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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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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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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Opening Eyes and Hearts in the Honduran Highlands: Part 3

by Marilyn Thayer, TWP Board Member

This past January, I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Trees, Water, and People (TWP) service trip to Honduras, which integrated learning about both the principles of community development and bird conservation. I am pleased and honored as a board member and as a member of the Thayer family to reflect on and share what this experience has meant to me. Coming from Hawai’i, I was reminded several times during the trip the words that were so much a part of my life, the motto of the state — Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono, meaning, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Pono, in particular, can be translated to further refer to goodness, care, value, purpose, and hope.

Protecting the land and perpetuating hope were clearly promoted and implemented by Centro de Enseñanza y Aprendizaje de Agricultura (CEASO), a TWP partner in El Socorro (Siguatepeque, Honduras). I first became familiar with the term, Finca Humana, when Rene, the founder of CEASO shared the historical perspective of his organization with us. Roughly translated to the “Human Estate,” Finca Humana emphasizes that developing a successful farm requires starting with engaging the entire family and making a life-long commitment together to developing the knowledge and practicing the diversification of the land. Rene also pointed out that Finca Humana involves the integration of the Head, Hands, and Heart.

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The Thayer family making tortillas at CEASO.

Beginning with the Head, and through the lens of a TWP board member, I was open to learning as much as I could about the collaborative partnership that TWP has developed with CEASO. From the hikes to the watershed areas, the tours of family coffee farms, and the drives through the mountains of San José de Pane, I became aware that the challenges of climate change and deforestation are similar concerns in our state and country as well. This implies that it is critical that we continue to work together and learn from one another.

Next follows the Hands, for doing the work. Although I realize that I may never be fully proficient in building pilas (water cisterns) and Justa stoves, it is more important to support the process of training and engaging the leaders of the communities in working with other community members to learn how to build these projects.

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The San José de Pane community building pilas (water cisterns) with TWP tour participants.

But all of this must come from the Heart, which was best exemplified by the story of Doña Norma and her husband, Don Oscar.  After spending the day building the first Justa stove, we sat in the living room of the family in their modest home, not having realized that this was in actuality the home of Doña Norma’s brother, which was serving as their temporary residence. Through tears, she shared the lengths to which they had gone —hard work and numerous sacrifices — to build a home, of which they were so proud but tragically lost to a fire. But Doña Norma asserted that despite the loss, they all survived, remain strong, and still have one another.

Well, what impact did the pila and stove projects have on the families and communities? These projects instilled a sense of hope that families and communities have for their future. I returned from this trip inspired, with a deeper sense of humility, and new friends who now are part of our family. I am most proud of the Heart Work that TWP truly does — working with the passion for building relationships and connections that foster a sense of hope with people on a respectful, authentic level.

If you are interested in going on a work trip with TWP, or learning more about what we do and the people we work with, sign up for our monthly eNewsletter! 

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Connecting TWP’s Work through Migratory Birds

By Gemara Gifford, Conservation Scientist & TWP’s Development Director

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Mist-nets help researchers study migratory warblers in Central America, photo by Ruth Bennett

Have you ever wondered where birds go when they fly south? October is that time of year when migratory birds to gear up to fly from TWP’s projects in the Northern Great Plains all the way down to those in Latin America. Golden-winged Warblers (pictured above), Black-and-white Warblers, Wood Thrushes, and Baltimore Orioles are just a few species that will winter in remote places like Guatemalan villages, Salvadoran cloud forests, Honduran coffee agroecosystems, and Nicaraguan dry forests.

Unfortunately, migratory bird populations are declining faster than most other avian species worldwide (State of North America’s Birds 2016) due to habitat loss on their wintering grounds and also because we know less about their conservation requirements in Central America compared to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada. What we do know is migrants tend to live in the same places as the rural communities whom TWP works with, and can directly benefit from community-based development projects (Agroecosystems for communities and conservation).

Did you know that TWP’s clean cookstove, reforestation, and farmer-to-farmer training programs in Central America are especially helping to conserve migratory birds?

  • TWP’s clean cookstoves greatly reduce the amount of fuelwood families use to cook (an average of 50%) and as a result protect nearby forests and reduce deforestation.
  • Our reforestation programs in the U.S. and Central America improve degraded bird habitat, with over 7 million trees planted so far, and also protect the soils and watersheds upon which families depend.
  • By training hundreds of smallholder farmers in agroecology, agriculture can be diversified with multiple tree species and crop types which creates excellent migratory bird habitat while producing important foods and fibers for people.
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A male Golden-winged Warbler winters in fragmented habitats in Guatemala, photo by Ruth Bennett

For 18 years, our generous supporters have been helping us make the world a better place for people and the planet. Did you realize your dedication has also been helping to conserve threatened migratory birds?

On behalf of TWP, I am excited to invite you to join us on our newest endeavor with migratory birds – to follow them as they head south! This January, we’ll take 15 TWP donors and supporters to tour our new projects in Central Honduras. There we will conduct baseline bird surveys in cloud forest agroecosystems, and participate in on-the-ground bird conservation efforts through clean cookstove construction, tree planting, and ten days of cross-cultural exchange with our local partners at the Center for Education in Sustainable Agriculture in Socorro, Honduras.

With your continued support we can make the world a better place for people and wildlife. For more information about how to attend the 2017 Honduras Work Tour, or to learn about how TWP’s projects benefit birds, give me a call at 877-606-4TWP.

A special thanks to Ruth Bennett, Ph.D. student at Cornell University, for providing photos of her ongoing research in Central America to uncover the best strategies for conserving the Golden-winged Warblers in working landscapes.

Guest Blog: 500 Clean Cookstoves Installed in Guatemala

By Jeff Abbott, Independent Journalist

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. He covers human rights, social movements, and natural resource rights in Central America and Mexico. Recently Jeff visited some of TWP’s projects in Guatemala and spoke with recipients of our clean cookstoves while photographing the delivery and installation process.

During my visit to the communities of Jocote, Jicar, and Barrio Belice, in the municipality of Quesada, Guatemala, I was able to speak to several community leaders, who shared that the origins of Utz Che’ and Trees, Water & People’s clean cookstove project came after seeing similar programs in other places. At its core, the drive for the endeavor comes from a place of deep concern over the deforestation in the mountains above their community.

Besides the health benefits of these stoves, which channel smoke out of the kitchen via a chimney, they also require far less firewood than the traditional open fire. As many beneficiaries of this project live in the peri-urban outskirts of Quesada, where fuel is purchased more than collected, this translates to a considerable reduction in household fuel expenditures.

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Vera Alica’s new clean cookstove will use up to 70% less fuel than the open fire she was using to cook before her stove was installed.

Vera Alicia (pictured above) is one of the recipients of the stove in the Aldea of Jicar. The 47-year-old mother of nine stated that the stove has allowed her to save substantial money on firewood. Another beneficiary, Marina Germeño (pictured below), reported that she was saving $3.33 per week – a significant sum over the life of the stove. Vera Alicia also explained that it has not changed her cooking habits, but that she has seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of smoke in her kitchen.

This clean cookstove project in the communities of Quesada and two other departments in Guatemala’s arid corridor, provide an important opportunity for the residents who have benefitted. Short-term, tangible benefits of the project are the immediate economic savings that families experience via the significant reduction in firewood used for cooking. Most residents quickly acknowledged this benefit, expressing the savings they had noticed.

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Marina Germeño reported that she was saving $3.33 per week – a significant sum over the life of the stove.

Furthermore, residents are conscious of the environmental benefit that the decreased reliance on firewood brings to their communal lands, which TWP has helped to reforest in years past. Apart from protecting local forests, another beneficiary, Marthy Corina Soto, also expressed that a major benefit that she has noticed since receiving the stove is the fact that she does not burn herself as easily, as there is no open flame. “Everything has been magnificent,” echoes her husband, Angel.

Trees, Water & People is happy to report that, with our partner Utz Che’, we were able to build and install all 500 cookstoves in three departments of Guatemala. We truly have the best supporters in the world and are humbled by your contributions!

We are still working to raise funds for this program to follow up with each family to ensure that they have transitioned completely to their new stove and to assess any barriers to full adoption.  We have found that following up with families shortly after their new stoves have been installed is critical to the family using their clean cookstoves consistently and correctly. Monitoring after the installation is an important part of our work and it is only possible with your support! 

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TWP Celebrates International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Today marks an important date on the calendar for indigenous communities around the world as the United Nations declares the International Day of the World´s Indigenous Peoples. This year, the Indigenous Peoples Day highlights the importance of education for indigenous communities worldwide.

For the international and national partners of Trees, Water & People (TWP) as well as the home office employees, every day is indigenous people´s day. Our tribal program in the US continues to break new ground on housing opportunities on the Pine Ridge Reservation, expand access to sustainable agriculture and improve food security, and work to reforest hillsides that have been decimated by fires and erosion. Our partnership with Henry Red Cloud has led to many educational opportunities for Native Americans over the years, such as business development courses, green job training, and sustainable building.

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These two young Native American women were the recipients of our Solar Women Warrior Scholarship and learned how to install solar air heaters. Here they are working on fans for a heater.

Internationally, with our partner Utz Ché in Guatemala, we are also working to provide education opportunities, training, and capacity building for indigenous communities. In our primary community of La Bendición, where we led two work tours last year, we continue to support training in beekeeping (two youth leaders attended an apiculture and permaculture workshop at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute in San Lucas de Toliman).

La Bendición was founded in 2000 by two different indigenous communities that were displaced by the armed conflict in the 1990s in western Guatemala. They were relocated to an abandoned and defunct coffee plantation in the southeastern part of the country and were passed a bill for the value of the land, as assessed by the government. The discrepancy between the valuation of the land and what they received has characterized the next 16 years of their community’s existence. They have fought for dismissal of this over-inflated debt so they could get on with learning how to live separated from their ancestral land and people.

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Osvin Goméz of La Bendición fits a wax mold into a frame for the beehive to build a new honeycomb.

According to Oswaldo Mauricio, our primary coordinator with La Bendición and the director of Campesino exchanges for Utz Ché:

“The relationship between TWP, Utz Ché, and La Bendición contributes to an enhanced quality of life in many different ways. Together we improve the overall reforestation and conservation of the forests, protect the watersheds and the rivers, moderate the use of firewood and pressures on the forest, and help smallholder farmers diversify their parcels (productivity projects). All these activities are the primary focal point for the creation of better educational opportunities, both informal and formal. All of these developments help to ensure clean and healthy food production and consumption for the families of La Bendición.”

In addition to these efforts, our ongoing goal to build 500 clean cookstoves, in collaboration with Utz Ché and two Guatemalan improved cookstove producers, EcoComal and Doña Dora, is helping to train and educate other Utz Ché communities on the use and maintenance of the clean cookstoves. Your donation will allow indigenous communities in southern Guatemala to have access to these clean cookstoves, as well as the training they need to use and maintain them.

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