by Gemara Gifford, International Director
The story of Trees, Water & People begins with an extraordinary leader, from Suyapa, Honduras: Doña Justa. In the mid-’90s, Doña Justa was already thinking about how to improve her community and women’s everyday lives through improved cookstoves, even before TWP. She worked with friends and neighbors, trying out different cookstove designs made from local materials, and tried them out in her community, receiving honest feedback from stove users, and probably coffee and cookies too.
Doña Justa used her humility, compassion, and force to lift the voices of her community so that a cookstove could be designed to meet their unique needs.
When Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, killing over 11,000 Central Americans – 7,000 of them Hondurans alone – development organizations fled in to assist, including Trees, Water & People. But our approach was different. We learned about Doña Justa’s efforts and leadership in her community, and we listened.
Doña Justa and the community of Suyapa were best positioned to craft solutions to the pressing problems in front of them, and TWP was there to fill in technical and financial gaps that would help make their vision a reality – that cooking shouldn’t kill!
With the help of scientists from Aprovecho Research Center and the founders of TWP, we began to create the first models of the Justa cookstove in Doña Justa’s very own kitchen. Because of her patience, and critical honesty of what was and wasn’t working with these pilot stoves, and the willingness of the technical team to listen and adjust, Trees, Water & People is proud that the Justa Cookstove is the most widely used and adopted cookstove in Honduras – and we are still improving the model and working with local communities today.
In January of this year, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Doña Justa in her unique community in Suyapa, over an incredible Sunday soup she cooked with the very cookstove named after her, followed by an evening gathering of music, and sharing old stories with those who had come to welcome “home” our Executive Director Sebastian to Suyapa, where his career sprouted in 2005.
To me, what makes TWP who we are is our long-term, personal connections with community champions like Doña Justa. Twenty years have gone by, and we still have the honor of being welcomed into her home and listening.