Lived energy transitions: Subsistence and culture in transitions towards clean cooking in Pinlaung Township, Myanmar
Lived energy transitions: Subsistence and culture in transitions towards clean cooking in Pinlaung Township, Myanmar
Jorge A. Nieto Jiménez, MESc 20201
Why do traditional kitchens that rely on solid fuel persist in Myanmar, despite rapid technological changes in other spheres of life? The negative effects on human health and the environment of solid-fuel cooking are well documented, but there are no conclusive explanations of why this practice persists despite significant international efforts to reduce it. To contribute towards solving that question, I look at the place of solid fuels in the household economy as a whole, drawing insights from semi-structured interviews and participant observation of cooking, conducted during twelve weeks of fieldwork in Pinlaung Township, Myanmar, where technological change is rapid but solid-fuel cooking persists. That approach helped me recognize that cooking with solid fuels allows a variety of cooking methods, provides space heating and traditional kitchens have features to deal with emissions and make cooking a social activity, while the monetary and electricity savings from collecting solid fuels help households afford and power supplies and equipment for other activities, that are essential to the household economy and have no ready substitutes. I recommend that projects and studies look beyond the energy content of fuels and efficiency of stoves and give more serious consideration to the other benefits they enable, searching substitutes for them too.
Environmental and development organizations have long been concerned about the prevalent use of solid fuels3 for cooking. It is commonly argued that this activity is related to deforestation from collection of wood and manufacturing of charcoal (Win, Mizoue, Ota, Kajisa, & Yoshida 2018, Win, Mizoue, Ota, Kajisa, Yoshida, et al. 2018). Researchers have linked solid cooking fuels to respiratory disease (Rumchev, Win, Bertolatti, & Dhaliwal 2015), while recognizing the gendered and age burden of fuel collection that tends to fall on women and children (Parikh 2011). Some studies also suggest that greenhouse gas and black carbon4 emissions resulting from cooking with solid fuels contribute to global warming (Lacey, Henze, Lee, van Donkelaar, & Martin 2017). It is thus expected that a household energy transition away from solid fuels could result in benefits to human health, the climate, and even in economic benefits (McLean et al. 2019)
Given these documented problems, there have been notable efforts to eradicate the practice or at least contain their effects. These efforts have focused on the promotion of fuel-switching to “cleaner” fuels, as they are often called for their lower emissions: gas and electricity, as well as designing and distributing cooking solutions based on improved combustion to reduce fuel consumption and emissions (Quinn et al. 2018). Despite initial promise, many projects have reported low adoption rates, abandonment of the new technology, and the use of clean fuel along with solid fuels (Calzada & Sanz 2018). The reasons for this lack of success continue to be discussed (for an account of the current debates see Simon, Bailis, Baumgartner, Hyman, & Laurent 2014). Suspected reasons typically include faulty cost-effectiveness, low availability of stoves for target populations, and what has been called “behavioral factors” (Rhodes et al. 2014). Meanwhile, biomass persists as the main source of energy for cooking for more than 2 billion people worldwide (IEA 2019).
The literature on the social aspects of solid-fuel cooking has been largely based on experiments that attempt to reveal preferences (Pattanayak et al. 2019) and statistical measurements of observed relations between solid-fuel use and household or personal characteristics (Paudel, Khatri, & Pant 2018) or market factors (Saksena, Tran, & Fox 2018) These approaches, although valuable to corroborate statements, persistently miss the connections between traditional technologies and broader economic, politic, and cultural systems (Malakar, Greig, & van de Fliert 2018), that have been identified as essential to life in rural areas (Gudeman 2001, Scott 1976). Further, studies often emphasize technical solutions at the expense of more holistic explanations (Vigolo, Sallaku, & Testa 2018) and lack the qualitative data required to orient quantitative analytic work (Puzzolo, Pope, Stanistreet, Rehfuess, & Bruce 2016). These shortcomings are important because household decisions about solid fuel may be driven by factors that survey and quantitative analysis are not reflecting and are not visible in statistical analysis. Thus, a qualitative evaluation of which factors households weigh in their decisions about cooking fuels is necessary.
The data was collected over twelve weeks of participant observation and semi-structured interviews in groups of three to six people in the summer of 2019. The fieldwork was carried out in collaboration with the Pa-O National Organization, who facilitated access to interviewees, and research assistant Khun BoBo, who also served as interpret during the interviews from Burmese and Pa-O5 to English. I requested interviews with people of different age groups, sex, income, and occupation, and they were granted. I recorded interviews and took notes during interviews and observation, which were also transcribed to a word processor for analysis. I interviewed a total of 15 people and visited four villages in and around Pinlaung Township. Since the interviews were conducted on condition of anonymity, names will not be mentioned.
The study area overlaps roughly with Pinlaung Township (MIMU 2016), located in what is now known as Shan State. It is a mountainous area south of the Shan State capital Taunggyi, north of the Kayah State capital Loikaw, east of the national capital Naypyidaw and west of the Inle and Pekon lakes. In 2014, Pinlaung registered 115,047 inhabitants, 12,629 of which live in cities (Department of Population 2015, pp. 16, 24). Pinlaung is home to various ethnolinguistic groups, including the Pa-O, Burmese, Shan, Kayah, and Kayin or Karen. I also conducted interviews with select informants in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay.
Pinlaung Township, like much of Myanmar, is undergoing rapid modernization. Since at least 2010, there has been in a political transition from military to civilian rule. A concurrent economic liberalization has facilitated access to modern technologies, and their use has become widespread. The 2015 census reported that 65.8% of the households of Pinlaung township has access to motorcycles (Department of Population 2015, p. 296), 54.2% to television, 34.4% to cellphones (p. 292), and 30.4% to electric lighting (p. 274). The situation is very different with cooking, with only 13.4% of households using electricity as main source of energy for cooking, compared to 85.6% that still use firewood as their main cooking fuel (p. 288).
The fact that the inhabitants of Pinlaung Township have readily and quickly adopted technologies like televisions and cellphones, but continue using solid fuels for cooking, brings forth the question of why cooking is one of the last activities to make use of electricity. Following the work on peasant economies (Gudeman 2001, Scott 1976), I suggest to look at the place of cooking and solid fuels in the household economy. Here, I focus on three economic rationales for the continued use of solid fuels: the sources and uses of energy found on the field site, the place of solid fuels in the household economy, and connections to the broader economy.
Relevant sources and uses of energy
Several patterns regarding energy use emerged from interviews and observation. Households typically employed fuel stacking, the use of different fuels for the same function (Dickinson et al. 2019). Firewood and charcoal are the main fuels for cooking, but electric appliances are also present in houses that typically cook with firewood. Liquid fossil fuels are predominantly used for transportation and electricity generation. Gas fuels are not readily available. Firewood and charcoal can be collected, made, and/or bought. Even in the larger towns, solid fuels are usually bought but firewood can still be collected from nearby areas.
A key space for the use of sources of energy in the house is the kitchen. The traditional kitchen that I found in all households I visited is a square, concrete-coated space in the kitchen floor where firewood is lit. Pots and kettles are suspended over the fire with a tripod. For cooking with charcoal, the preferred device is a stove consisting of a metal bucket filled with a ceramic material. During cooking, it would be filled with lit charcoal and a grill or pot would be held on top. I found no gas or petroleum stoves, neither in rural nor urban areas. The available cleaner stoves are electric appliances: rice cookers, and electric pans and kettles.
The source of electricity depends on the location of the house. Electricity is provided through the centralized grid in areas next to major roads. For those, as one informant reported, a large hydropower plant supplies the baseload.6 In more remote areas, mini grids7 powered by small hydropower or solar photovoltaic panels supply the electricity. Diesel generators are also used for independent households and businesses, substituting the grid in places where the grid has not yet reached or during load shed hours8. This means that households who previously had reliable access to the grid have to make provisions to have electricity all day long, which is particularly important when running businesses.
Households reported challenges in obtaining electricity from outside the grid, and that their benefits are limited. I observed many renewable energy systems, such as mini grids, but their use is limited to providing space lighting and charging phones. Further, these systems are perceived by interviewees as expensive relative to local incomes and time intensive to build and maintain. It is also challenging to organize communities, although local religious leaders have been instrumental in organizing the community to build and maintain the mini grids. The visited villages organized a committee to manage the grid, who are not paid in cash but receive free electricity. Some villages paid for the installation themselves. The national government provided free solar panels to some villages they considered disadvantaged. Knowledge about their installation and operation is shared informally, and each village has to take their own decisions with little available expertise. Main motivations to install mini grids included getting lighting for security, convenience, and independence.
These challenges and the very limited uses could make it unreasonable to maintain mini grids. For instance, I found the remains of an abandoned micro-hydropower facility and heard about a second one. The reasons why they were abandoned are telling of the difficulties to maintain these locally run systems. An informant reported that they had been abandoned because of difficulties in accessing them for maintenance, and the large transmission losses that followed made them uneconomic.
When electric supply is plentiful, usually only in houses with connection to the grid or diesel generators, there is a variety of uses. In the home, electricity is commonly used for lighting, televisions, charging cellphones, and powering machines for tea-leaf processing. Interviewees mentioned that besides these, they aspire to have air conditioning and washing machines. Other uses that are considered normal or basic elsewhere did not figure in the expectations of interviewees. Refrigeration, for example, is available in shops for preserving dairy and cold beverages, but is not common in households and was not reported as a priority. Only one of the houses I visited has a private computer, but most people, young and old, have smartphones with mobile internet.
Solid fuel cooking and the household economy
All interviewees explained that they cook with firewood or charcoal because they consider it is cheaper than electricity. Electric cooking appliances produce heat using relatively inefficient electrical resistances9. Thus, heating and boiling food with electricity ends up being expensive and time-consuming. Most interviewees also mentioned preferring the taste of certain foods cooked with wood. Other methods of cooking require charcoal and cannot be done with electricity, notably the roasting of dried meats. Drying, fermenting, and smoking food are alternatives to refrigeration, which constitutes an important use of electricity in other places, especially in the case of fish that is traditionally consumed as meat and as condiment.
Despite these preferences, some households that cook with solid fuels have electrical appliances for some uses. For example, frying is more easily done with electricity, since electric pans heat small amounts of oil quickly. Cooking rice is also easier with electricity than with solid fuels. Rice cookers are easily available, there are no complaints about their cost, and they yield a product suited to the local taste. Electric kettles are used exclusively to boil water for tea, which is important for hydration, to accompany meals, and is always served to guests. This variety in cooking methods is a necessity, since most people depend on locally produced and gathered products that require distinct cooking methods for their consumption.
The richness in cooking methods is also reflected in the built environment. Traditional kitchens are equipped to handle the smoke, soot, ash, and cinder that are produced from the combustion of wood and charcoal. Architectural features such as high ceilings, large windows, concrete kitchen floors, and raised floors help dissipate smoke, contain soot and cinders, and preserve residual heat. The traditional kitchen is typically located at the center of the space where both eating and cooking take place, but some houses have separate rooms for cooking. Most houses have sheds to store firewood, and charcoal is easily stored indoors.
The layout of the house for cooking with solid fuels has social benefits. Since the stove is placed at the center of the living room, it enables continued communication between the person(s) cooking and the rest of the household. This situation is relevant since meals are important social events. Families and friends share market information, national news, and community events during meal times. In contrast, electric appliances are typically placed facing walls in corners of the house or in separate rooms, making it difficult for cooks to interact with commensals.
The residual heat produced by the combustion of wood and charcoal also has its benefits. Cooking with solid fuels also yields space heating that is important during the rainy and cold seasons, when temperatures can go below freezing and is generally uncomfortable without a source of heat. There are no available gas or electric appliances that could provide similar benefits.
Maintaining this diversity in cooking methods is often a necessity, dictated by the costs of the sources of energy. Even in houses connected to the national grid, the cost of electricity can be an impediment for cooking with it, and supply is limited in terms of load and time. Costs of solid fuels vary by place but are significantly lower in the opinion of respondents. Firewood is also a by-product of pruning of fruit trees and when needed can be collected from the surrounding forested hills.
There are also opportunity costs of using cash to pay for electricity. Households typically roast, steam, and grind their tea leaf production indoors to obtain more value added. Doing so manually is an arduous, time-intensive task, so many aspire to buy machinery, which is also powered with diesel or electricity. Given a limited amount of electricity that people can afford to buy, some prefer to use it to power machinery, since there are cheaper available substitutes for cooking while the only substitute for machinery is hard manual labor.
Similarly, there are opportunity costs in transportation. It is necessary to buy fuel for motor vehicles, most commonly for motorbikes but also cars and trucks. These vehicles facilitate access to the markets in the bigger towns, where people can sell their produce and products and buy the ones they need. Some people also use machinery to aid in their farm work, which also needed fuel. Since the terrain is hilly and distances can be long, motorized vehicles make large improvements in quality of life and access to opportunities for social, educational, and economic activities. So, similarly to machinery for production, interviewees preferred to spend the limited cash they have in fuel for the vehicles rather than cooking fuel, since there are no compelling substitutes to motorized vehicles.
Solid fuel cooking and the broader economy
As the country opens to foreign sources of capital and export markets, Pinlaung, as in other parts of the country, is increasingly connected to the national and global economy, and opportunities for investing in profitable activities have emerged. Interviewees mentioned aspiring to start businesses in trading, transportation, construction, manufacturing, education, food processing, tourism, hospitality, and/or food service. Younger inhabitants said that they expect that a college education will improve their prospects for a prosperous life.
Cash becomes necessary to take advantage of these opportunities. Starting a business requires buying equipment, merchandise, agricultural supplies, and/or paying employees, among other expenses. Entrance to universities is competitive and interviewees mentioned it is necessary to invest in extracurricular tutoring. Also, the nearest universities are located in provincial capitals (Taunggyi and Loikaw are the closest, but some mentioned aspiring to attend university in Mandalay, the second largest city, and Nayipitaw, the national capital). So, if their children are accepted, they would also have to face relocation expenses. To invest in business and education, interviewees said they are willing to save on fuels and other expenses.
Despite the prevalent circulation of money, the use of banking, credit, and insurance services is still uncommon and all interviewees said they had not used the local branches of national banks. Credit and debit cards are rare and payments in cash are the norm. Instead, as an informant mentioned, families grow savings in cash or gold and use these savings to take advantage of business opportunities, pay for services and agricultural inputs, and cover unexpected expenses.
Even when people are looking for mere subsistence crops rather than profit, cash is essential for agricultural inputs since the geography makes cultivation difficult. The terrain is hilly and rocky, which means that agriculture remains labor intensive and hardly mechanized, and the fertility of soils is easily lost to erosion. Valleys are used for terraced rice cultivation, but the main product is green tea grown on slopes. Pinlaung township is known for high-quality tea, and locally grown and processed coffee from Pinlaung has recently attracted national attention. The agricultural expenses that people mentioned were irrigation, to compensate for the erratic rains, and synthetic fertilizer. Animal-drawn implements can still be seen in rice cultivation, but mechanical tools are increasingly replacing them; they are available even in smaller towns. These expenses add up to the opportunity cost of using cash for fuels, since they need to be paid in cash and are often necessary for procuring sustenance for the household in kind or in cash.
Alongside the opportunity costs of electricity, there are also some disadvantages of using it, related to the quality of the connection. Erratic electric supply is a deterrent to the continued use of electric appliances. Voltage fluctuations and interruptions in the supply often ruined equipment. Some people specialized in repairing electric devices, since households usually did not know how to repair the devices themselves. Load shed hours sometimes overlapped with typical meal preparation times, so people have to use traditional cooking methods with solid fuels. Since load shed was allegedly a consequence of a decrease in supply (according to an informant), it is unclear if the expansion of the electrical network can be sustained without important investments in generation.
Concerns for respiratory health problems related to cooking with solid fuels are common in the academic literature. However, it did not figure as a priority for interviewees, and they did not report cases of illness. Availability of clean stoves which is often mentioned as a problem, is not an issue in this location either. Devices of all qualities and prices could be found in specialized and large shops in the major towns. Indeed, most houses with access to electricity have already bought electric appliances for cooking and alternated their use with solid fuels.
On the other hand, they expressed concerns about other things not mentioned in the literature: the decreasing rates of profit of the main economic activities in the region (tea production, cultivation of cash crops, and trade), decreasing yields for agricultural products in general, risks to personal and property safety for being in the dark, and obstacles to education linked to lack of lighting. Getting these responses does not mean that other risks are not important, but it is telling of the importance of the more immediate concerns that lead people to save on whatever they can, in this case, on using solid fuels instead of electricity or cleaner fuels.
There are important connections between the choices of source of energy when cooking and other spheres of life, that have not received much attention in the literature. Electricity has been actively sought after in Pinlaung Township and elsewhere, but mostly for purposes other than cooking. Besides, electricity is still perceived as relatively expensive, sometimes hard to get, and supply can be limited and unstable. In this context, it is necessary to make hard choices over what uses to give to electricity and cooking is not a priority, since solid fuels are options with their own advantages. Solid fuel stoves are already easily accessible and have uses and benefits beyond the act of cooking, many of which are lost when using electric stoves, such as a variety of cooking methods and kitchen arrangements that facilitate socialization. Solid fuel cooking also become part of frugality strategies that enable savings and investments in other things.
What these findings suggest is that we should not approach the question of cooking with solid fuels as a matter of disinformation or recalcitrance, as is sometimes done, but as a result of strategies concerning the many functions of solid fuels that other fuels are unable to fulfill. Projects that aim to replace solid fuels with cleaner sources of energy should incorporate these connections in their projects, and address the constraints that limits the decisions that people can reasonably make.
The main caveat to these findings is the sample size, and the lack of a systematic sampling method, since the results are indicative of general trends but cannot be rigorously taken as statistically representative. Another important limitation is the lack of numeric data on income, energy measurements (such as amount of consumed energy), and prices, which were not possible given the group setting of interviews and the level of access to the communities granted to the researcher. These can be significant for evaluating the size of cost differentials between fuels, for example, and would be essential for designing specific programs. Confirming, rejecting and/or contributing to these findings on the grounds of a larger sample or increased access could well be a valuable project for a local researcher, a collaboration, or the subject of a longer-term project.
Much of the clean-cooking literature and development projects have focused only on the household, the kitchen, and markets, while overlooking connections to the broader social context. Interviewees persistently raised concerns about their sources of income and expressed interest in machinery and transportation equipment, instead of cleaner cooking fuels and devices. Thus, researchers and practitioners would do well in attending to broader economic and social context of household fuel use. Furthermore, while energy transition projects typically rely on providing stoves or economic incentives, people consistently remarked on the price and unreliability of electric supply rather than the availability of devices. This dissonance suggests that systemic changes, such as reducing electricity and other clean fuel costs, may be more effective than credit or one-time donations (both commonly used methods) as incentives towards achieving a broad transition towards cleaner sources of energy.
Clean-cooking technology projects should also consider that solid fuels have a complex role in the household, despite their health drawbacks. For example, households reported that solid fuels allow the use specific cooking methods using local ingredients, provide space heating and lighting. Using solid fuels also allow household to collect, rather than buy, their fuel which has an important role in the household economy as a way of saving for other expenses. Those benefits are lost in the transition to cleaner fuels, so development practitioners should consider the trade-off of transitioning to cleaner fuels. Designers of stoves, projects and policies would do well in providing some form of substitute to as many functions and benefits of traditional stoves, cooking methods and solid fuels as possible, and not just the energy content for cooking of fuels. It will be important to support efforts by or with the local community towards preserving the benefits of clean cooking while mitigating the risks associated with it.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the interviewees, the support of the various communities and collaborators of Pinlaung Township, especially Khun BoBo, my research assistant. I offer this work as an interpretation of the observations and information they generously shared. Khin Htet hTERT Pyone also provided important clarifications, Dr. Carol Carpenter, Dr. Amity Doolittle, Peter Ludwig of the Tropical Resources Institute, and other colleagues at the Yale School of the Environment helpful revisions on an earlier version. This work was made possible by institutional and financial support from the Energy Secretariat (SENER) and the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) of Mexico, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Tropical Resources Institute at Yale, and the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University.
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Nieto Jiménez, J.A. 2020. Lived energy transitions: Subsistence and culture in transitions towards clean cooking in Pinlaung Township, Myanmar. Tropical Resources 39, 00–00.
Jorge Alberto Nieto Jiménez graduated from the Master of Environmental Science program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (now Yale School of the Environment), where he was also a Research Assistant and Teaching Fellow. He has also collaborated with the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) and The College of Mexico (Colmex).↩
Since there literature on the matter is extensive, the references cited here are only indicative of recent works.↩
By “solid-fuels” I adopt the common use in the literature and include wood, charcoal, mineral coal, agricultural waste and animal dung. By liquid fuels I refer to gasoline, diesel, kerosene and petroleum. Those are the fuels I encountered in the field site.↩
Black carbon typically refers to particulate matter emitted during combustion that “strongly absorbs visible light, is refractory with a vaporization temperature near 4000K, exists as an aggregate of small spheres, and is insoluble in water and common organic solvents” (Bond et al. 2013, p. 5384). These properties make it an important contributor to radiative forcing in the atmosphere (also known as global warming) and is produced when combustion is incomplete or the fuel contains impurities, as typically happens with cooking with solid fuels.↩
Burmese is the official language of Myanmar and Pa-O is the language of the ethnic and linguistic group of the same name. The Pa-O have settlements in various areas of Shan State, including Pinlaung and surrounding areas. For more information, the reader is advised to refer to (Christensen & Sann Kyaw 2006, Yue 2018).↩
Baseload refers to the minimum electricity load across a particular grid system. Baseload is often fairly consistent over time.↩
Mini grids are systems independent or parallel to the centralized, national grid. In Pinlaung, mini grids often serve a single village or a few households.↩
Load shed means scheduled power cuts that become necessary due to instability of the system or lack of enough electricity production to satisfy consumer demand. Interviewees reported that load shed has not happened in previous years, an informant reported that a severe drought during the summer that year (2019) was lowering hydropower production, forcing authorities to cut power in some places during peak hours (from 9 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. approximately).↩
With this method, heating is produced by passing an electric current through a material or setup that resists the flow and produces heat. There are now more efficient methods, such as induction heating, but induction stoves are typically more expensive. I did not find them in the field site.↩