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.

 

Can Forests and Cities Coexist?

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Happy International Day of Forests!

This year’s theme is “Forests and Sustainable Cities,” which brought to mind a revelation I had when I lived in the Aldea of Suyapa, east of Tegucigalpa, Honduras back in 2005. I had always assumed that when humans arrived anywhere, the general pattern that followed was of deforestation and natural resource degradation. I believed that the mango, citrus, jocote, avocado, allspice, nance, oak, acacia, guanacaste, and other gorgeous fruiting and flowering trees were merely what was left after human settlements expanded here.

But, the story is more complicated than that.

Suyapa has now been swallowed by the capital city but is populated by the descendants of indigenous laborers that worked in the silver mines outside of Tegucigalpa until the 20th century. The land was granted to the community by the Spanish crown, and as such, it is primarily made up of the same families who initially settled it. Because of its unique history, there is a rich historical record of the town, some of it captured in old, black and white photographs.

As I became more familiar with these photos, I noticed that the town and the hills around it were almost entirely stripped of trees in the early 1900s. While this may contribute to my initial point (that humans drive deforestation), the present day reality tells a different story. Looking down on the town from the hills above it, today the urban rooftops of Suyapa are almost completely hidden by a canopy of mature trees. Within one century, people living here wholly transformed their landscape.

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Residents of the Aldea of Suyapa in Honduras working together to keep their forest healthy and to prevent forest fires. Photo by Keisi Midence.

These trees were planted by local residents (and likely animals) to provide shade, fruit, timber, and firewood, to stabilize soil along ravines, and to color the town with their flowers. Secondary benefits include filtering some of the dust and soot from the city, providing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and producing oxygen for all of us. These trees transformed what could have been just another concrete-covered suburb into what feels like a rural respite in an otherwise overcrowded city.

This revelation taught me two important things – 1. Urban development and tree-cover need not be mutually exclusive, and 2. Every tree we put in the ground TODAY will materially alter the landscape and produce benefits for future generations. Planting a tree is one of the easiest ways we can all leave a positive mark the planet.

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Suyapa’s youth volunteering as the fire brigade to plant new trees, cut firebreaks, deter poachers, and stabilize erosion trouble spots. Photo by Keisi Midence.

Today, Suyapa’s youth have formed a volunteer fire brigade that goes into the oak woodlands above town every spring to plant new trees, cut firebreaks, deter poachers, and stabilize erosion trouble spots. Threats to the local forests still exist, but teaching young people to value and protect trees and the services they provide is something that will ripple through generation upon generation. Cities in Central America have a long way to go before they can be considered truly sustainable, but I was grateful to walk away from Suyapa with my perspective changed about how humans, cities, and forests coexist.

Take some time today to think about the origins of the trees in your community, and about trees you could plant for those who come after you. And if you are passionate about getting trees into the ground, know that Trees, Water & People is always ready to turn your passion into trees for millions of people throughout the Americas.

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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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How Can We Reduce Migration Out of Central America?

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Last week on Colorado Public Radio, I heard about a Pew Research Center study on U.S. immigration from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — an area known as the Northern Triangle. The study shows that while annual immigration to the U.S. from Mexico fell by 5% after the Great Recession, migration from the Northern Triangle rose by almost 30% during that same period.

Most of this migration is attributed to a lack of economic opportunity, political instability, or the threat of violence that chronically affects the region. But peeling the layers back from these conclusions reveals other culprits, with severe implications for the future.

Roughly 60% Central Americans now live in cities, and this number is expected to grow to over 70% during the next few decades. Overcrowded cities force newcomers to live in marginal neighborhoods that lack basic services and business opportunities, and which are all but governed by organized gangs. The inherent challenges encountered in these harsh urban environments lead to the more visible outbound migration — to Mexico, the U.S., or beyond.

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Improving the lives of people living in rural areas of Central America can reduce the pressures caused by migration to cities.

The second concern raised by this trend is that as more people arrive in cities, food-producing regions of the country become depopulated. Traditional agriculture is not supporting rural populations while shifting weather patterns, crop diseases, depleted soils, and poor market access are driving the next generation of farmers to throw in the towel and leave the countryside.

Rural farm communities, most of them indigenous, are the de facto stewards of their watersheds, the producers of food for urban centers, and the last line of defense against industries (mining, timber, hydropower, etc.) that seek access to land and natural resources. Making life in rural areas more livable by diversifying agricultural production, rebuilding soils with agroforestry, and helping create new, sustainable sources of income is a practical and cost-effective way to slow outbound migration. These strategies can breathe life back into ailing Central American rural communities and the ecosystems they depend on.

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International Director, Gemara Gifford (right), works closely with our partners in rural communities in Central America, like local leader Doña Norma (left), to improve life through sustainable alternatives.

While the current debate on immigration here in the U.S. focuses on migrants once they make to our border, there are far too few questions being asked about why people leave in the first place. It may be more difficult to change the political environment or the macro economies of these countries, but keeping rural communities thriving is one way that TWP can contribute to future stability and sustainability in the region and another way that your support can create real and lasting impact.

By donating to Trees, Water & People, you can help rural communities in Central America build more resilient futures. 

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TWP Tours: Travel With Purpose

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Since Trees, Water & People’s early days, we’ve found that the best way for our community to engage with our work is to experience it first-hand. Visiting our projects leads our supporters to embrace new relationships, explore new perspectives on culture, history, and humanity, and reflect on the “why” behind Trees, Water & People’s work. Over the past two years, we’ve made an effort to expand our itineraries and offer new tours to destinations in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba. As we gained momentum, we realized that these new tours were incredibly rich experiences for participants, partners, and communities alike and that the demand was too high for us to manage ourselves.

 
With this in mind, we are proud to present TWP Tours — Trees, Water & People’s new travel arm, which will manage all aspects of our tourism offerings moving forward. TWP Tours provides us the flexibility to hire additional staff whose primary focus will be to create unforgettable travel experiences throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and on U.S. Tribal lands.

Unity Church in La Bendícion
Unity Church in Fort Collins, CO traveled with us to the community of La Bendícion, Guatemala. These hands-on tours give you an opportunity to give back while experiencing local culture.

TWP Tours believes in low-impact and sustainable travel. We work with a network of experts on the ground to offer unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences to immerse travelers in the local culture. We are a team of experienced guides, cultural interpreters, and language translators — opening up a world that the average adventurer would only see at its surface.

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The students of William Smith High School traveled with us to the Pine Ridge Reservation to plant trees. Using tree planting as an environmental education tool gives TWP Tours the opportunity to work closely with all ages of students.

Another unique aspect of our work is giving back. Through our association with local NGOs, we offer travelers the opportunity to participate in planting trees, harvesting coffee, building clean cookstoves, fixing water systems, increasing food security, and monitoring wildlife. We seek to make each trip carbon neutral via the work we do on the ground and strive hard to live up to our name: Travel With Purpose.

 
So, what are you waiting for?! Visit our new website at twp.tours and join our email list to stay informed about future travel opportunities. Our next adventure to the Honduran highlands is January 4 -13, 2018, where we’ll be monitoring migratory bird populations, installing rainwater cisterns, and building clean cookstoves with our local partner, CEASO. We hope to see you there!

An International Tree-bute to Lucas Wolf

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

August 28, 2017
Managua, Nicaragua

If you haven’t experienced Trees, Water & People’s (TWP) work first-hand, it’s difficult to explain the importance of having someone like Lucas Wolf leading your efforts in the field. TWP’s success depends less on what we bring to the communities in which we work, and more on how relationships are created and cultivated, and how promises are made and kept. Lucas was incredibly talented at building trust and empathy with people across borders, cultures, and walks of life — a trait that made him excellent and irreplaceable in his work.

Over the past week, I’ve had the honor of taking Lucas back to some of the people and places he loved most in Central America. Lucas is missed not only because he helped bring clean cookstoves, solar lighting, rainwater catchment systems, and tree nurseries to the region, but for the genuine connections he made with people during the years he spent here.

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Lucas’ friends Norma and Pedro dedicate a tree nursery to Lucas and TWP in La Tigra, Honduras.

In Honduras, we commemorated our love for Lucas by planting walnut and citrus seedlings with his ashes and scattering some into an ancient volcanic crater that fascinated him. In the community of La Tigra, his friends Norma and Pedro surprised us with a sign dedicating a tree nursery to Lucas and TWP, complete with a hand-painted wolf by his name. At the Center for Education in Sustainable Agriculture (CEASO), where he was like an adopted son, we held a prayer service and planted a walnut tree with his ashes in the center of their campus.

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The Center for Education in Sustainable Agriculture (CEASO) plants a walnut tree with Lucas’ ashes in the center of their campus.

I then traveled to Nicaragua to celebrate his birthday with his loved ones in Managua and sent portions of his ashes home with friends from various corners of the country. Friends in Cuba honored him by planting a seedling for him near Cienfuegos, and by burying some of his ashes under a Cuban Palm in the National Botanical Garden in Havana. His friends in the U.S. spread his ashes along the High Line in New York City, a place he loved to jog while living on the East Coast.

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Friends in southern Cuba plant a tree for Lucas.

Today, we continue to celebrate Lucas by planting a Ceiba tree (his favorite) in his name at the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate, and a Crabapple tree outside of the Trees, Water & People office in Fort Collins, CO. Next month, we’ll continue the tributes in Guatemala and El Salvador, ensuring that his remains regenerate life in as many places as possible.

What more can I say — Lucas touched people’s hearts across the planet in a way only he could. It’s an honor to take him back to the people and places he held dear. Lucas always insisted on smiling through life’s challenges and spreading as much sunshine as possible in our short time here on earth. We can only hope that spreading his ashes under trees throughout the hemisphere will serve as a daily reminder to us all to Live Life Like Lucas.

If you would like to stay up to date with our efforts to honor Lucas’ memory, please sign up for our email list. 

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