Notes from the Field: Women’s Co-ops Lead the Way in Environmental Conservation

by Jon Becker, Trees, Water & People Board President

clean cookstove Honduras
A Lenca girl in Honduras stands proud next to her families Justa clean cookstove.

In the words of a great King, “I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land”.  The mountaintop is quite literal ­- we’re visiting villages to the west of Tegucigalpa at altitudes up to 9,000 feet. I have come to Honduras with Trees, Water & People’s Executive Director, Richard Fox, for a week of meetings with our Central American program partners and trips to the field to see our projects in place. The Asociación Hondureña para el Desarrollo (AHDESA) Director, Ignacio Osorto, is our driver and he is TWP’s longtime in-country collaborator on clean cookstove and reforestation projects.  A tall, regal man who has been through decades of change, struggle, and hard-fought progress in Honduras, Nacho, as he is affectionately called, is taking us up to meet with two of AHDESA’s more recent clients.  His son Ben, who basically grew up with AHDESA, is with us on this trip, in his new capacity as TWP’s Central American Regional Coordinator.

Women's Co-op Honduras
La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra

After about three hours of climbing and winding up into the highlands of the department of La Paz, through breathtaking pine forests intermingled with small farms and pueblos, we arrive at the picturesque mountain village of Marcala.  To me, this is holy ground, because the area surrounding Marcala is one of the important and premium coffee growing regions of Honduras.  It occurred to me that in a future, more perfect world, the lands underneath which petroleum lies will no longer be so treasured, and the places like Marcala, where great coffee comes from, will be properly venerated.  But for today, we are here to meet with one of AHDESA’s new associates, La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra.  Nacho has described them to us as a women’s coffee co-op, but what I’m about to experience goes so far beyond that label.  Because now comes “the promised land”. We are greeted at the Co-op office by the women of the mountains, indigenous people called Lenca – smiling and so welcoming.  They’re dressed in a mixture of western and traditional, brightly colored clothing, some with their children  along.

We take our seats in their meeting room, the lights go down, and these lovely ladies whose roots go back centuries in this land begin their PowerPoint presentation to us.  My head’s starting to spin as I hear their story about organizing themselves to improve their position in the coffee trade, expanding their work to include development, production, and branding of other products such as wines and snack foods, branching out into a variety of financial services including micro-lending, and delivery of educational programs for their members and their children.  I learn that several of them have traveled to the U.S. and Europe to meet with other co-op and business leaders.  I am absolutely floored.  This is the “developing” world?  Well, it’s developing very fast.

women's co-op meeting honduras
Members of the La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra meet with TWP and AHDESA staff.

Nacho and Ben begin our presentation on the products and services we want to work with the Co-op on – clean cookstoves, solar lighting, and solar phone charging.  I look around the room and see several of the women checking messages on their smart phones.  Phones that might soon be receiving their charges from these solar appliances.  They’ve actually been on board with our stove program for about a year and a half now, have completed the trainings on stove construction with AHDESA’s technicians, and have now built and installed some 500 Justa clean cookstove models.  They are thrilled about the prospects for adding the solar devices to the mix – many of their members live without electricity in their homes.

solar lighting
Richard Fox is as excited to give solar lighting as this woman is to receive it!

We are thrilled about their organization, the depth and breadth of the services they provide, their remarkable ability for gracefully straddling the modern and traditional worlds.  And perhaps most exciting of all – Las Mujeres are not alone,  they are not one-of-a-kind.  There appears to be a vibrant, growing movement of women’s rural agricultural co-ops in Honduras, and I presume this must spill over the borders into our other Latin American program countries – Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and Haiti.  I feel like we have found our match, the perfect platform to connect with our mission, via of course our fantastic in-country project partners like AHDESA.  I walk out of our meeting in Marcala, high in the mountains of Honduras, higher still with the excitement and joy of believing that our way forward is right here, in place and ready to go.  These women are the real leaders into the better, more just, more sustainable future.  Our job is to serve them.  We can do and we will do this.

Future leaders of La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra

Notes from the Field: Closing the Energy Poverty Gap in Latin America

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

This is the seventh year that I have had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful country of Nicaragua, a country that continues to inspire and amaze me with every visit.  The capital Managua, compared to years past, is booming – commerce is active, people are jovial, and the streets are lively.  The country enjoyed a growth rate of almost 5% last year, a level not seen for over 10 years, and it is visibly evident.  Add to that a level of safety more akin to its model southern neighbor Costa Rica, than its more similar northern neighbor Honduras (Nicaragua has 15% the homicide rate of Honduras), and you have a unique and promising set of conditions in a region characterized by high levels of poverty and violence and low indices of human development.

Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done in Nicaragua.  Much of the rural population is remote, and lives on the margins of society, with many communities at a full day’s distance or more from Managua’s bustling markets and commerce.  Somewhere around 1/3 of Nicaragua’s people are not connected to grid electricity, a condition which keeps them even further from developing full, productive livelihoods.  It gives me great pleasure to be able to say that Trees, Water & People (TWP) is working to close this gap in my seventh year of collaboration with the people of Nicaragua.

TWP and partners will provide families with solar lighting products that are sustainable, easy-to-use, and affordable.

This year marks the operational launch of TWP’s energy access initiative, a collaborative effort between TWP, our local partners AHDESA in Honduras, PROLEÑA in Nicaragua, and Árboles y Agua para El Pueblo in El Salvador, with support from PowerMundo of Colorado and Peru.  Together, we were awarded a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, which will allow us to join the effort of bringing clean energy technologies to rural markets throughout Latin America.  By tapping into the vast networks that TWP has developed over 14-years providing energy-saving clean cookstoves to Central America, we are partnering with Power Mundo to also provide solar lighting, solar mobile phone charging, and other life-changing products and services to off-grid rural communities.

As we track the impact of our work, we expect to see rural livelihoods strengthened, levels of education rise, and rural communities become more integrated into the modern lives we in the west enjoy and often take for granted.  Follow our progress on this blog, as well as on the TWP and Power Mundo websites, as the project develops over the next three years.  Thank you for supporting Trees, Water & People, and for allowing us to put your donations to work for the people at the base of the global economy who hold so much promise.

What is “Energy Poverty”?

Energy Poverty can be defined as the lack of adequate modern energy for the basic needs of cooking, warmth and lighting, and essential energy services for schools, health centers and income generation (Practical Action, 2012).

According to PowerMundo, “Over three billion people worldwide do not have access to appropriate technology to meet their basic needs for simple activities such as cooking meals, lighting homes, or purifying water. As a result, billions of people suffer from energy poverty, preventable illnesses, and deplorable living conditions.”

Bringing Renewable Energy to Rural Central America

by Megan Maiolo-Heath, Communications Coordinator

solar lamps
The first shipment of "cleantech" solar products arrive at the Asociación Hondureña para el Desarrollo (AHDESA) office, ready to light the homes of families in Honduras.

According to an October 2010 Wireless Intelligence report, Latin America is now the second largest wireless consuming region with more than 530 million users representing over 11% of the global market. There was also exponential growth noted in the Caribbean region. With prices of phones ranging from USD$30 – USD$100 or more, it is evident that even impoverished people with limited resources will find a way to invest in products they consider important to their lives. This market penetration of cell phones may well serve as a model for selling other high-benefit technological products, but it also provides a significant incentive for the successful introduction and adoption of solar technology, in that all these cell phones need to be frequently and consistently recharged. For the many rural people living off-grid, this is often a considerable problem requiring frequent resolution with associated financial and time costs.

FireFly 12 Mobile_solar lighting
The Fire Fly is a solar lamp with a mobile charging station included.

At Trees, Water & People, we are working to address this issue by providing innovative new products such as solar lanterns with phone charging capability, making it possible to fulfill the increasing need for phone chargers, while at the same time introducing solar technology that provides additional economic and educational benefits, such as allowing families to work or study at night. These gateway renewable energy technologies are opening up great possibilities for lower carbon growth and development while improving access to modern energy products, services, and business opportunities to those currently without regular access.

Our new project will utilize our community development experience and new partnership with experts PowerMundo to provide a variety of inexpensive, high impact “Cleantech” products (i.e. items that improve household productivity and efficiency while reducing energy consumption, cost, waste, and pollution.) These will include items such as solar lanterns, solar cell phone chargers, solar panels, and human powered radios.

As Carl Pope recently wrote in Yale Environment 360, “More than a billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. The best way to bring it to them — while reducing greenhouse gas emissions — is to launch a global initiative to provide solar panels and other forms of distributed renewable power to poor villages and neighborhoods.”

We are proud to be a part of this global initiative, helping to bring impoverished families in Central America access to one of the most basic resources: energy.