restricted access Charcoal Production through Distillation of Wood, perhaps the Key to the Deforestation of Haiti
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Charcoal Production through Distillation of Wood, perhaps the Key to the Deforestation of Haiti

We are appalled each time we read articles in the press about the deforestation of Haiti. The journalists who often write these articles, present peasant Haitians as real vandals who chop down trees maliciously or for pleasure, rather like the American who spends his afternoon playing golf or tennis.

Of course, this simplification of the problem is very far from the reality of the situation. A tree chopped down on a mountain top is just the beginning of an economic chain that ultimately leads to a poor Haitian family’s charcoal-burning stove, passing through a series of intermediaries: carriers, resellers, retailers who derive the entirety of their livelihood from this activity or from the primary and manufacturing sectors involved.

Charcoal is a clean energy, with low emissions, produced locally in Haitian money, renewable, requiring as input only the sun, air, water and earth. It is infinitely renewable.

International agencies advocate the replacement of charcoal by propane. This is perhaps a commendable idea, as we note, those who chop timber and produce charcoal do have hard lives, but still propane does not seem to be the solution. Seeing that our oil reserves have not yet been, nor will they be utilised, the main problem of using propane is that its price does not depend on us. We will have to import this energy and pay for it in foreign currency. When we hear on the radio that the price for a barrel of oil has risen to tens of dollars, the price of gas follows and in Haiti we can expect that the price of propane gas will also go up tens of Haitian Gourdes. We used to pay forty Haitian Gourdes (HTG 40=0.95 USD) for a 25-pound propane gas cylinder under the embargo, which was after all a reasonable price; now we pay more than six hundred Haitian Gourdes (HTG 600=14.27 USD) for the same 25-pound propane [End Page 282] gas cylinder. This is 15 times more than what we used to pay, largely due to soaring oil prices over the past fifteen years. The complete shift to LP Gas would only make us more dependent on foreign energy and drain more of our financial resources to foreign entities.

The purpose of this piece is not to revisit the great advantages of propane gas, which always has its place. These advantages can be elaborated upon by others, elsewhere. Our concern here is the economically weak, the poorest Haitians, those who would not be able to survive with the elimination of wilderness deforestation.

Charcoal is produced in Haiti by the traditional forest production process which consists of stacking a pile of wood in a pit or in a mound, then covering it entirely with earth and setting it on fire.

This manufacturing process by incomplete combustion of wood has two drawbacks, both of which render this process completely uneconomical.

  1. 1). Part of the wood is lost, and

  2. 2). smoke escapes.

Now this lost smoke has a lot more value than the charcoal itself because it is very rich in volatile chemical products. Given the added value of these chemical products, if they were recovered correctly, they could be sold at a good price, which could help to substantially reduce the price of charcoal.

What are these volatile chemical products? They are: methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, creosote, turpentine, wood vinegar, tar, etc…

How could we recover these products? By using a destructive distillation process, referred to as pyrolysis or wood distillation, in a device called a retort. The distillation of wood produces the gas to heat the device and enables the recovery of all the charcoal at the end of the operation.

Where could we find the raw material for this operation? There is an immense amount of barren and semi-barren land in Haiti, some of which was Agave land (Agave is back, but will we seize this opportunity as well?). While this territory has been ruined for agricultural purposes, there is a wonderful, but very despised shrub or small tree in...


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