On the Road with Trees, Water & People: Building Cookstoves in La Bendición

by Megan Maiolo-Heath, Communications Coordinator

November 21, 2011

We crammed two days into one. Mainly, this was the case because everything takes longer here. The rest of the cookstove supplies we needed were in different hardware stores, the traffic is bad, the roads are steep and bumpy up to the community where we would be working. The day was long but it was so good.

I awoke in the Texas Hotel to a loud pounding on my door, “Megs, are you up?!” asked Claudia.  Got ready, packed my bag, and out the door to Saritas for breakfast, a Denny’s-like restaurant chain that is too American for its own good. The industrial town of Escuintla had been awake for a while. The main road to Gutemala City runs right through this grungy city and it is a major trucking route down to the southern ports and border towns. On top of this traffic, there is everyone else trying to get somewhere. Motorcycles, cars, bikes, trucks, people, even the mutts have somewhere to go….Gutemala is wide awake this morning.

The disorder is so far removed from the Pleasantville feeling of Fort Collins, Colorado, home to Trees, Water & People’s headquarters, home to my cubicle. Traffic laws are a suggestion in Gutemala and, for your safety, I would suggest not following them. Sebastian assertively zips through traffic up the highway to Palin, another truck stop town but smaller then Escuintla. There, we grab Imerio Lobo, our new partner on the ground who works for Ut’z Che‘, and we start the day by finishing the supply hunt.

Workers in a cement factory build blocks that are used to build nearly every structure in Guatemala.

TWP’s clean cookstoves are designed to be built using all local materials, most of which are made by local people. The cement, the clay, the bricks, the rebar, the wire, the ceramic tiles are all sourced locally, stimulating an economy that can use any stimulation it can get.

First stop, cement factory. We load our little rental truck up to the breaking point and pray its lawnmower engine will make it up the notoriously bad road to the community of La Bendición. 100 cement bricks, 3 bags of cement, 100 tiles, check.

Next, back down to Escuintla for a ceramic cutter that will be an important tool for shaping the tiles used to construct the combustion chambers. Weave through tight streets of this bustling town, get stuck in the middle of a market, big sigh as we make it out, and we find what we need. Okay, “listo!”

La Bendición, Guatemala

Next stop, the small indigenous community of La Bendición  (the blessing), where we will build clean coostoves, passing on important skills and knowledge to Imerio and the members of this community so they can continue providing this life-saving technology to all the families living here. More than building stoves though, this is an important opportunity to connect with the people, talk to them about their lives, how they cook, what we can provide to them so they may live a better life.

The drive up to the community is violently bumpy and so steep our full truck often stalls or stops completely. We pass by farms, grazing cattle, dense forest, small homes, food stalls, and over small rivers and streams. Finally, we make it up to La Bendición. We are immediately welcomed and taken up to the community center, where we will spend the night.

Community members work together to mill the corn harvest

The people of La Bendición are actually not from this area. We should be visiting them in the highlands of Guatemala, far away from the tropical climate of southern Guatemala, where we are now. In a perfect world you would also never find these 40 families living together. They are all of different indigenous ethnicities. In fact, if you listen close you can hear 3 different languages being spoken other then Spanish. What brings these people together, living and surviving in this very remote area of the country, is the heartache and suffering of civil war. After years of unrest and oppression of the indigenous populations, after land was stolen, then given back, then stolen again, they collectively decided to flee their homeland and move to a more peaceful setting. Together, they purchased this land they now call home.

We are working to improve their well being by starting this project, a clean cookstove project that will provide each family in the village with a new and improved stove. This is a technology that will improve many aspects of their lives: health, economics, and environment. Anything we can do to bring more peace to these people’s life is worth doing.

The first of many clean cookstoves in La Bendición, Guatemala

Some of the community members, men, women and children, take us to the school where we have already built a cookstove. They explain what they like and dislike about this stove so we can improve upon it and build stoves that will be widely accepted by the whole community. This is an important part of beginning a project: communication. Without the communities input, we would not be able to deliver meaningful services; our work would be meaningless, in fact, if we did not include the people in every step of the process.

We also visit the second school, for grades 0-3, where we will build the second stove. The women are busy cooking our dinner in the small kitchen area using a gas stove that is on loan to them from the government. This is a subsidized stove as part of a school nutrition program managed by the First Lady of Guatemala.

The school house kitchen will soon be accompanied by a clean cooktove

The women are excited that they will soon have a larger, two-burner clean cookstove to cook large meals on as well as huge batches of tamales. Sebastian and Claudia begin the discussion about what it is they will receive and why it is important. Reducing smoke, using less firewood, having a safer cooking environment; these are all exciting propositions for these women, who spend the majority of their lives in the kitchen.

Before we know it is dark and a meal is in front of us. A long day of preparation and travel is soon over. We fall asleep to the sound of the rainforest singing its lullaby to us. Tomorrow, we have a lot more work to do.

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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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