by Samuel Jaberg in Madagascar, swissinfo.ch
Each year, 200,000 hectares of forest vanish in Madagascar as trees are cut down to provide wood for heating and charcoal for cooking.
One Swiss organisation is trying to turn the tide, backing the production of solar cookers as a more eco-friendly alternative to the combustion stoves used by much of the population.
All along the 1,000 kilometres of the road leading from the capital Antanarivo to Tuléar, the main town in the southwest, the landscape is barren except for a few trees, the lone witnesses of the forests that once stood there.
These trees will probably meet the same fate, cut down to be transformed into charcoal and sold by the bag along the roadside.
Over the past 20 years, one million hectares of forests have been destroyed, with just ten per cent remaining on the island. Specialists say that in another 50 years, there will be no forests left on Madagascar.
Nicknamed the Green Island, it is now slowly becoming a desert. Erosion, a lack of water and loss of biodiversity are the main consequences of this deforestation.
The causes are to be found in the country’s economic situation and demographic development since its independence in 1960. The population grew from four to 20 million while the economy stagnated.
Today, three out of four Malagasys live in poverty and burning down forests
to replace them with rice paddies is more about survival than economics.
Close to hand and available at no cost for a long time, wood is mainly transformed for domestic use.
“Eighty per cent of the trees cut down in Madagascar are used to cook food,” explained Otto Frei, the coordinator of Swiss non-governmental organisation ADES (Association for the Development of Solar Energy) , which has been producing solar cookers on the island for a decade.
“The Malagasys don’t cut down trees for fun. In the Tuléar region, three years of drought and the collapse of the cotton industry mean that farmers have turned to charcoal production as a way of surviving.”
For ADES, this means that other methods of producing energy must be made available to the local population.
Regula Ochsner, the NGO’s founder, latched on to solar power as a response when she began work on the island in 2001. Around Tuléar, there are around 300 days of clear weather per year, with an average of six hours of sunshine – ideal conditions for solar energy.
Since its creation, ADES has sold more than 6,000 solar cookers to households and schools. They are produced semi-industrially in different parts of the country and sold for around SFr15 ($18.80) per unit – less than 20 per cent of what they actually cost – to be competitive with wood and charcoal.
But lower costs have not automatically led to success. “It takes too long to cook and the food doesn’t taste as good,” said the three cooks at the Salines de Tuléar school.
The establishment is an ADES partner and has three solar cookers. But at lunchtime, with the sun high in the sky, the cookers are in storage.
Meanwhile, the three new wood-burning stoves are getting a workout. “It takes too long to prepare food for 350 children with solar cookers,” the cooks told swissinfo.ch. “Every time a cloud drifts across, proper cooking is not ensured.”
Local habits seem to be the main obstacle to the project’s success.
“That’s why we follow up the households that purchased one of our cookers,” said Anatolie Razafindrafeno … READ MORE ON SWISSINFO