Blazing into Rainy Season in Central America

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part 2: The Road to Clean Cookstoves

by Gemara Gifford, International Director

Clean cookstoves don’t just save lives; they add healthy years to someone’s life.

In November of last year, Trees, Water & People and our Nicaraguan partners, Proleña, partnered with Aprovecho Research Center to compare the emissions from open-fire stoves to those from Proleña’s improved stoves, manufactured in Managua. The results were alarming, which is why we are raising $8,000 to provide 60 clean cookstoves to those 60 study participants still cooking over open fires.

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This woman was a volunteer participant in our study. An air quality monitor hangs around her neck as she stands by her traditional open fire stove.

This study took place near Jinotega, Nicaragua with half of the families using traditional open fire stoves, and the other half using Proleña’s clean cookstoves. Each stove user volunteered to wear a small monitoring device that attaches to the shirt near the woman’s face to approximate her exposure to smoke for a 24-hour period. These monitors collect small airborne particles, referred to as PM2.5 in the air quality monitoring field, that are the most commonly measured pollutant coming from wood smoke. PM2.5 particles are widely accepted as a principle source of illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

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These are some of the filters from the particle monitors used in this study. The filters on the left are from homes with a clean cookstove. The ones on the right are from homes using traditional open fires. Photo by the Aprovecho Research Center.

The average traditional stove user in this study was consistently exposed to 245 µg/m3 of particulates, qualifying their kitchens as a “HEAVY POLLUTED” environment, according to the EPA’s Air Quality Index. In homes where an improved stove had been introduced and adopted, exposure to indoor air pollution was reduced by an average of 63%.

Averted Disability Adjusted Life Years (ADALY) is a commonly used metric for public health studies that represent the number of years of healthy life made possible by reducing exposure to particulate matter in smoke. Using the ADALY methodology, we determined that if clean cookstoves were installed in 500 homes (helping 2,500 people), we could extend life in that population by 286 years. This is why we’ve launched the “Clean Cookstoves and Healthy Families in Nicaragua” campaign because, quite frankly, cooking shouldn’t kill!

Overall, this study was an excellent reminder that clean cookstoves are indeed critical, tangible tools that can help improve a person’s quality of life measurably. It is difficult to put a price on extra years of health, but with $8,000 we’ll be able to complete funding for 60 stoves needed in Jinotega.

Help thank the women in this study who opened their kitchens to us, and who are still breathing smoke as you read this. Give Health. Give Hope. Give Today!

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This woman uses her clean cookstove provided by Proleña to cook tortillas.

 

 

Part 1: The Road to Clean Cookstoves

by Valentina de Rooy

Valentina de Rooy is a Nicaraguan psychologist with experience in qualitative research about social phenomena. Her passion is working with rural communities on a diversity of issues for the community development in Nicaragua, her country of origin. Valentina became familiar with Trees, Water & People’s work through Lucas Wolf, TWP’s former International Director, whose dedication to the people and the environment inspired to engage in TWP’s mission.

I recently had the opportunity to travel with Trees, Water & People’s nonprofit partner in Nicaragua, PROLEÑA, for a clean cookstove health study. The Aprovecho Research Center and PROLEÑA joined forces to carry out a study to measure the difference in pollution from smoke emissions in households cooking with wood in traditional stoves and improved stoves around Jinotega, Nicaragua. My role was to serve as interpreter and research assistant to Sam Bentson, the lab manager for Aprovecho.

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Doña María from the community of La Cal in Jinotega, who participated in this indoor air pollution study, shows us her new improved cookstove from PROLEÑA.

For a month and a half, we stayed in Jinotega, a city located in northern Nicaragua in the dry corridor of Central America. Sam, some technicians of the NGO La Cuculmeca, and I visited more than 120 homes in six rural communities in the outskirts of the city of Jinotega.  The participants in our study received us with great hospitality, stories, and gifts of crops they grew themselves. The children of the communities satiated their curiosity by following us to each of the households; some of them were even essential to the study by showing us the route to their neighbors’ homes.

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Sam Bentson (Lab manager at Aprovecho Research Center) places a µPEMS inside one of the houses from La Cal community in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

We met so many amazing people during our stay. We met Don Aparicio, who has dedicated his life to the development of projects in his community of Saraguasca. While we were walking along the hill one day, Don Aparicio sang to us some verses composed by “Los Soñadores de Saraguasca,” a group of which he is a member and dedicates his songs to nature, its protection and conservation:

Let’s take care of the animals,

that enliven our environment,

like those found in the forest

over there at Agua Caliente.

For destroying our woodlands,

they had to be absent,

but if we reforest,

they will return.

In the last stage of the study, we met Doña Cata from the community of Las Lomas. Doña Cata and her husband Mario are pioneers in their community when it comes to crop diversification for their own consumption and they play a key role in hosting community meetings for the people engaged in agricultural projects.

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Valentina de Rooy (research assistant of the study) explains to Doña Catalina, leader of the Las Lomas community in Jinotega, the purpose of the study and how to use the HAPEX device.

Doña Cata introduced us to Idania, a young entrepreneur who runs her own cake-making business by modifying her PROLEÑA clean cookstove with two large pots in a small oven for baking cakes. Like most beneficiaries of improved stoves, Idania enthusiastically commented on her positive experience with smoke reduction and fuel saving. Now, the stakeholders are looking forward to the results of the study, hoping to know about their health condition in order to suggest changes for the future of their communities.

An update from TWP’s International Director, Gemara Gifford:

We are pleased to announce that each participant in this study who cooks with an open-fire cookstove will be receiving a brand new clean cookstove as a reward for participating in this study. For the first time, these families will be able to breathe easier and save time and money on fuelwood. Keep an eye out for how you can sponsor a family to make this a reality! If you would like to help fund the construction of these families’ clean cookstoves, please donate today! 

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Experiencing Community Development in Nicaragua

by Annalise Mecham, Development Director

As the incoming Development Director at Trees, Water & People, my job is to raise the funds that will keep the organization running. Even before taking this position, I knew that to do my job successfully I would need to visit the places where we work, shake hands with our partners, smell a kitchen with a clean cookstove, and touch the soil where we are growing our trees.

This opportunity came in the middle of January when I got to travel to Nicaragua for a week-long stay with Gemara Gifford, TWP’s International Director, and Paul Thayer, a TWP board member. Shortly after arriving at the Managua airport, Paul, Gemara and our fabulous tour guide (and partner of past International Director, Lucas Wolf), Valentina, drove directly to Gaia Estate. The Estate is a Certified Bird-friendly coffee farm outside the town of Diriamba and is owned by long-time TWP friend Jefferson Shriver. Jefferson greeted us with a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation about Nicaragua. He stressed the importance of promoting farming systems that integrate overstory trees (i.e. agroforestry), and high-value and environmentally-friendly products like vanilla and turmeric. After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to the smell of fresh coffee brewing, beans that had been picked and harvested from his farm just days before.

We spent the next day with Proleña visiting Tierra Verde, our newly opened climate change education center in La Paz Centro. Since TWP’s last visit, the first floor of the dormitory has been built and 600 trees have been planted on the property (25 different species in all) as well as infrastructure for the site including roadways and electricity. Having seen Tierra Verde in many photographs, it was essential to see the property and hear about the exciting events planned for 2018.

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Conducting a strategy session at Tierra Verde with Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago (second from the right) and Technical Director, Leonardo Mayorga (far right). Photo by Annalise Mecham.

Although more construction will be taking place this year, the vision for the center is starting to take shape. We talked in detail about the workshops that we have planned, including bringing in local farmers to talk about agroforestry, university students to discuss climate change, and TWP Tour participants to visit the center. We discussed plans to complete the tree nursery with at least 50,000 trees in the first year, as well as demonstration sites for clean cookstoves, and adding a greenhouse for growing and genetically testing trees.

After our visit to Tierra Verde, we toured Proleña’s workshop in Managua and visited local urban cookstove beneficiaries. I have always been aware of the impact of clean cookstoves, but it was a completely different experience to see and smell the difference. The women we visited graciously welcomed us into their kitchen and explained the changes in their lives and their health after the clean cookstove had been installed. Although my Spanish is limited, it didn’t take me long to realize how these women felt about their clean cookstoves. They would pat gently on their chests and touch their eyes, implying that they could breathe easier and their eyes were less irritated.

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Doña Thelma (center) and her family in her home. She is one of the beneficiaries of a clean cookstove and sells 300 tortillas a day to customers.

The last day was one of the most profound for me as we visited the rural communities surrounding the northern town of Jinotega, in particular, the remote village of La Cal. To get there, we had a few hours’ drive on an impossibly steep and windy dirt road with a one hour walk up a steep rocky path. The village was tucked away in a mountain valley and one of the most remote communities I have ever visited.

Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the only teacher in the community, a young man who gave us a tour including the one-room schoolhouse and various family homes. The families we visited we welcoming, kind, and joyful. We interviewed many women about the impacts of their clean cookstoves, played with the kids, saw how much time it takes to gather wood, and the challenges of living in rural Nicaragua. As we drove back that evening to Managua, the feeling I had wasn’t sadness at the rural living conditions, but a sense of awe at their resilience.

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A house with corn hanging from the roof in the remote village of La Cal.

On the plane ride home, I was thinking about my biggest take away from the trip. What was I going to bring back to the TWP community of donors and supporters? Without a doubt, it was the unique community-based approach that Trees, Water & People uses when working in Central America and U.S. Tribal Lands.

TWP’s approach is based on the philosophy that communities have the best judgment of how their lives and livelihoods can be improved, and if given access to the right resources, they should make decisions that will be most impactful for them. I believe that this community-based development is the most effective way to create change. Change does not come easy for anyone. Changing the way someone cooks their food can seem impossibly difficult. But, TWP’s approach to involve the community and a local nonprofit (in the case of Proleña in Nicaragua) allows for the change to be approached on an intimate, community level.

This type of grassroots change is not the easiest route. It is complicated and complex and takes years to actualize. Luckily for TWP, we have been planting seeds this way for 20 years and will continue to for many, many more!

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Project Update: NICFEC Now the Tierra Verde Climate Change Adaptation Center!

by Gemara Gifford, International Director

Since our last update in June, we have been very busy working on the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate (NICFEC) with our partners at PROLEÑA. Not only have we been working on the buildings, but a new name as well! The Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate will now be the Tierra Verde Climate Change Adaptation Center. Set in one of the driest and most threatened ecosystems on earth, the Pacific Dry Corridor, the Tierra Verde Center is a new regional climate change training facility where diverse stakeholders share knowledge, skills, and strategies in sustainable agriculture, forestry, fuel-efficient technologies, watershed management, soil remediation, and more. Over the last four months, we have nearly completed the dormitory where people from all across the world will be able to be housed to share knowledge on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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The dormitory for the Tierra Verde Center is nearly complete. It will house visitors while they learn about climate adaptation in Central America.

We have also recently established two tree nurseries at the back of the site, which will soon house 50,000-100,000 native trees for use in reforestation, agroforestry, and fuel-lot projects. Like everything on site, the nurseries will serve as a demonstration. Farmers will be able to see, feel, and touch a tree nursery planted with species that can survive well in the arid climate, as well as learn how to market the products grown from the trees, i.e., fuelwood, poles for construction, fruits and nuts.

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These seedlings growing in the Tierra Verde Center tree nursery will be used for demonstrations.

Perhaps the most exciting achievement was that we hosted our first event at the Tierra Verde Center site since we began construction! While we wish it were under different circumstances, we were able to hold a tree planting ceremony in honor of our dear friend, Lucas Wolf, with a majestic Ceiba tree in his honor. Over 30 people were in attendance from all across the country, many locals and colleagues whom Lucas built relationships with over the past three years in Nicaragua. Lucas was TWP’s International Director, and a dear friend, who passed away suddenly this July while traveling in Cuba.

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In honor of Lucas’ birthday, we held a tree planting ceremony at the new the Tierra Verde Center site.

Upon completion in 2018, the Tierra Verde Center will feature live classrooms, workspaces, demonstration gardens, and private cabanas where local and international visitors — from smallholder farmer to high-level decision-maker — can both learn about and participate in climate change adaptation education in the Pacific Dry Corridor. On display will be a variety of demonstrative solutions including clean cookstove designs, fuel-efficient kilns and ovens, solar energy systems, green charcoal technologies, and agroforestry plots that reveal relevant strategies for climate change resilience, especially for local smallholder farmers. We expect to launch programming and tours in 2018!

If you are interested in traveling to Nicaragua with us, or any of our program countries, please sign up for our email list for upcoming trips.

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Project Update: NICFEC Dorms Underway

By Lucas Wolf, International Director

June marks the gentle start of summer in the northern hemisphere, but in the more southern latitudes, particularly in Central America, June brings brutal summer heat. Despite that heat, construction workers are toiling, sweating, and laboring on the dormitory — our first major construction project on the site of the Nicaragua Center for Forests, Energy, and Climate (NICFEC).

In addition to the dormitory, a trench and pipeline are under construction from its base to a biofilter tank near the edge of the property. This biofilter, or residual water treatment system, will process and treat graywater from the dormitory and other buildings so that we can recycle the water for our agroforestry nursery, and clonal tree garden. Two thousand bricks have already arrived on site to construct the walls of the main building, with another 4,000 set to come later. The full dormitory project is on time and within budget and should be completed before the contractual deadline (and the arrival of the rains!).

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Construction site for the future Nicaragua Center for Forests, Energy, and Climate (NICFEC). 

Recently, we visited the NICFEC site with friends from the women’s cooperative, Artists for Soup, based out of La Paz Centro. This dynamic group has received training from our friends at BioNica and the Asociación para el Desarrollo Agroecológico Regional (ADAR) in the arts of biointensive smallholder agriculture, designed to increase food sovereignty and nutritional values in underserved communities. Elioena Arauz, the women’s cooperative leader, and her team will soon dig and plant 12 biointensive beds on the NICFEC site and contribute to our goals of sustainability, food sovereignty, women’s empowerment, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

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Construction of the new NICFEC dormitory is currently underway.

At the end of May, our first organized tour of NICFEC and its surroundings will take place with a special group of Trees, Water & People donors, board members, staff, and a few new TWP friends. This group will get a behind-the-scenes look at our progress to date and meet with Proleña board members, architects, and construction specialists shaping the NICFEC vision. Upon the conclusion of this trip, we will move forward with agroforestry and landscaping plans as well as the development of our clonal tree garden.

We would love our supporters to take a trip with us to Nicaragua and visit NICFEC upon its completion. Please stay tuned for future travel opportunities by signing up for our email list!

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Notes from the Field: BioNica Workshop on Best Agroecology Practices for Dry Areas

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

The agricultural extension training center at the National Agrarian University, just outside of Tipitapa, was the setting for an important workshop last week: Agroecological Best Practices for Dry Areas. With an invitation in hand, I attended at the behest of our friends at BioNica and the Association for Regional Development of Agroecology (ADAR). Campesinos (farmers) and workers arrived from all over Nicaragua to take part in this two-day workshop on biointensive and agroecological approaches to soil conservation and management, and rainwater harvest and storage. With El Niño´s drought impacts continuing to complicate and challenge rural livelihoods up and down Central America´s dry corridor, the timing of the workshop was ideal.

One of the presenters, Gustavo of Mastape, discussed some of the improvements and innovations in rainwater harvesting technology that he has applied to his own finca (farm). The presentation included historical and anthropological examples of rainwater harvesting from the Romans, highland communities in Yemen, and the Mayans. An updated version of a famous Mayan invention, the Chultun, a cistern that is buried underground to provide either irrigation or drinking water in times of drought, exists on his finca.

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Lucas Wolf of TWP, along with his classmates, learning about utilizing rainwater for growing crops.

However, the cisterns can be costly to construct and install. Luckily we had a knowledgeable presenter, Carlos Rodriguez, who works with a local campesino organization. He led two different groups in the construction of a much more affordable small water tank that can save water for use during the dry season. Water storage and rainwater harvesting are critical survival and adaptation methods for campesinos in the dry regions. In addition to the storage tank, participants learned about the intricacies and advantages of drip irrigation systems.

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Workshop participants learn how to build and inexpensive cistern.

ADAR, the Association for Regional Development of Agroecology, is an organization that complements BioNica´s objectives and activities of increasing the scope and reach of biointensive agricultural classes and workshops for campesinos and organizations in Nicaragua.

In total, over 40 farmers took part in this workshop. Through participation in these events and collaboration with these organizations, we are building upon our base of potential strategic partners for the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate (NICFEC), while also honing possible ideas and concepts for our own workshops and activities in the La Paz Centro region.

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Class is in session!

Please consider a donation to Trees, Water & People to create educational workshops, such as this one, for the new NICFEC!

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