Grounding Our Work Across Cultures: Indigenous Perspectives

by Eriq Acosta
Personally, I feel really sensitive and protective of our tribal communities. Although I am not a direct descendant of the Lakota I still feel responsible for keeping our communities safe.
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Solar Training in 2017
One can attempt to understand my hesitancy of bringing strangers to the reservations who want to “come see the native folks and their culture”; the thought of doing this didn’t sit well with me at first. The world, obviously not all, has historically held very skewed perspectives of Indigenous people. On one side of the spectrum, we are described as these glorious people who ate all of the buffalo and roam the plains, moving our teepees from here to there, and living off of the land. On the opposite side of this are descriptors like drunkards, poor, sickly and “without”.
The truth is not all of us live in teepees and eat buffalo. When traveling throughout the United States, one will find many differences and similarities between life on or off the reservation: poverty, disease, or corruption as some examples. These are not exclusive to the reservations, it is everywhere. Being an urban Mexican-Indian myself and having lived with people from urban settings and on reservations, I have seen so much beauty. Beauty in the people, the culture, and the land – it’s all around.
It’s not that I choose to turn my head to the struggles, rather I choose to fuel myself with all of that beauty so that I can continue to do the hard work that needs to be done. In Leonard Peltier’s words, “What you believe and what you do are the same thing. In Indian way, if you see your people suffering, helping them becomes absolutely necessary. It’s not a social act of charity or welfare assistance, it’s a spiritual act, a holy deed.” 
With that said, I was hesitant to host TWP tour groups to Pine Ridge Reservation. However, this is the second year I have hosted the folks from Lansing Michigan Catholic High School and the second year that I have been overly impressed. Volunteers were asked to provide an evaluation of the most recent trip and one person wrote:
“It definitely made a mark on me. Being able to help people who are definitely in need and not only being welcomed like we were but also being able to partake in their amazing culture was an experience of great significance”.
They came to Pine Ridge to learn, to be of service, to enjoy the plains, and most importantly learn the story of Indigenous people from Indigenous people! I am honored to call them friends and family of the human race!
Thank you to all who came and offered their time and energy. Your efforts are much appreciated and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future.
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Setting sun over rolling hills of Pine Ridge

 

Learn more about our U.S. Tribal programs and how you can help here.

Remembering Our Brother Lucas – One Year On

By Sebastian Africano
Today is a heavy day for all of us at Trees, Water & People, and will continue to be for time eternal. One year ago today, on July 12, 2017, we lost our beloved Lucas Wolf on an otherwise perfect day on Cuba’s south coast.

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Lucas in Honduras

Among many other things, Lucas Wolf’s final week was spent expanding his personal and professional circles in Latin America, speaking up for the environment on the radio in Havana, Cuba, and exploring this amazing country with his Mom and #1 travel companion, Mary Ellen Keen. He didn’t know it was his last, but he spent every moment of that week working to create a better tomorrow. As Mary Ellen wrote to me recently, quoting a Mark Strand poem:
Nothing could stop you.
Not the best day. Not the quiet. Not the ocean rocking.
You went on with your dying.
Here at Trees, Water & People, we feel his presence daily. We made a conscious decision when he transitioned that we would not lose pace, as he would resent nothing more than his death causing a diversion from the causes he embraced so fully. Rather than retreat, we advanced – shifting, recruiting, and hiring people that could carry on what he and our teams had in motion.
Lucas left more than just nodes and connections in his life. He left living networks of motivated people, all working in some way to improve their communities and the planet. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to plant 243,111 trees in Lucas’s name in the last 365 days – those who loved him have committed fervently to keeping his work alive.
We miss you, Lucas. You really have no equal on this planet. Working with you was a privilege, and carrying on TWP’s work in your name is among my most cherished responsibilities. You continue to inspire us, and we continue to grow and do you proud. Thank you for spending some time with us, and please continue to smile down on the good works your people carry on for you, and on all the complex forces that make good things happen in the world.
We love you.

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Planting for Lucas

Read More – https://treeswaterpeople.org/lucas.html

Guatemala Volcano Recovery

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Mural in Guatemala depicting the history of displacement

by Patricia Flores White, Development Director

On Sunday, June 3rd, 2018, Volcán de Fuego erupted in Southern Guatemala, unleashing a massive pyroclastic flow that tore down the mountain’s southern flank at 50 mph. 300 are dead or missing while thousands were evacuated to relief shelters. Currently, recovery efforts have ceased and transportation in the area have been paralyzed, leaving the displaced indefinitely separated from their homes and livelihoods.

Among those displaced are the families of La Trinidad – one of Trees, Water & People’s (TWPs) partner communities and a member community of the Utz Che’ network. This is the third major displacement of this vulnerable population in a generation. Guatemala’s genocidal civil war drove them out of their native Huehuetenango into Mexico in the 1980s, only to be later resettled onto the high-risk flanks of Volcán Fuego.

Last year, we were fortunate enough to install cookstoves for 115 families in La Trinidad and to develop a plan to work on several projects with their coffee cooperative, Unión Huista. With the help of our generous TWP family of supporters, we have committed the month of July to fundraise for the community of La Trinidad as it navigates emergency relief, relocation, and negotiation with the State to keep access to its farmlands.

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Map detailing area of pyroclastic flow and affected community

TWP is dedicated to improving people’s lives by helping people protect, conserve, and manage the natural resources upon which their well-being depends. While we are not a disaster relief agency we have the opportunity to work intimately with the affected communities in Guatemala during this time of chaos and devastation. We strive to live and breathe our community-based development philosophy in both words and action. As such, our Guatemalan partners, la Asociación de Forestería Comunitaria Utz Ché, have entrusted us to raise funds for the prolonged recovery process facing La Trinidad.

Everyone plays a role in making the world more sustainable and humane. Our donors provide the means, TWP provides networks and know-how, our local partners deliver solutions, and each beneficiary provides local materials and sweat equity. Together we drive change and create dignified, healthy futures for our global community. La Trinidad and their local coffee cooperative Unión Huista will need years to recover their agricultural productivity, and TWP and Utz Ché have committed to be there every step of the way.

We honor and appreciate everything that you do to help vulnerable communities like La Trinidad when they need it most. We could not do this work without your help. You will continue to see this crisis featured throughout the month of July as we garner aid and public support for the communities of Guatemala impacted by this natural disaster.

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Give today to help our partners in Guatemala begin their long and arduous journey towards recovery.

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Unsung Hero of Mesoamerican Cookstoves

By Sebastian Africano

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Marvin Cordóva and his wife, Ana, visiting TWP

This week we received some honored guests at Trees, Water & People (TWP) headquarters – Marvin Córdova and his family from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I met Marvin in early 2005 when I arrived in Honduras as an intern for TWP – he was the lead welder at our stove manufacturing facility, AHDESA. I still remember loading his stoves onto pick-up trucks in those early days to promote his business, and helping him install them in customers’ homes. He and I were co-workers at the time, but became close friends the more we worked together.

TWP got involved in cookstoves when we helped design the Estufa Justa in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, cutting off crucial supply lines for fuel into the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The Estufa Justa was designed with technicians from Aprovecho Research Center, and local community members in the Aldea of Suyapa, who would critique the early prototypes based on local cooking preferences. One of the more vociferous of those community members was a woman named Justa Nuñez, for whom the stove was eventually named.

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Ecofogones loaded in my truck for delivery and installation.

The Estufa Justa went on to become the flagship clean cookstove for Central America, with hundreds of thousands of units built since those first workshops. Several variations on the stove were designed and manufactured by Marvin Córdova and his team, and were an urban-appropriate, pre-manufactured, all metal version of the stove, named the Ecofogón. What began as a TWP project funded by the USEPA later became its own company, selling thousands of units across the country.

Marvin is one of many unsung heroes of the Mesoamerican stove movement that we are proud to welcome as he visits the U.S. with his family. He now owns his own custom welding shop in Tegucigalpa with seven employees, and while he still occasionally builds stoves by request, his principal business has grown to serve larger clients including industrial food processors, restaurant chains, and medical facilities. He is a true entrepreneur who weathered economic and political turmoil to build a persistent and successful company in Honduras. He is above all a great husband and father, and a loyal, long-time friend to me and TWP.

Gracias por la visita, Marvin!  We wish you continued success, and appreciate all  your contributions to our work!

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Volunteer Voices: Tree Planting on Tribal Lands Nearly Complete

by Rachel Hamalian, Volunteer

From May 18 – 20, I had the privilege to be a part of Trees, Water & People and Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center’s (RCREC) campaign to plant 30,000 pine trees on Tribal Lands in areas most deeply affected by forest fires. I stayed at the Sacred Earth Lodge in Pine Ridge along with good and new friends who volunteered for this project. We all enjoyed breakfast and coffee together in the morning before heading off to locations on the Oglala side of Pine Ridge as well as at Wounded Knee. In the beginning, I felt nervous about plunging a large sharp blade into the ground to create a home for the baby trees – I’m not a particularly strong person, and I don’t pride myself on my manual labor skills. But, Avery and Silas Red Cloud taught us how to properly create a hole, plant the tree, get rid of any air bubbles, and create a nice bed. By the end of the first day, I was a tree planting master.

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Black Hills Ponderosa Pines Seedlings were planted on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations

One of the most memorable moments for me occurred on the last day of tree planting. Henry Red Cloud, one of the founders of RCR, spoke to our group of 25 volunteers as we began to plant. He told us about his beliefs for the mission, how we as humans seem to have lost touch with nature, and we treat it as a machine instead of as something alive. It is true, we take and take, and give little back. Henry told us, this is a way to give back, and these trees will continue to give oxygen and life for generations after us. We planted over 2,500 trees that day alone.

I struggle with finding the right words to describe the powerful lessons I’ve learned from my experiences and relationships built in Pine Ridge. While this project has helped to heal the landscape within the Reservation, there is still much healing to be done. I feel a great love for the Natives we worked with on this project, who invited us as volunteers to come back and continue to learn about their culture and how to be an advocate. I plan to accept their invitation, as well as continue my relationship with Trees, Water & People, and the good friends I’ve made who share similar goals.

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Tree planters working during the month of May to fulfill our reforestation goal of 30,000 trees for Tribal Lands

A note from TWP’s National Director, Eriq Acosta: 

Thanks to the incredible donors, volunteers, residents of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations, we are 95% complete with our third season of tree planting on Tribal Lands! Although tree planting season takes hard work and dedication, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to put a tree into the ground, and sharing the experience with like-minded people in the fight for a more just and sustainable planet. We will be headed back up to Pine Ridge Reservation next week with a group of 40 volunteers from Lansing Catholic High School from Michigan, and we look forward to keeping you updated!  

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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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Volunteer Voices: An Alternative Break to Pine Ridge

By James Zafarana, CSU Alternative Break Participant

I feel blessed to have gone to the Pine Ridge Reservation with Trees, Water & People and Colorado State University. Over the past few months, our group of eight students have been learning about the reality of life on Pine Ridge. It was honestly scary. The statistics speak for themselves. Indigenous communities in our country face some daunting institutional barriers. It made me wonder where we can target interventions to chip away at these obstacles. Trees, Water & People, along with the community partners we worked with on the reservation, taught me how we can work collaboratively to dissect these issues.

During our trip, we spent a day at the Allen Youth Center, where we saw how the Center is providing a safe space for youth on Pine Ridge. During the day, we played with kids and learned about how the Center is mentoring the kids and helping to preserve Lakota culture. The mentors told us how they are attempting to combat the high dropout rate, mental health, and substance abuse issues through mentoring.

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The CSU Alternative Break students at the Allen Youth Center painting with some of the children there.

We spent two days at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. During this time we helped maintain their sustainable garden and install a new roof on their greenhouse. Henry Red Cloud, the proprietor of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), showed us how his community is using renewable energy to provide power and heat homes on the reservation, reducing the economic burden of energy use. He explained how his partnership with TWP has enabled LSE to scale up their operation and provide a teaching space for sustainable energy and gardening practices.

Our last day was spent at the Pine Ridge Girls’ School. This school is working hard to revive their culture by incorporating traditional knowledge systems with Western education models. While this school acknowledges the value of teaching Western methods of scientific discovery, they also feel strongly that their mission is to foster an appreciation for their students’ traditional Lakota culture.

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The CSU Alternative Break student stopped at Badlands National Park before heading home to Colorado.

Each of these places are tackling these formidable barriers in ways that felt more attainable. This trip was one of those unique experiences that helps refine your values and inspires your future. It demonstrated to me how even some of the most daunting, wicked problems can be tackled when members of the community fight.

For more information about upcoming service trips like this one, please sign up for our email list!
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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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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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