flow produced by worsening conditions in the provinces. The leaders have the knowledge, the people understand the situation let’s hope they can make the change.

alternative fuel for Haiti

All the alternatives proposed so far require a dramatic change in Haitian culture,in production, distribution and usage.This will also displace the actual charcoal dealers who would fight to maintain their source of income. It is hard to change the habit of most people.
The least the required adjustment to a new solution the better the success of the alternative. Now, what if we were to produce a charcoal somewhat similar to the one being used now, but produced from a different material with no apparent value now and used in a slightly retrograded stove? That is why the environmental problem has not been solved and trees are still being cut for energy. This time, thinking within the box will provide the best solutions.

Ethanol: An "energy secure" solution for cooking

Great article which clearly shows that cooking fuels need to be a priority on the global agenda to "build Haiti back better". Recently the World Food Program and Women's Refugee Commission published a report which showed that after the earthquake on Jan 12th the average Haitian family was spending up to 40% of their income on charcoal fuel! Clearly, now is the time to provide the right type of alternative fuel- on a wide scale.

One option not mentioned in this article is ethanol fuel. Ethanol can be made from the waste residues of sugar cane and a variety of other crops (sweet sorghum, etc). Currently Haiti is produces 1 million tons of sugarcane annually. When paired with an efficient and clean-burning stove, ethanol fuel could revolutionize the demand for household energy. Our organization is working to promote the CleanCook stove in Haiti (to be build eventually in Haiti) and stimulate a market for ethanol fuel.

Ethanol can be produced locally. Haiti will have control of this domestic market, rather than importing petroleum- which the prices are pegged in the international market. Ethanol can be produced cheaply- from agri-wastes, and liquid ethanol will burn cleanly in the stove (no soot, no smoke, negligible CO emissions). Please visit our website to learn more about ethanol cooking fuel and our initiative in Haiti. This is a project which could have immense benefits in Haiti and serve as an example for other energy-poor countries. ( and (

Where can one read more about DR and its propane subsidies?

Alfred (or anyone who can answer this question), I'm writing as an American whose expertise pertains more to Europe and Africa when I ask where one may find further information with respect to your 6/27/2007 post, in particular what you say about DR and Cuba. Thank you in advance for your reply.

Propane is the solution

The same has been done in Dominican Republic some decades ago. This just put charcoal stovees off.

Now Dominican Republic's forests are quite preserved, and the country is importing charcoal from Haiti... for barbecues !

Cooperation with Venezuela should have a strong energetic side.

And recycling organic waste from urban centers could be a way to produce more cooking gas, with a low tech process I believe Cuba has developed.


I agree. The subsidization of Propane to make it available at or less than the current price of a bag of charcoal is the only answer today in Haiti. Trujillo, the former Dictator of the DR, outlawed cutting down trees and subsidized gas. It worked well, and look at the DR compared to Haiti today. Preval along with the international community would be able to do this.

In President Bush's 2007 budg

In President Bush's 2007 budget, he has intentionally decreased the amount of foriegn aid to Haiti. No doubt this aid-reducion is due to growing pressures to fund his other international endeavors. A large majority of the aid that the Bush Administration has alotted, however, is targeted toward HIV/AIDS and anti-drug trafficing initatives. This is wonderful, but the key to combating all of the problems that Haiti faces are not the funneling of money into AIDS programs and anti-drug campaigns, but the creation of industry and building of an adequate infrastructure that enables Haiti to become ecomomically stable and finacially independent. If the Bush administration really wants to help Haiti stand on its on two feet (and reduce AIDS and drug traficing in its own country), the U.S. must work at supplying the adequate economic stability that countries need to prosper. The key to Haiti's political stability is the economic prosperity of that nation! The Haitian people need true help at creating this, not frugal self-interest attempts to scath over U.S. social problems. The only way to solve U.S. problems is to combat the international war on poverty. Haiti is a beautiful country that has as much potential at industry and tourism as any Caribbean nation. But who wants to go there when that nation is marred by the title, "the poorest nation in the western hemisphere?"

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