Notes from the Field: Partnering for Sustainable Agriculture in Honduras

Honduran boys

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant National Director

In the small community of El Socorro, located just ten minutes north of Siguatepeque, Honduras, there is an impressive institution focused on sustainable agriculture. The Center for Teaching and Learning of Sustainable Agriculture (Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible – CEASO) is a critical organization working to build local and regional consciousness.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) is looking to support and partner with CEASO to help local campesinos (farmers) improve and diversify their plots, helping to conserve and manage an increasingly critical protected area – Reserva de la Cordillera de Montecillos – that serves as a key watershed for the growing cities of Comayagua and Siguatepeque. There are plans to move Tegucigalpa¬īs international airport to the current air base (Palmerola) that has long served as a joint Honduras‚ÄďU.S. operation since the conflicts of the 1980s. That airport move, along with the advanced work on turning the Tegucigalpa-San Pedro Sula highway into one of the best in Central America, will gradually increase development pressures in the central highlands region of the Cordillera de Montecillos Natural Reserve. Thus, our discussions on potential projects and proposals are timely as the region faces a quickly changing landscape and an ever-expanding agricultural frontier.

San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras
San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras

Like many areas of Honduras, the mountainous regions surrounding Siguatepeque are dominated by coffee. However, heavy dependence and reliance on coffee as a single cash crop is exceptionally risky. The coffee rust plague has caused significant damage, prices have been unpredictable and volatile, a small percentage of overall coffee value goes to producers, and climate change is impacting crop productivity. Not to mention the key fact that coffee does not turn into nutritious food for campesinos and their families. In some of the rural areas where we traveled around the mountain pueblo of San José de Pané, families are resorting to purchasing their corn and beans instead of producing it, due to reliance on coffee as the principal crop. CEASO works to ensure that these campesinos learn how to not only diversify their lands with other crops, but also conserve and protect their soil health and increase yields via ecological and organic methods.

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Traveling with staff from CEASO

Perhaps the best part of CEASO is that it¬īs a friendly, welcoming, family-run operation. They took me in for the better part of five days and showed me the true meaning of warmth and hospitality. The father and founder, Ren√© Santos, works with his wife Do√Īa Wilma and several of their children and friends to run a Sustainable Agriculture Technical School for local children. They started with just nine students and they are now up to 50, with more interest every year. It¬īs an impressive operation and they have received regional and national accolades.

These are the types of small and very well-run operations that we seek to partner with as they are professional, experienced, dedicated, and passionate, living and breathing sustainable agriculture as well as agroforestry. With the seeds of hope and optimism that are planted by small entities like CEASO, especially those that are focused on changing attitudes and behaviors towards more sustainable development and coexistence with protected areas, we can work to ensure a brighter future for Hondurans living in these rural, neglected areas of Latin America.

For questions or comments about our work in Honduras please feel free to email me at lucas@treeswaterpeople.org.

The 2014 Year in Review

We are proud of all that we accomplished over the past 12 months with our local partners throughout Latin America and on tribal lands of the United States. Together, we are helping communities conserve their natural resources and create more sustainable livelihoods. Thank you for supporting our mission and programs. We look forward to a New Year with new possibilities!

year in review 2014

Guest Blog: Investigating the Health Impacts of Cookstove Pollution in Honduras

Honduras cookstove study
Women emerge from the mist carrying bags of potatoes in Zacate Blanco.

by Bonnie Young, Colorado State University

When you think of torrential downpours, mud-slick roads, and backcountry hiking, you might imagine an exciting episode of¬†‚ÄúThe Amazing Race.‚ÄĚ Our fieldwork in rural western Honduras was similar, although we lacked a camera crew and the promise of a grand prize.

As a postdoctoral researcher with Colorado State University (CSU), I worked side-by-side for two months with Sarah Rajkumar, another CSU postdoc, Jon Stack, a CSU volunteer, and Gloribel Bautista, a local coordinator. Our goal was to work with communities to enroll 500 women in villages in Yamaranguila and Intibucá. This was our first step in a three-year project to investigate the health impacts of cookstove-based pollution, and to learn about women’s perceptions and behaviors with different stove types.

Western Honduras
Beautiful views in this agricultural region in western Honduras, which boasts the highest elevation in the country of over 6,000 feet.

Most people in this agricultural region use wood-burning stoves to cook, heat their home, dry clothes, and generate light. Poor-functioning and inefficient stoves create household air pollution and demand excessive amounts of wood, meaning harmful effects on people’s health and the environment. Women and children often have greater exposure to indoor smoke since they tend to spend more time in the kitchen.

Knowing the importance of this research and its potential impacts fueled our daily slogs from house-to-house during the rainy season, where every hot cup of coffee and fresh corn tortilla felt like a grand prize.

Colorado State University field team
From left to right: CSU field team researchers, Jon Stack, Bonnie Young, Sarah Rajkumar, and Principal Investigator, Maggie Clark.

Note: The principal investigators of this study are Jennifer Peel, Ph.D., and Maggie Clark, Ph.D. Our work is in collaboration with Trees, Water & People, and a local Honduran development organization, AHDESA. Stay tuned for updates on this project during our next field session, February ‚Äď May, 2015.

Access to Clean Energy: From Pilot Project to Sustainable Enterprise

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In 2011, armed with a grant awarded under the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), nonprofit organization Trees, Water & People launched an initiative to increase the use of clean technologies in several Latin American countries. That pilot project has since spawned a social enterprise that is making solar lighting products accessible to customers in rural areas of Central America.

It all began with a three-year, $1.2 million ECPA grant awarded by the U.S. State Department to Colorado-based¬†Trees, Water & People¬†(TWP) for an initiative called ‚ÄúImproving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America.‚ÄĚ The goal was to develop effective ways to reach off-grid markets with climate-friendly products such as clean cookstoves, solar lanterns, and small solar home systems.

While such products provide tangible benefits‚ÄĒcleaner indoor air, reduced expenditures on conventional energy, and higher-quality lighting and cooking‚ÄĒa major challenge is how to create a sustainable supply chain to reach markets with the greatest need. Last-mile distribution is complex, unpredictable, and expensive.¬†Roads are sometimes impassable, mobile communications are often unreliable, and many rural households have no access to financing.

TWP worked hand in hand with a social enterprise called PowerMundo‚ÄĒwhich had tackled some of these problems in Peru‚ÄĒand with partners in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to develop a sustainable commercial model for hard-to-reach areas in Central America.

After trying several different approaches, TWP found that existing rural institutions such as agricultural cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations, and rural savings and loans groups could be effective distributors and retailers of the clean-technology products. Since such groups often already have a credit relationship with small-scale farmers for agricultural investments, they can provide these same farmers with the payment terms they need to invest in products that have a true impact on their lives.

solar light Honduras

Last year, TWP took a step toward making the initiative sustainable by establishing a social enterprise called¬†Luci√©rnaga¬†LLC (the name means ‚Äúfirefly‚ÄĚ) to serve Central America with solar lighting products. ‚ÄúWe wanted to create a vehicle through which the project could continue to grow,‚ÄĚ explained TWP International Director Sebasti√°n Africano.

Luciérnaga fills a business niche by providing a link between manufacturers and small local distributors. It imports solar lighting products in bulk to a central location in El Salvador, handling logistical details and ordering in large enough quantities to keep the price per unit low. The items can then be distributed over land to partners and clients throughout the region, in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Any profits would be reinvested in the company.

The growth of this business model and the birth of Luciérnaga as an independent company with an international presence show how short-term grant funding can be leveraged toward longer-term sustainable development objectives, according to Africano.

Today, TWP is working to standardize its methods in each country and implement a mobile phone-based monitoring system where distributors can keep track of their sales, collections, and warranty processes through a common online database. The goal is to keep costs low and provide a new source of income for rural individuals and institutions while potentially reaching millions of households in Central America that don’t have access to electricity.

Since launching this program, Luciérnaga and PowerMundo have sold close to 10,000 solar lighting products through their networks, providing illumination, device-charging capabilities, healthier households, and over $200 in cash savings per year, per product, to more than 50,000 people in Latin America.

This post was originally published by the Energy and Climate Partnership of Americas. To view the original blog post click here.

Project Update: Lighting homes in rural Honduras

solar light Honduras

Nearly 50% of the 600 solar household lighting systems we sent to Honduras have been installed. We’re providing 1,200 new LED light points, 600 USB charging ports for cell phones and other small devices, and a new level of dignity for rural families that have lived their entire nocturnal lives by the light of candles, low quality flashlights, and contaminating kerosene lamps. Donors to our Catapult project helped to fund 125 of the lights in this shipment, allowing us to reach many more families in need of clean energy solutions for their homes.

Get personal

solar light Honduras
Miriam Leonel Bonilla

“Many of our customers used to use ocote (a local pine that is used as a candle), and the smoke really bothered them. Or else they would buy candles and flashlights, and that was really expensive. They are very happy with their plantitas – solar lights!‚ÄĚ -Miriam Leonel Bonilla, solar light user and distributor, Las Mar√≠as, Honduras

Risks and challenges

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and our vendors and promoters live with risk every day. We are lucky to have a dedicated team of people across the country that see the opportunities that exist in solar energy. They believe that the benefits that solar energy brings to their families and communities who buy the systems outweigh the challenges in getting them into the field.

What we’ve learned

solar light HondurasThis order of Barefoot Power solar household systems were our first test of a new international supply chain that has us ordering product in bulk to a central warehouse in El Salvador, from which the products are distributed by land to four different countries. Every step of that process contained a lesson in how to be more efficient in getting these products to the families that need them most. On a macro level, we have learned that we have one of the most innovative approaches to getting products to several Central American countries at once. In Honduras, we have learned that whoever can provide households with the best customer experience will be the one to succeed in expanding the great opportunities in renewable energy for the developing world.

Next steps

Working with social impact technology company Dimagi, we will be piloting a new mobile data collection app called CommSell. This app will allow our field staff to complete surveys on an Android phone, in the field, and automatically populate a database that tells us where our products are, how long they’ve been there, and how much money they are saving users. We can also use this information to conduct follow-up visits and maintenance as needed.

Notes from the Field: Measuring the Health Impacts of Clean Cookstoves in Honduras

Honduras clean cookstove study

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

I first met Maggie Clark, an environmental epidemiologist at Colorado State University (CSU) , back in 2005 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, when she came to test the health of women exposed to wood smoke from cooking over open fires. Since then, we have both worked continually on improving conditions in Central American kitchens via clean cookstoves designed and built by Trees, Water & People (TWP) and partners.

clean cookstove study
Meeting with community members is an important first step in initializing a new clean cookstove study.

Last week I had the great pleasure of joining forces with Dr. Maggie again in Honduras, as we launch an ambitious, comprehensive study to show the benefits of improved cookstoves on the health of rural women and their families in the mountainous western region of the country. While most studies of this kind are short term snapshots of the benefits that come from improving cookstove technology, this study proposes following over 400 women over three years as they transition from traditional open fire cooking to improved cookstoves.

Trees, Water & People began working with cookstoves in 1998 as an effort to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions, and together with Aprovecho Research Center designed a culturally appropriate cookstove that reduced firewood consumption in any given household by an average of 50%. What we later learned, is that the smoke that families (mostly women and children) are exposed to daily during cooking is responsible for up to 4 million deaths a year globally, and leads to chronic lifelong health complications for millions more.

We are certain that improved cookstoves improve conditions in households where firewood is used to cook daily. What CSU and TWP seek to show, however, is that many factors play into a family’s decision to adopt, fully utilize and benefit from a cookstove over time, and that the presence or absence of certain factors influence the degree to which health improves. By using data generated by this study to optimize what technologies we introduce and how we implement them, we seek to improve the impacts of our work and inform the work of the countless other organizations working to improve life in firewood-dependent communities.

It’s an honor to be working with my friend Dr. Maggie Clark and CSU on such a groundbreaking study, and its great to see the dedication and resilience of the cookstove community as we work to improve living conditions in some of the most challenging environments in the world.

A Third Proposal to the Border Crisis

fuelwood central america

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Sometime in 2006 I stopped for gas as night fell close to the Palmerola U.S. military base in Central Honduras, and a man approached me from the highway. The man explained that he had just arrived from being deported from the U.S., and asked if I could spare some funds for him to catch a bus home to Northern Honduras – I gave him the equivalent of $0.50, and he thanked me and moved on. This was my first direct exposure to the impending crisis that has now reached astoundingly unsustainable levels in Central America.

This was the same year that Mexico escalated its drug war against narcotraffickers in that country, squeezing many of the lucrative drug routes out of the country and into Central America, seeking to take advantage of notoriously weak institutions, chronic poverty and the second biggest contiguous jungle in the Americas after the Amazon. Since then, murder rates from narco and gang activity in Honduras have tripled, deforestation rates have quintupled, and roughly 90% of the cocaine flights headed to U.S. markets have made Honduras their first stop.

Last week the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador met with U.S. political leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the massive growth in migration to the U.S. from these countries, which has almost tripled in the past 10 years based on deportation rates. Now on the table are two politically contentious proposals Рone is to increase U.S. counter-narcotics activities in the country, akin to the incredibly costly military pushes in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, and the other is to extend refugee status to thousands of fleeing Hondurans, which some argue would increase the flow of migrants, not stem it.  Neither are ideal. Neither address the root of the problem.  Neither will come easily or without loss of additional life.

For 16 years, Trees, Water & People has been working in Central America to improve environmental stewardship, economic opportunities and quality of life in marginalized communities. The people fleeing the region are the relatives, neighbors and friends of the communities that we have worked with and supported through these years, and with them they take the potential to develop and heal their country from the inside. The programs that TWP implements are a third proposal to the current border crisis – creating the conditions under which people want to stay and seek a sustainable future in their country, rather than take the colossal risk and cost of traveling the long road north.

Your support makes these programs possible, and contributes to the potential for a sustainable future in Central America. To all those who have donated to Trees, Water & People’s programs in the past, know that you have an advocate in this current crisis, and know that we are working tirelessly to expand alternatives to migration for the tens of thousands of Central Americans we reach every year. ¬†Thank you.

Trees, Water & People 2013 Annual Report

The year 2013 was a powerful time for making new commitments, but also for completing some of our most needed and ambitious projects. It was a time when our nation was struggling still, but slowly improving from a period of fiscal instability.

We send a special heartfelt thank you to all of our donors and supporters that have provided their generous financial support, but also for the wisdom and advice that makes all of our projects possible!

Please click here to see our 2013 audited financial statements and 990s. For questions regarding our financials please email Diane Vella, Finance Director, at diane@treeswaterpeople.org or call 970-484-3678 ext. 22.

The Justa Cookstove: Community-Based Development in Action

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Trees, Water & People’s unique community-based development model is based on the philosophy that the best way to help those most in need is to involve them¬†directly¬†in the design and implementation of local environmental and economic development initiatives. This creates ownership, involvement, and financial sustainability well into the future. Our proven development model of training and execution, coupled with an enterprise approach, engages and inspires local residents to preserve their precious natural resources. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that 4 million people die each year from illnesses caused by indoor air pollution.

So, what does our community-based model look like in action?

The Justa Cookstove: An Example of Community-Based Development in Action

Do√Īa Justa clean cookstove Honduras

identify_community_needsIn Honduras, like many developing countries around the world, cooking is done over an inefficient, open fire inside the home. Breathing the toxic smoke can lead to acute respiratory illness, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other health problems. Women and children are most seriously affected, as they are the family members who spend the most time in the kitchen.

In addition, the inefficiencies of an open fire result in large amounts of wood from local forests being consumed to provide fuel for cooking. In Honduras, deforestation rates are rising yearly, contributing to global climate change.

partner_with_local_organizationsAfter Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras in 1998, Trees, Water & People and the¬†Asociaci√≥n Hondure√Īa para el Desarrollo¬†(AHDESA) teamed up with the¬†Aprovecho Research Center¬†and¬†Rotary International¬†to work with a women’s group in the town of Suyapa to adapt fuel-efficient,¬†clean cookstove¬†combustion principles to traditional cooking habits.

design_and_implement_projects (1)The result was the¬†Justa¬†stove, named after community leader Do√Īa Justa Nu√Īez (pictured above with staff from TWP). The¬†Justa¬†clean cookstove is made out of brick and mortar and is built directly into the home. Higher combustion rates and efficiency are achieved by the¬†“Rocket Elbow”, an L-shaped combustion chamber that allows wood to burn up to 70% more efficiently. The body of the stove is insulated with wood ash or other locally available material and is topped with a removable metal cooking surface, or¬†plancha. A built-in chimney vents harmful gases and particulates from the kitchen. Since the stove was designed, hundreds of people throughout Honduras have been trained on how to build and properly maintain this particular type of clean cookstove, helping to spread this life-changing technology well beyond our immediate reach.

evaluate_and_monitor_projectsOver our 16 year history, we have continued to bring clean Justa cookstoves to the people of Honduras, concentrating our efforts in the Guacerique Watershed outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa. TWP staff and partners track and monitor the progress of these stoves, visiting beneficiary households and testing to ensure that stoves hold up to daily use over an extended period of time. Feedback about the Justa cookstove has led to multiple iterations of this model, making it one of the most popular cookstove designs in the region.

To learn more about all of our clean cookstove designs, please visit our website.

Photo of the Week: Lighting Homes and Minds in Honduras

solar lighting Honduras

About the photo

Our colleagues at Greenlight Planet, a company that manufactures the solar light  you see in this photo, estimate that study times for students in homes that have switched from kerosene lighting to solar increase by 75 percent.  In the homes we visit in Central America, we regularly find good evidence that this is the case. Several customers have commented that kids can study better at night and adults can crunch numbers for their business, or work on their savings and loans group ledgers later into the night.  This is perhaps the greatest impact of our work alongside the direct cash savings that families experience.

Photo by Darren Mahuron