Charting Charcoal in Haiti: Estimating and Understanding Annual Charcoal Production and Consumption at the National Level in Haiti
This article originally appeared in Anthropology News (the official news source of the American Anthropological Association). It is now available here. I explain my primary method for estimating charcoal consumption and production in Haiti at the national level, and subsequent methods for contextualizing my findings.
Anthropologists engage subjects at various scales through a plethora of methods. We may solicit narratives from individuals through ethnographic interviews; we may study sub-populations through focus groups; or we may learn about village or regional-level trends by analyzing geospatial data, to name a few. Less frequently, anthropologists conduct research at higher scales. As a result, it can be difficult to properly contextualize data. I find myself facing this challenge as the principal investigator on a research protocol I designed, to estimate and examine charcoal production and consumption in Haiti at the national level—a project supported by the United Nation’s World Bank. The short length of the protocol—approximately one month!—makes the issue of contextualizing data even more challenging. In this brief post I explain how my primary method for estimating charcoal consumption and production in Haiti, and subsequent methods for contextualizing my findings, produce important knowledge for both developing tree-planting initiatives and correcting misinformed narratives of deforestation in Haiti.
Charcoal is the principal energy source in Haiti, used primarily in cooking. Urban Haitians mostly use charcoal, while, in rural areas, Haitians typically cook with wood. Charcoal enters Haiti’s largest urban center—the capital of Port-au-Prince—at the end of a long value-chain, transported by both vehicles (trucks) and vessels (boats). My primary method of estimating national charcoal consumption in Haiti, at first, seems parsimonious: some 30 research assistants will help count and tally charcoal vehicles and vessels entering the capital of Port-au-Prince, 24-hours a day, over two different one-week periods: one week of sampling in charcoal production high season and one week in charcoal production low season. Extrapolating these two sampling periods to the entire year will generate a ratio of tons-of-charcoal-consumed to population-of-the-capital. Using this ratio, I can estimate the tonnage of charcoal consumed in other secondary and tertiary urban areas in Haiti, based on their populations. Voila! The numbers show an estimate of the annual tonnage of charcoal consumed in an entire country.
However, numbers devoid of context are fairly meaningless. This is where anthropology comes in: it enriches these numbers. Giving meaning to these national estimates involves understanding the environmental, labor economic, and transportation dimensions of the entire charcoal value-chain—some of the subjects I explored in my doctoral dissertation on sustained charcoal production in rural Haiti. I will supplement the ethnographic data I developed in my dissertation with new data on the national features of charcoal consumption, which my current research team and I are collecting through interviews conducted at urban charcoal-receiving depots and wharfs with charcoal truck drivers, boat captains, and wholesalers and retailers.
Anthropologists create typologies based on what people think and do. I’m applying this concept to create typologies of charcoal vehicles and vessels, and of charcoal grades, which I am accomplishing by weighing every single bag of charcoal on a series of large, medium, and small trucks and boats. This will create weight averages for different grades of charcoal and weight averages for different types of vessels and vehicles entering the capital. We will apply these averages to the tallies of multiple enumerators stationed on major roads and wharfs controlling the entrance of charcoal into Port-au-Prince during the subsequent sampling periods.
The combination of these methods reveals much more than country-wide charcoal consumption estimates: it also tells us the locations of charcoal production in Haiti. For example, we may learn that 30 % of charcoal consumed in Port-au-Prince originates from Haiti’s southern peninsula, or that 10 % of charcoal originates over the border in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Even better, this research can show diachronic changes in the geospatial distribution of charcoal production, and how overall and relative urban charcoal consumption trends have changed by comparing these data to a similar study conducted 30 years ago in Port-au-Prince. These combined of methods with yield some of the most detailed, diachronic, national-level data on energy use, in one the most energy-independent countries in the world—Haiti.
This knowledge is not only crucial for informing several newly launched nation-wide landscape-level land management projects, including tree-planting initiatives; it may also help correct misinformed narratives of environmental destruction in Haiti, which mistakenly place the blame for the country’s deforestation squarely on the shoulders of rural charcoal producers.