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.

Fire Prevention Suyapa 3
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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Notes from the Field: Putting Down Roots in El Salvador

Llenado de bolsa y ordenado en su respectiva era

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

January through April is typically the dry season in Central America, and the time that we ramp up our tree nursery activities to prepare seedlings for the arrival of the all-important May rains.  Our partners at Àrboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) in El Salvador have stuck to this cycle for almost two decades, helping to grow and plant for than 664,000 trees.

This week, the AAP team is in the process of prepping 40,000 bags of soil and collecting seeds from over 20 tree species for our 2016 reforestation work. Some of the species we will plant in 2016 are Cedro salvadoreño, Memble, Jacaranda, Chaquirrio, Eucalipto, Cortéz negro, Marañón japones, Naranjo, Cacao, and Balsamo.

What’s different about this year’s operation is the nursery’s new location, a plot of land purchased and owned by AAP, located in El Porvenir, El Salvador. The land was bought at the end of 2015 after renting small plots of land since 2003. This is a game changer!

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Don Jorge has been an integral part of the AAP team since 2007.

The idea of owning a piece of land has been a dream for AAP’s Executive Director, Armando Hernandez Juarez, for as long as he has been working for the organization. With a permanent site to develop, we are now able to invest the time and energy necessary into outfitting the site with a more permanent and definitive presence and identity.  As the nursery infrastructure is time sensitive, we are focusing on that first – leveling the land, propping up locally harvested bamboo posts, and hanging the recycled shade cloth that our Nursery Manager, Don Jorge Ochoa, cares for so dutifully year after year.

Instalación de Zarán en el nuevo Vivero

Deforestation is one of the most serious environmental problems facing El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. Logging, agriculture, and the use of fuelwood for cooking has led to increased risk of erosion and mudslides, which have claimed thousands of lives in recent years. In addition, poor land management, soil erosion, and shifting weather patterns have left much of the countryside unsuitable for cultivating food.

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Community members are an important part of our reforestation efforts in El Salvador, helping to plant and care for trees.

Our reforestation work has never been more critical in El Salvador, and AAP is on the front lines, working tirelessly to restore the country’s watersheds, forests, and soil health, giving hope to rural farmers and their families. The next steps are where we could use your help, as we are looking to invest in irrigation equipment, new tools, and a proper storage shed. If you would like to support our reforestation efforts in El Salvador, please visit www.treeswaterpeople.org to make a donation or email Sebastian Africano, TWP’s International Director, at Sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org to learn more.

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Infographic: Why Clean Cookstoves?

Since 1998, Trees, Water & People has been working with our partners and local community members to design clean cookstoves that greatly reduce deadly indoor air pollution, deforestation, and high fuel costs. These cookstoves are designed according to specific cooking needs and cultural context, which is why they can look very different from country to country. However, all of these stoves have one important thing in common: they make cooking much safer for women and their families.

Clean Cookstoves

To learn more about Trees, Water & People’s Clean Cookstove Program please click here.

Community Voices: Juana Mancia Alvarado

clean cookstove El Salvador

Juana Mancia Alvarado lives in the town of Rio Abajo, El Salvador and makes her living by selling homemade tortillas. Over the years, her health has been negatively impacted from breathing the toxic smoke and fumes emitted from her traditional cookstove. And, Juana is not alone. More than 2 million people in El Salvador, and 3 billion people worldwide, are impacted by indoor air pollution, the majority of which are women and children.

When families do not have access to electricity, they are forced to cook their meals with wood. This causes many human health problems, as well as deforestation throughout the country.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) and our partners address this problem by building clean cookstoves for families and small business owners like Juana. Each of our cookstoves decrease a families’ need for firewood by 50-70%, as compared to standard open fire cooking. When vented to the outside of the home, these improved cookstoves also decrease indoor air pollution, which is responsible for the death of 4.3 million people globally every year (World Health Organization, 2014).

Our partners at Arboles y Agua para el Pueblo built a Justa clean cookstove inside Juana’s kitchen, which now removes nearly all that toxic smoke from the home. She says “now, I never get sick!” In addition, she has greatly reduced her fuelwood expenses, allowing her to save more of her hard earned money.

To learn more about our Clean Cookstove Program and to make a contribution please visit our website.

Happy International Day of Forests!

children plant trees

Today, we join with millions of people around the world to celebrate the International Day of Forests!

According to the United Nations, “Around 1.6 billion people – including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures – depend on forests for their livelihood. Forests are the most biologically-diverse ecosystems on land, home to more than 80% of the terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. Forests also provide shelter, jobs and security for forest-dependent communities.”

International Day of ForestsForests are essential to economic, social, and environmental health. Yet, we continue to deforest the planet at an alarming rate. Over 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually. Deforestation accounts for 12 to 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change (United Nations, 2014).

We must fight deforestation by supporting policies and organizations that protect and conserve these most precious natural resources: forests, soils, water, and biodiversity.

Since 1998, we have been working tirelessly with our local partners throughout Central America and Haiti to address major deforestation problems. With more than 5.3 million trees planted, we are making a big impact. But, we need your help to continue the fight.

Please consider a donation to our Reforestation Program today! For only $1, you can plant a tree in Latin America: Donate Here

Community Voices: Noemi and Fani

by Lindsay Saperstone, International Communications Coordinator

clean cookstove users Nicaragua

Earlier this month, we traveled to Nicaragua to visit with Proleña, our long-time partners who have been developing clean cookstove technology for years. We were lucky enough to be served a tasty Central American meal cooked on one of these cookstoves: the Mega Ecofogón. Our generous cooks were two sisters – Noemi and Fani – who, for the past five years, have used one of Proleña’s clean cookstoves in their small restaurant that they operate out of their home. They served us pupusas (a traditional Salvadorian food), fresh tortillas, and beans. It was delicious!

Noemi cooks tortillas, a staple of the Nicaraguan diet, on a clean cookstove
Noemi cooks tortillas, a staple of the Nicaraguan diet, on a clean cookstove

Fani, the younger of the two sisters, says that she has loved using the stove in her house/business because it saves them a lot of money on firewood and also makes their kitchen beautiful.

In Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, approximately 80% of the population still cooks each meal with fuelwood. In addition, 90% of the deforestation in the country is attributed to fuelwood consumption. Clean cookstoves like the Mega Ecofogón are helping to improve the environment by using far less wood while, at the same time, improving human health and saving small business owners like Noemi and Fani money.

According to Noemi, “We can put the stove anywhere we want in the house, the ceiling is no longer dark from the smoke and we don’t have conflicts with our neighbors about the smoke. In fact, now most of our neighbors have stoves too!” They also explained that the stove makes their restaurant more efficient because they can prepare a meal in about an hour and twenty minutes as opposed to the 2 hours it took before.

Working with women entrepreneurs to improve their environment, health, and livelihoods is one of the best parts of my job. I was truly inspired by Noemi and Fani and thankful that they shared their story with us.

Visit our website to learn more about our clean cookstove designs and consider supporting our clean cookstove program in Central America.

Noemi demonstrates how the Mega Ecofogón works
Noemi demonstrates how the Mega Ecofogón works during our visit to Nicaragua

Notes from the Field: Reflections from Africa to Haiti

Notes from the Field by Sebastian Africano, TWP’s Deputy International Director:

April 21st, 2011: Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Sebastian Africano hanging out with a group of children in the Bugonia district of Uganda.

As we begin to wrap up our Spring 2011 site visits, we begin to reflect on all that has passed since we left Fort Collins several weeks ago.  My adventure began in Kenya in late February, where I spoke at the 2011 UNEP Sasakawa Prize Ceremony in celebration of this year’s laureates and the International Year of the Forest.  This was followed by a 2-week trip to Uganda, where along with Fort Collins based partners, Rodelle Vanilla, we launched what will become TWP’s first African stove program.  Soon after we found ourselves in Guatemala, traveling the country meeting with potential new partners in the country’s Altiplano, and then El Salvador, where we visited our partner Agua y Arboles para El Pueblo’s (AAP) new projects in communities surrounding an important protected area, Cerro El Aguila.  This trip was punctuated by visits to their spectacular tree nursery, which is teeming with 28 species that will be planted throughout the country this rainy season.  This journey will end 10 days from now in Haiti, where we are halfway into a visit with partners International Lifeline Fund (ILF) in Port-au-Prince, and working hard to get our urban stove commercialization project off the ground.

Sebastian Africano (R) and a local Haitian metal worker take a break from stove building.

Upon arrival to Haiti, and with the invaluable support of stove design consultant Brian Martin of Portland, Oregon, we headed into the field to check on stoves distributed 2 months ago, during Brian’s last visit.  We collected valuable feedback from about 20 families, which began a discussion around design modifications, improvements, and production strategies.  We then assembled a group of ten tin-smiths, some of which had worked with Brian and ILF in the past, who have now been contracted to cut and assemble 1,000 cookstoves in the next six weeks.  No small feat, by any measure, but cohesion amongst the team members has been quick to form, and all share ideas, help eachother with challenging pieces, and take time to laugh and joke with us as they work.

Haitian metal workers work on building the Zanmi Pye Bwa (“Friend of the Forest”) fuel-efficient cookstove.

This week has consisted of getting to know our resource and talent pool, bringing in tools, equipment and materials from all over Port-au-Prince to centralize production at ILF’s offices in the capital.  We introduced power tools to the stove production process, which is a break from the norm, but which has increased consistency and speed, allowing us to reach impressive volumes quickly.  The office is now filled with a cacophony of metal-on-metal pings, bangs and crashes, as hundreds of charcoal bowls and other parts roll off the production line.  Centralizing production without a factory site is challenging, but allows us to improve standardization of our product while offering these skilled metal workers a positive change of environment – getting them away from rough neighborhoods characterized by burning trash, dilapidated buildings, crowds and traffic.   All in all, these workers have embarked on what we hope will be an uplifting rise out of poverty, gaining access to steady and dignified employment in what we intend to develop into a significant charcoal stove manufacturing operation over the next year.

Keep your eyes and ears on the Zanmi Pye Bwa (Friend of the Forest) project as it develops, and support TWP by spreading the word as we raise funds to increase our production capacity and impact over the coming months!

*Many thanks to Brian Martin (Working Hands Productions) for the wonderful photos from Haiti.

Sunset over Port-au-Prince