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.

Doña Thelma
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!

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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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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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Protected Area Management in El Salvador

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director 

Before moving to Fort Collins, CO in 2009, my wife and I settled in western El Salvador, a natural wonderland dotted with volcanoes, teeming with biodiversity, and a 40-minute drive from cool misty peaks to sweltering coastlines. Trees, Water & People (TWP) had worked there since 2001, through a small partner called Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) building cookstoves, composting latrines, and maintaining the most beautiful tree nursery among all their programs.

Unfortunately, the country went through a particularly rough spell between 2010 – 2016, where political turmoil left a vacuum filled by some unsavory elements in society and significantly affected our ability to operate. Nevertheless, AAP adjusted to the new reality and began looking for new ways to improve their country from within.

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Thanks to the FIAES fund from the U.S. and El Salvadorian governments, Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo was named co-manager of the Reserva de la Biosfera Apaneca-Ilamatepec. 

Leveraging a strong reputation, AAP was able to gain access to a bilateral reconciliation fund in 2013, which was put in place by El Salvador and the U.S. to strengthen public spaces, including National Parks. They were named co-managers of a small National Park in the west of the country and began working with communities along the outskirts of this park, developing Ecotourism capacity and providing environmental education through local school systems.

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Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo provides environmental education opportunities for local schools around the National Park, including tree planting!

Four years later, the small, dedicated team at AAP is now the head of a consortium of non-governmental organizations tasked with co-managing a network of parks throughout the west of the country. Their work focuses on improving everything from trails to interpretive signage, to biodiversity conservation, and alternative economic opportunities for youth. The road is long, but as El Salvador emerges from another dark patch of history, there is optimism on the horizon again, and TWP is proud to have continued supporting a positive future for the country.

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Project Update: NICFEC Now the Tierra Verde Climate Change Adaptation Center!

by Gemara Gifford, International Director

Since our last update in June, we have been very busy working on the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate (NICFEC) with our partners at PROLEÑA. Not only have we been working on the buildings, but a new name as well! The Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate will now be the Tierra Verde Climate Change Adaptation Center. Set in one of the driest and most threatened ecosystems on earth, the Pacific Dry Corridor, the Tierra Verde Center is a new regional climate change training facility where diverse stakeholders share knowledge, skills, and strategies in sustainable agriculture, forestry, fuel-efficient technologies, watershed management, soil remediation, and more. Over the last four months, we have nearly completed the dormitory where people from all across the world will be able to be housed to share knowledge on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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The dormitory for the Tierra Verde Center is nearly complete. It will house visitors while they learn about climate adaptation in Central America.

We have also recently established two tree nurseries at the back of the site, which will soon house 50,000-100,000 native trees for use in reforestation, agroforestry, and fuel-lot projects. Like everything on site, the nurseries will serve as a demonstration. Farmers will be able to see, feel, and touch a tree nursery planted with species that can survive well in the arid climate, as well as learn how to market the products grown from the trees, i.e., fuelwood, poles for construction, fruits and nuts.

NICFEC Tree Nursery
These seedlings growing in the Tierra Verde Center tree nursery will be used for demonstrations.

Perhaps the most exciting achievement was that we hosted our first event at the Tierra Verde Center site since we began construction! While we wish it were under different circumstances, we were able to hold a tree planting ceremony in honor of our dear friend, Lucas Wolf, with a majestic Ceiba tree in his honor. Over 30 people were in attendance from all across the country, many locals and colleagues whom Lucas built relationships with over the past three years in Nicaragua. Lucas was TWP’s International Director, and a dear friend, who passed away suddenly this July while traveling in Cuba.

Lucas' Tree Planting at NICFEC
In honor of Lucas’ birthday, we held a tree planting ceremony at the new the Tierra Verde Center site.

Upon completion in 2018, the Tierra Verde Center will feature live classrooms, workspaces, demonstration gardens, and private cabanas where local and international visitors — from smallholder farmer to high-level decision-maker — can both learn about and participate in climate change adaptation education in the Pacific Dry Corridor. On display will be a variety of demonstrative solutions including clean cookstove designs, fuel-efficient kilns and ovens, solar energy systems, green charcoal technologies, and agroforestry plots that reveal relevant strategies for climate change resilience, especially for local smallholder farmers. We expect to launch programming and tours in 2018!

If you are interested in traveling to Nicaragua with us, or any of our program countries, please sign up for our email list for upcoming trips.

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Teaming up to Study Health Impacts of Clean Cookstoves in Honduras

Bonnie Young

by Bonnie Young, Ph.D., MPH
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

Remember that parable about the boy and the starfish? It went something like this — a boy walked along the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. A recent storm had passed, and the shore was covered with thousands of them. A man stopped and asked the boy what he was doing, pointing out that he couldn’t possibly help all the starfish. The boy bent down, picked up another one, threw it into the ocean, turned to the man and replied with a smile, “It made a difference to that one.”

Our research in environmental health can feel daunting. Around 2.8 billion people, almost a third of the world’s population, use solid fuel to meet their household energy needs, like cooking and heating (Bonjour et al., 2013). Using inefficient stoves to burn solid fuel — like wood, animal dung, and coal — creates toxic pollution. Imagine hovering over the thick plume of smoke from a campfire for hours a day. Now imagine doing that indoors for the majority of your life. The health impacts from breathing solid fuel smoke are many, such as lung cancer, pneumonia, poor pregnancy outcomes, and cardiovascular effects (Quansah et al., 2017). It is estimated that in 2015, 2.9 million people died prematurely due to their exposure to solid fuel smoke, mostly from cooking (Forouzanfar et al. 2016). In addition to the negative impacts on human health, these inefficient stoves create hazardous pollution for the environment and use resources, such as trees, for fuel.

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Clean cookstoves, like this one, reduce deadly indoor air pollution, which accounts for an estimated 2.9 million premature deaths per year. Photo by Joanna B Pinneo

With a problem this vast, it can be hard to imagine that one project among 230 women in rural Honduras would make a difference.

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The Colorado State University research team use health indicators, like lower blood pressure, to determine health impacts before and after a family receives a clean cookstove. Photo by Joanna B Pinneo

But we are making good on a promise that was made in 2014 to these women and their community leaders — to select a group of families to receive an improved Justa (pronounced ‘who-sta’) stove and visit them every six months for a few years to see how their pollution levels and health change after receiving a Justa clean cookstove. The Justa is a well-accepted, culturally appropriate stove, which was originally designed by Trees, Water & People, and is now made locally in Honduras. If you ask the women in our study, who had cooked their entire lives on traditional stoves and then received their Justa stove in 2016 or 2017, you’ll hear heartfelt stories of less smoke, less coughing, and cleaner air for the entire family.

Of course, it will be ideal at the end of the study if we see improvements in women’s health, like lower blood pressure, plus reductions in household air pollution and use of less wood-fuel.

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Blood tests, like the sample being collected here, are another indicator of health before and after a clean cookstove is installed. Photo by Joanna B Pinneo

Changes like these can have larger public health impacts and potentially lead to stove interventions among entire communities. However, regardless of the bigger picture from this study, I know that the 230 houses that were involved with this intervention are now cooking on cleaner and more efficient stoves, with less smoke inhaled by the entire family, and I feel confident that we have made a difference for those “ones.”

Trees, Water & People and our partner organization,  Utz Che’, are working to build 500 clean cookstoves this year in Guatemala. If you would like to help fund a stove for a family or would like to learn more about the importance of this project, click the button below.

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References:
Bonjour S., Adair-Rohani H., et al., 2013. Solid fuel use for household cooking: country and regional estimates for 1980-2010. Environm. Health Perspec. 121, 784-790.
Forouzanfar M., Afshin A., et al., 2016. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the global burden of disease study 2015. Lancet 388, 1659-1724.
Quansah R., Semple S., et al., 2017. Effectiveness of interventions to reduce household air pollution and/or improve health in homes using solid fuel in low-and-middle income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environment International 103, 73-90.

The Principal Investigator of this project is Maggie L. Clark, Ph.D., along with Co-Investigator Jennifer L. Peel, Ph.D., MPH. This research is funded by an NIH K99/R00 grant (PI M.Clark).

Bonnie joined the CSU Honduras cookstove team in September 2014 after finishing a 2-year epidemiology fellowship in Hawaii. She earned her Ph.D. in evolutionary anthropology and M.P.H. from the University of New Mexico. As an Anthropologist interested in global health, Bonnie has worked with urban and rural communities around the world, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Paraguay, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Her research interests span environmental health, tuberculosis, and perinatal health. Now as a Postdoc with the cookstove team, Bonnie enjoys the fieldwork in Honduras, working with community leaders, eating corn tortillas, tutoring neighbor kids in English, and doing yoga in her free time.