Blazing into Rainy Season in Central America

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Entering its fifth month without rain, Central America is at the tail end of its 2018 fire season. This year, our partners Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) in El Salvador are on the frontlines, as they spent all last year training a corps of young park rangers to fight fire in the Protected Area of Apaneca-Illamantepec. This was their second year of funding from FIAES – a bilateral fund between the U.S. and El Salvador to create opportunities for communities living around protected areas.

Fires are almost a given this time of year – lightning strikes, farmers burning their fields, and hunters flushing out animals are some of the principal causes. The dry conditions create a precarious situation both for landscapes and ecosystems, as to humans, who often end up in the path of rapidly advancing burns, and then suffer the air pollution hazards created.

Preparing people to protect their communities, and providing them the resources to do so is one of the objectives of the FIAES funding, projects for which Trees, Water & People provides the supplemental cost-share required by the granting agency. We are now helping our partners, AAP, pursue a third year of funding from FIAES to keep them involved in conservation work throughout the western part of the country.

In Nicaragua, we’ve been watching a political crisis unfold that first piqued in April when the government allegedly dragged its feet in responding to a 5,000-acre fire in an 8,000-acre tropical forest reserve in the east of the country. Soon after, with the populace already frustrated with them, the administration announced policy changes to the national social security program, igniting protests and heavy-handed confrontations with police forces.

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Fighting a fire next to the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center near La Paz Centro, Nicaragua.

Right around that time, our partners, Proleña, were preparing for a high-school tree planting workshop when fire struck. Proleña provides in-field education to a group of 12 local high school seniors at the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center near La Paz Centro, northwest of Managua. A few weeks ago they were preparing to plant a drip irrigated living fence of 200 trees around the perimeter of the seven-acre property with the students.

“God knows why things happen a certain way,” said Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago. “The day before the workshop I went out with our pickup truck, a team of six, and two barrels of water to prep for the tree planting workshop. We were having lunch at a local restaurant when someone called to say there was a fire on the property next to ours.”

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The one fire truck fought the fire near Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center, preventing it from entering the property.

The team rushed back, and with the help of one fire truck, sent from 30km away, fought the fire all afternoon and into the evening, preventing it from entering the property. “The truck only had the water it came with, so when it was dry, we fought the fire by hand, with buckets of water. Once the sun went down, we put out the last seven hot spots, and the fire was extinguished.”

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Fighting the fire by hand along the fence line of the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center.

With any luck, the rainy season, which has been so unpredictable in past years, will start on time this month. But until then, we’ll continue to prepare for the inevitability of fire and to educate local communities and actors of other ways to manage the landscape.

While the dry season will soon end, we encourage our followers to keep an eye on Nicaragua, where we expect anti-government protests to persist over the next several months. Our team is safe, but the current political crisis has caused disruptions across the country and threatens to upend the stability of one of the more peaceful nations in the region. We stand for the safety and well-being of all those protesting for an equitable, prosperous, and politically transparent future in Nicaragua.

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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!

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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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