Notes from the Field: Paths out of Energy Poverty

clean cookstove El Salvador

by Megan Maiolo-Heath, Communications Coordinator

The kitchen smelled of molasses and smoke, mixed with the thick red dust from ceramic bricks being cut and shaped. In El Salvador, it is tradition to use molasses to mix cement. They say it’s stickier and doesn’t crack as much as cement mixed with water. For a clean cookstove, this is exactly what we want.

Family in El Salvador
Doña Mercedes and her children were excited about receing a new and improved stove

Today, we are in the small farming town of El Porvenir, about an hour and fifteen minutes from the busy and overcrowded capital city of San Salvador. The Arboles y Agua para El Pueblo (AAP) team is here with us, watching Melvin Sandoval, one of AAP’s stove tecnicos, build a new Justa clean cookstove in the home of Doña Mercedes. This year alone, the busy AAP team, our NGO partner on the ground in El Salvador, has built over 500 clean cookstoves. In total, the team has built close to 4,000 of these life-changing stoves in El Salvador.  Doña Ilda, AAP’s stove promoter, says she currently has a waiting list of over 200 more families who have requested the stoves. The demand is very high and we are doing everything we can to meet this demand.

Since the Salvadoran government cut liquid propane gas (LPG) subsidies, the price of this popular fuel went from $5 to $15 in a matter of days, causing huge financial burdens for the majority of the population dependent on these subsidies. This has led to a huge spike in the use of fuelwood for cooking, making our clean cookstoves very appealing to families who have returned to cooking with traditional, open fire stoves.

old cookstove El Salvador
The old "stove" about to be retired

When we walk into Mercedes’ kitchen, a very small building connected to the back of the house, her old stove stands right in front of us, a sad excuse for a cooking “appliance.” Mercedes has been using this converted metal barrel to cook for years, essentially just an elevated and completely open fire, the back of which has melted away from the intense heat.  The walls and ceiling of the kitchen show the consequences of this type of cooking as well, blackened from smoke and soot bellowing up from daily fires. I immediately begin to imagine what it must be like to cook in here everyday. Eyes burning, coughing, clothes smelling of a campfire, constantly buying or cutting firewood, child strapped to your back, inhaling the smoke and soot. How can a woman and her children bear this for so long?

No person should have to be subjected to such conditions, yet 3 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, still cook over an open fire every single day. This lack of access to basic energy, such as electricity or gas, is a major inequality that anyone who has been to a developing country has seen and will never forget. The people suffering most from this energy inequality are the women and children, who spend most of their days cooking for the family. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 2 million people (again, mostly women and children) die each year from the effects of indoor air pollution (IAP). WHO also estimates that harmful cookstove smoke is one of the top five threats to public health in poor, developing countries.

Mixing cement is a team effort!

Mercedes and her children are well aware of the dangers of open fire cooking, which is why they are thrilled to see us when we show up to start construction of the new cookstove. Most of the AAP team joins us today to both help with building as well as catch up with Sebastian and Claudia, who run TWP’s International Program, and our down in Central America to visit partners and projects. As we all talk, Melvin gets started with the bricks and mortar. The molasses cement is ready to go, and the bricks are now being placed. As the afternoon moves along, we work together to mix more cement, cut out ceramic tiles that will become the combustion chamber, and take photos and video of the progress being made. Mercedes and her children keep a close eye on the project as well, eager to use their new and improved stove.

The AAP team takes a break for lunch

When you see this process first-hand, you begin to realize how important planning, logistics, and teamwork are to a successful cookstove program. This starts with having a solid team in the field. AAP is this team. Led by their director Armando Hernandez, the group is hardworking and dedicated to helping both communities and the environment thrive. They spend every day working with families who are struggling to get by and looking for ways to better their lives. Clean cookstoves provide one answer to these families.

The new cookstove emerging

As the day comes to an end, and it is time to let the cement dry, the new cookstove becomes another example of how we are educating and empowering people to become stewards of their environment. Better cooking options are available; stoves that don’t use exorbitant amounts of wood while polluting homes and the environment can be built right now. Giving communities access to this technology is the first step on the path out of energy poverty.

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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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