Early Bet, Ongoing Impact

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Family members of the Justa stoves original co-designer, Justa Nuñez

By Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

In the community development sector, it often takes years to know how well an idea delivers on its potential.  In 1998, Stuart Conway was on a mission to decrease firewood consumed for household cooking in Central America, to slow rates of deforestation. “Clean” cookstoves were a relatively blunt tool at the time – there were few, simple designs, minimal geographic coverage, and a nascent understanding of what made an “improved” cookstove better than tried and true traditional options.

Stuart made a bet via his new organization, Trees, Water & People (TWP), that local women, working with engineers that understood participatory design, could come up with something better than what was available.  After Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, the work began, and within the year, TWP, Aprovecho Research Center, and the community Aldea de Suyapa had debuted the Justa Stove, named after Justa Nuñez – the woman who most contributed to its design.

Twenty years later, the Justa Stove remains the flagship improved cookstove in Central America, and dozens of additional designs have sprung from its original iteration.  In March, I gave a talk on the history of the Justa Stove to 100 members of the Clean Stove Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, during their 3rd International Forum.  The positive response from organizations who had adopted the stove, others that had studied the stove, and yet others who had modified it to serve different markets, was validating, and humbling.

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Presenting at the 3rd International Forum for Clean Stove Network of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Justa Stove is designed by and for the user, which is one secret to its success.  Another is that it’s built by local masons using locally manufactured materials, and generates income for anyone willing to learn how to build it.  Most importantly, it’s easy to use; it’s aesthetically familiar and cooks the food people want to cook with the same speed, firewood, and pots that cooks are used to.  The fact that it uses 50% less wood and reduces smoke exposure in the household by 80% is just icing on the cake.

Central America is in crisis.  It sorely needs employment, innovation, investment, and participatory development.  The only way we can proactively reduce migration out of Central America is to invest in building resilient economies there – especially in rural areas.  TWP can help in real and tangible ways, but given the urgency, we need to redouble our efforts, and our reach.

There is currently a push to create hundreds of jobs in the cookstove sector through in-depth training of masons in theory, design, installation, maintenance, and refurbishment of the Justa Stove.  This is a dream situation for TWP, and with your generous support, we can put Central Americans back to work making local products that improve the environment and quality of life for tens of thousands of people per year. One stove costs between $75 – $100 to install, and it costs roughly $300 to fully train, equip, and certify new builders.

With over 250,000 Justa-type stoves installed to-date, and numerous studies proving its acceptance and efficacy, it’s now more than clear that Stuart Conway’s early bet on cookstoves has borne fruit.  The opportunity to build on this success is huge, and the time is now. If you’d like to support this effort, please reach out directly to TWP, or donate using the link below.

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Thriving Beyond Expectations

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A beneficiary of TWP’s clean cookstove program in Guatemala welcoming us before entering her home

by José Chalit, Marketing & Communications Manager

It’s the feeling of being welcomed into a stranger’s house with a fresh, warm cup coffee while we ask about their newly installed ‘Justa’ Stove or their new organic garden. I’ve heard people talk about this experience since I joined TWP last summer – folks that have been on a trip with us via TWP Tours, our Board of Directors, my co-workers – they’ve all shared stories with me about the unique experience of visiting the communities that TWP works alongside in the field. After returning from 2 weeks visiting our projects in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, these stories I have been hearing materialized into real experiences that changed my opinion about how our work has potential to create real change, and why it works.

When I first began visiting our projects last summer, I felt lucky to be part of developing communications around our innovative and meaningful community development projects, but it was too early for me to truly understand the bigger picture of what it is that we do. After I visited Guatemala in August to meet with members of the community of La Trinidad who had been displaced (again) by the eruption of Volcán De Fuego, I began to understand the impact of TWP’s work on a slightly deeper level.

It became clear that TWP prioritizes the voices and experiences of smallholder farmers first, and that our ability to continue working internationally with success hinges upon how we develop these relationships. Nevertheless, I still felt like I was missing a broader perspective of our road map.

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Volunteer with the Environmental & Natural Resource Ministry monitoring El Salvador’s second planned fire break in its modern history

Over our recent two-week trip, I continuously reflected on whether or not the communities our work with local non-profit partners truly impacts their lives as compared to surrounding areas not yet reached. Needless to say, all throughout the Americas rural indigenous people are suffering from the environmental impacts of erratic changes in climate patterns. For example, the folks in the community of La Bendición in Guatemala have had to adapt away from centuries-old farming practices passed down from their ancestors because of a prolongated dry season that is limiting their typical harvest season. The Environmental and Natural Resource Ministry of El Salvador is in the process of implementing some of the first ever controlled burns in the country’s national conservation areas to prevent wildfires due to similar reasons. In both scenarios, our local non-profit partners have worked alongside these communities to implement programs and projects that address the immediate needs of local people while also creating long-term paths for people to have healthier livelihood opportunities.

Nevertheless, I came to understand that if any of these projects are to be successful, it is for two primary reasons:

  • The knowledge and capacity held by those most deeply affected by the problems we are tackling positions them the best to champion the solutions to the challenges they face on a daily basis.
  • We know that the most significant global polluters and extractors aren’t doing nearly enough to combat the fallout of their operations, so the folks (rural indigenous, more often than not) most impacted by the effects of environmental degradation are the ones worth investing our time, energy, and resources.

Whether it is through protected area land management in the highlands El Salvador or the clean cookstove implementation program led by indigenous women in La Bendición, the choice TWP makes to invest in the ideas of the most marginalized became even more evident to me.

It’s that feeling of being so readily and enthusiastically welcomed into a community by strangers who might not even speak your same language. It’s the palpable aura of hope, empowerment and self-esteem that prevails in a community that believes in itself and its ability to overcome challenges brought on by unexpected climate catastrophes. It’s beyond the results of what any study, number, or statistic can tell us, but something that is only felt by a close encounter with a community that is confident in their potential to thrive beyond even their own expectations. This is what it feels like to visit a community where TWP is working alongside, and we can’t emphasize enough how lucky we are to be doing this work that would be impossible without your support.

 

Part 2: The Road to Clean Cookstoves

by Gemara Gifford, International Director

Clean cookstoves don’t just save lives; they add healthy years to someone’s life.

In November of last year, Trees, Water & People and our Nicaraguan partners, Proleña, partnered with Aprovecho Research Center to compare the emissions from open-fire stoves to those from Proleña’s improved stoves, manufactured in Managua. The results were alarming, which is why we are raising $8,000 to provide 60 clean cookstoves to those 60 study participants still cooking over open fires.

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This woman was a volunteer participant in our study. An air quality monitor hangs around her neck as she stands by her traditional open fire stove.

This study took place near Jinotega, Nicaragua with half of the families using traditional open fire stoves, and the other half using Proleña’s clean cookstoves. Each stove user volunteered to wear a small monitoring device that attaches to the shirt near the woman’s face to approximate her exposure to smoke for a 24-hour period. These monitors collect small airborne particles, referred to as PM2.5 in the air quality monitoring field, that are the most commonly measured pollutant coming from wood smoke. PM2.5 particles are widely accepted as a principle source of illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

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These are some of the filters from the particle monitors used in this study. The filters on the left are from homes with a clean cookstove. The ones on the right are from homes using traditional open fires. Photo by the Aprovecho Research Center.

The average traditional stove user in this study was consistently exposed to 245 µg/m3 of particulates, qualifying their kitchens as a “HEAVY POLLUTED” environment, according to the EPA’s Air Quality Index. In homes where an improved stove had been introduced and adopted, exposure to indoor air pollution was reduced by an average of 63%.

Averted Disability Adjusted Life Years (ADALY) is a commonly used metric for public health studies that represent the number of years of healthy life made possible by reducing exposure to particulate matter in smoke. Using the ADALY methodology, we determined that if clean cookstoves were installed in 500 homes (helping 2,500 people), we could extend life in that population by 286 years. This is why we’ve launched the “Clean Cookstoves and Healthy Families in Nicaragua” campaign because, quite frankly, cooking shouldn’t kill!

Overall, this study was an excellent reminder that clean cookstoves are indeed critical, tangible tools that can help improve a person’s quality of life measurably. It is difficult to put a price on extra years of health, but with $8,000 we’ll be able to complete funding for 60 stoves needed in Jinotega.

Help thank the women in this study who opened their kitchens to us, and who are still breathing smoke as you read this. Give Health. Give Hope. Give Today!

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This woman uses her clean cookstove provided by Proleña to cook tortillas.

 

 

Part 1: The Road to Clean Cookstoves

by Valentina de Rooy

Valentina de Rooy is a Nicaraguan psychologist with experience in qualitative research about social phenomena. Her passion is working with rural communities on a diversity of issues for the community development in Nicaragua, her country of origin. Valentina became familiar with Trees, Water & People’s work through Lucas Wolf, TWP’s former International Director, whose dedication to the people and the environment inspired to engage in TWP’s mission.

I recently had the opportunity to travel with Trees, Water & People’s nonprofit partner in Nicaragua, PROLEÑA, for a clean cookstove health study. The Aprovecho Research Center and PROLEÑA joined forces to carry out a study to measure the difference in pollution from smoke emissions in households cooking with wood in traditional stoves and improved stoves around Jinotega, Nicaragua. My role was to serve as interpreter and research assistant to Sam Bentson, the lab manager for Aprovecho.

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Doña María from the community of La Cal in Jinotega, who participated in this indoor air pollution study, shows us her new improved cookstove from PROLEÑA.

For a month and a half, we stayed in Jinotega, a city located in northern Nicaragua in the dry corridor of Central America. Sam, some technicians of the NGO La Cuculmeca, and I visited more than 120 homes in six rural communities in the outskirts of the city of Jinotega.  The participants in our study received us with great hospitality, stories, and gifts of crops they grew themselves. The children of the communities satiated their curiosity by following us to each of the households; some of them were even essential to the study by showing us the route to their neighbors’ homes.

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Sam Bentson (Lab manager at Aprovecho Research Center) places a µPEMS inside one of the houses from La Cal community in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

We met so many amazing people during our stay. We met Don Aparicio, who has dedicated his life to the development of projects in his community of Saraguasca. While we were walking along the hill one day, Don Aparicio sang to us some verses composed by “Los Soñadores de Saraguasca,” a group of which he is a member and dedicates his songs to nature, its protection and conservation:

Let’s take care of the animals,

that enliven our environment,

like those found in the forest

over there at Agua Caliente.

For destroying our woodlands,

they had to be absent,

but if we reforest,

they will return.

In the last stage of the study, we met Doña Cata from the community of Las Lomas. Doña Cata and her husband Mario are pioneers in their community when it comes to crop diversification for their own consumption and they play a key role in hosting community meetings for the people engaged in agricultural projects.

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Valentina de Rooy (research assistant of the study) explains to Doña Catalina, leader of the Las Lomas community in Jinotega, the purpose of the study and how to use the HAPEX device.

Doña Cata introduced us to Idania, a young entrepreneur who runs her own cake-making business by modifying her PROLEÑA clean cookstove with two large pots in a small oven for baking cakes. Like most beneficiaries of improved stoves, Idania enthusiastically commented on her positive experience with smoke reduction and fuel saving. Now, the stakeholders are looking forward to the results of the study, hoping to know about their health condition in order to suggest changes for the future of their communities.

An update from TWP’s International Director, Gemara Gifford:

We are pleased to announce that each participant in this study who cooks with an open-fire cookstove will be receiving a brand new clean cookstove as a reward for participating in this study. For the first time, these families will be able to breathe easier and save time and money on fuelwood. Keep an eye out for how you can sponsor a family to make this a reality! If you would like to help fund the construction of these families’ clean cookstoves, please donate today! 

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Experiencing Community Development in Nicaragua

by Annalise Mecham, Development Director

As the incoming Development Director at Trees, Water & People, my job is to raise the funds that will keep the organization running. Even before taking this position, I knew that to do my job successfully I would need to visit the places where we work, shake hands with our partners, smell a kitchen with a clean cookstove, and touch the soil where we are growing our trees.

This opportunity came in the middle of January when I got to travel to Nicaragua for a week-long stay with Gemara Gifford, TWP’s International Director, and Paul Thayer, a TWP board member. Shortly after arriving at the Managua airport, Paul, Gemara and our fabulous tour guide (and partner of past International Director, Lucas Wolf), Valentina, drove directly to Gaia Estate. The Estate is a Certified Bird-friendly coffee farm outside the town of Diriamba and is owned by long-time TWP friend Jefferson Shriver. Jefferson greeted us with a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation about Nicaragua. He stressed the importance of promoting farming systems that integrate overstory trees (i.e. agroforestry), and high-value and environmentally-friendly products like vanilla and turmeric. After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to the smell of fresh coffee brewing, beans that had been picked and harvested from his farm just days before.

We spent the next day with Proleña visiting Tierra Verde, our newly opened climate change education center in La Paz Centro. Since TWP’s last visit, the first floor of the dormitory has been built and 600 trees have been planted on the property (25 different species in all) as well as infrastructure for the site including roadways and electricity. Having seen Tierra Verde in many photographs, it was essential to see the property and hear about the exciting events planned for 2018.

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Conducting a strategy session at Tierra Verde with Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago (second from the right) and Technical Director, Leonardo Mayorga (far right). Photo by Annalise Mecham.

Although more construction will be taking place this year, the vision for the center is starting to take shape. We talked in detail about the workshops that we have planned, including bringing in local farmers to talk about agroforestry, university students to discuss climate change, and TWP Tour participants to visit the center. We discussed plans to complete the tree nursery with at least 50,000 trees in the first year, as well as demonstration sites for clean cookstoves, and adding a greenhouse for growing and genetically testing trees.

After our visit to Tierra Verde, we toured Proleña’s workshop in Managua and visited local urban cookstove beneficiaries. I have always been aware of the impact of clean cookstoves, but it was a completely different experience to see and smell the difference. The women we visited graciously welcomed us into their kitchen and explained the changes in their lives and their health after the clean cookstove had been installed. Although my Spanish is limited, it didn’t take me long to realize how these women felt about their clean cookstoves. They would pat gently on their chests and touch their eyes, implying that they could breathe easier and their eyes were less irritated.

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Doña Thelma (center) and her family in her home. She is one of the beneficiaries of a clean cookstove and sells 300 tortillas a day to customers.

The last day was one of the most profound for me as we visited the rural communities surrounding the northern town of Jinotega, in particular, the remote village of La Cal. To get there, we had a few hours’ drive on an impossibly steep and windy dirt road with a one hour walk up a steep rocky path. The village was tucked away in a mountain valley and one of the most remote communities I have ever visited.

Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the only teacher in the community, a young man who gave us a tour including the one-room schoolhouse and various family homes. The families we visited we welcoming, kind, and joyful. We interviewed many women about the impacts of their clean cookstoves, played with the kids, saw how much time it takes to gather wood, and the challenges of living in rural Nicaragua. As we drove back that evening to Managua, the feeling I had wasn’t sadness at the rural living conditions, but a sense of awe at their resilience.

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A house with corn hanging from the roof in the remote village of La Cal.

On the plane ride home, I was thinking about my biggest take away from the trip. What was I going to bring back to the TWP community of donors and supporters? Without a doubt, it was the unique community-based approach that Trees, Water & People uses when working in Central America and U.S. Tribal Lands.

TWP’s approach is based on the philosophy that communities have the best judgment of how their lives and livelihoods can be improved, and if given access to the right resources, they should make decisions that will be most impactful for them. I believe that this community-based development is the most effective way to create change. Change does not come easy for anyone. Changing the way someone cooks their food can seem impossibly difficult. But, TWP’s approach to involve the community and a local nonprofit (in the case of Proleña in Nicaragua) allows for the change to be approached on an intimate, community level.

This type of grassroots change is not the easiest route. It is complicated and complex and takes years to actualize. Luckily for TWP, we have been planting seeds this way for 20 years and will continue to for many, many more!

If you would like to learn more about Trees, Water & People’s work, please sign up for our email list.

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Celebrating 20 Years in 2018!

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Happy 2018 from all of us at Trees, Water & People!

2018 is a significant year for many reasons, but the main one is that it’s Trees, Water & People’s (TWP’s) 20th Anniversary! As the staff and I reflected on the significance of this achievement, we tried to think back to the challenges that our founders, Richard Fox and Stuart Conway, likely faced when they started this organization in 1998, in Fort Collins, Colorado…

Email and the internet were barely commonplace in 1998. They photographed their work in the field with film cameras and recorded activities with camcorders. Field reports were received by fax and cell phones were just beginning to show up on the scene. Building a following back then depended on the depth of your Rolodex, your versatility with direct mail, and your candor on a landline.

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Trees, Water & People was founded in 1998 by Richard Fox (left) and Stuart Conway (right), two foresters who saw a huge need to address the pervasive deforestation in Latin America.

Our founders worked hard to build successful relationships in the field, as well as systems and processes at home that would lay the foundation for a lasting organization. When I began working for the organization in 2005, little did I know the impact that TWP would have on the world.

Apart from the tens of thousands of beneficiaries we’ve been fortunate to serve through our projects, we’ve also created a home for dozens of staff, hundreds of volunteers and interns, and thousands of donors that have made our work possible. A significant number of those donors have supported us since the very beginning, and have literally given us the means to reach this significant milestone.

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Rafael Ramirez is transplanting tree seedlings in a small nursery in Guatemala. Photo by Jeff Caesar, 1998.

We have planted close to 7 million trees, installed over 75,000 cookstoves, and trained hundreds of rural people in everything from fruit tree-grafting, to soil conservation, to solar power and clean cookstove design. Any way you look at this story, it’s an understatement to say that it’s been an inspirational journey.

However, the world has changed drastically in very visible ways over the past 20 years, and there are forces at work today that threaten the work of nonprofits like ours.

Nine of every ten deportees from the U.S. today are going back to Central America and Mexico. Climate change is threatening small-holder agriculture in the region, and the cities are busting at the seams with migrants from rural areas, and now from abroad. U.S. investment in International Development and diplomacy has slowed to a trickle, while changes to the tax law are threatening donations from our individual supporters.

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Doña Justa making breakfast with her new fuel-efficient stove in Honduras. Photo by Jeff Caesar, 1998.

The challenges we face today are going to be very different from those faced by our founders in 1998, and are going to require that we be flexible and adaptable in how we approach our work. Your support is instrumental in our success and will be the cornerstone of what we build over the next 20 years.

For this reason, this year we’d like to celebrate YOU – our donors – who have been the lifeblood of this organization since we were founded. Over the next several months we’re going to feature 20 of our most ardent supporters, in hopes that they inspire you to share TWP’s work with your friends, family, and peers, and show them why you donate to this work.

The gains we’ve made for people and planet will only remain as such if we are vigilant and persistent in defending them – and we can’t do this alone. So THANK YOU – here’s to 20 more years of TWP, and to all the worth-while things we’re going to accomplish together!

If you would like to celebrate our 20th anniversary with us and be in the loop about Trees, Water & People’s work, please sign up for our email list.

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The Gift of Pride: 500 Stoves for Guatemala Complete!

by Gemara Gifford, International Director

As the holiday season begins in the United States, many of us gather with family to cook our favorite meals, celebrate with friends, to reflect back on the past year, and to make plans for the next. If we’re lucky, the holiday season creates a sense of comfort, community, and pride.

As TWP looks back on our year, one of our proudest moments has been working with you – our community – to help 500 more families in southern Guatemala begin their new year with a brand new clean cookstove. Last week, the final installment of stoves were delivered, and families are now being trained on its care and maintenance, just in time for the holidays! In March, some of you will be joining TWP Tours on our next tour to the region to see first-hand how families have been impacted by their new stove.

Clean Cookstove training in Guatemala
The final training and installment of stoves was completed last week, meaning 500 more families in Guatemala are starting their New Year with a new stove!

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that clean cookstoves have a lasting impact on people’s lives because they:

  • reduce dangerous indoor air pollution by up to 85%
  • reduce forest fuelwood needed by up to 50%
  • are more efficient and thus save families valuable time and money

But perhaps the most inspiring and transformative impact of a stove is not in the numbers, but rather, within oneself. By listening to women across Central America for the last 19 years, we know that stoves:

  • increase women’s self-esteem and self-worth
  • create hope, pride, and dignity
  • help people thrive, not just survive
  • foster the ability to think “beyond tomorrow”

When I met Doña Teresa earlier this summer, she was thrilled to cook me something yummy on her new stove. She was proud to tell me how her day-to-day activities had been transformed. “My clothes look so much nicer now,” she said. “I don’t have soot all over them, and I am not embarrassed to invite my friends over anymore.”  The best part was her smile. There are certain things that we simply cannot communicate with statistics – the pride in her face told me everything I needed to know. “And by the way, I don’t have to spend so much time cooking, this thing stays on all day, and the wood that I need is much less,” she said.

Doña Teresa with her cookstove in Guatemala
Sometimes transformation begins with a stove. Doña Teresa tells us what her new stove represented to her above.

I am excited to visit Doña Teresa again on my next trip in January to see how she doing, and thank her for teaching me such a valuable lesson about what a stove represented to her!

At Trees, Water & People, we believe that everyone plays a role in making the world more sustainable and humane. Our donors provide the means, we provide the network and know-how, our local partners deliver the solution, and each beneficiary provides local materials and labor. Together we drive change and create dignified, healthy futures for our global community.

So thank you, to each and every one of you, who have helped us tell this remarkable story. I couldn’t feel more ready for 2018 to help people make transformative changes in their own lives.

Sometimes that story begins with a stove.

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