One the Road with Trees, Water & People: Guatemala

by Megan Maiolo-Heath, Communications Coordinator

November 19, 2011

We begin the day with a long walk through Guatemala City. My senses are immediately awakened as I dodge traffic with Claudia Menendez (International Program Coordinator), cars honking, speeding by, stop, go, stop. Claudia and her husband, Sebastian Africano, run Trees, Water & People’s International Program from both here in Central America and from TWP’s base in Fort Collins, CO. Traditionally, I work with these two in Fort Collins as the organizations Communications Coordinator. Now, I have the privilege of joining them in the field for 2.5 weeks of work in Guatemala and El Salvador.

This trip to Guatemala is important because we are developing a new partnership with a local NGO called Ut’z Che. For the next couple of days we will be training them to build clean cookstoves for indigenous families living in a rural area south of Guatemala City near the industrial town of Escuintla.

Imerio Lobo observes the process of building a clean cookstove, from start to finish.

To begin this project, we drive 2 hours to Palin, a busy town off one of the main highways out of the capital. Here, we pick up Irelio Lobo, a young 22 year old who works as a tecnico (field technician) for Ut’z Che‘. Irelio is trained as an agro-forester and works primarily with local indigenous communities doing forest conservation work. He is quite but obviously very intelligent and eager to learn how to build clean cookstoves. The direct connection between forest conservation and fuel-efficeint, clean cookstoves is too obvious to ignore. For indigenous communities experiencing severe energy poverty, completely dependent on fuelwood to cook every meal, these stoves will greatly improve both quality of life and quality of environment. Reducing fuelwood consumption through cooking will become another conservation tool for Irelio and the communities he works with.

Sebastian gets ready for a new cookstove project in Southern Guatemala.

He directs us to a local hardware store to buy supplies for the next 2 days of stove training. Sebastian and Claudia have decided to build several different stove models for community members so they can decide what type they prefer in their home.  In Palin, we were unable to purchase the ceramics needed to build the rocket elbow combustion chambers that make a cookstove “clean,” so we take a one-hour drive northwest to one of the “ceramic capitals” of Guatemala, the town of Chimaltenango.  The majority of the drive was up steep, winding roads that led us to a breathtaking view of the endless sprawl of Guatemala City and Villa Nuevo below.  The road is bumpy, crumbling away. There are people constantly running in and out of traffic, nobody follows any traffic laws, dogs roam the streets, billboards line the roads, piles of trash burn on the medians, motorcycles zoom-zip past; Guatemala is very much alive.

A group of young boys load us up with ceramic tiles in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

As we make it to the top of the hill, and into Chimaltenango. Pablo, the guy who said he had our ceramic tiles, is nowhere to be found. We don’t have time to wait around. Sebastian spots ceramicas or tejaras, and quickly pulls off the road. Three young boys approach the car, eager to load us up with whatever ceramics we need. Sebastian finds what he is looking for, the fired tiles that make a Rocket elbow combustion chamber work; the heart of the stove (el Corazon de la estufa).

One boy says they fire the ceramics for 24 hours, directing our attention to the huge over-sized kilns that turn piles of clay into the beautiful orange-red tiles we now hold in our hands.

Ceramics kilns turn clay to beautiful red tiles.

We ask them to load us up with 100 tiles; their young hands look like leather as they toss each other three tiles at a time, right into the back of our rental truck. We pull out of there happy to have our most important supplies; they smile as they end their day with a big sale. By this time, it is getting dark.

Work will continue tomorrow as we collect the rest of our supplies and make the 2-hour drive to La Benedición (the blessing), the rural community that will receive these new cookstoves.

The first day in the field with Claudia and Sebastian gives you a newfound understanding of the challenges they face working in these countries. Logistically, this work can be very hard. It takes a special understanding of the culture, language, and identity of this country. The development experience these two bring to TWP’s cookstove projects shows through every step of the way. I am excited to escape the cubicle and be in the field.

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Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

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