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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of


TOOMEY: At least a quarter of the world's people depend on cut wood for cooking. This is a major cause of deforestation, and the smoke is a health hazard, especially for women and children, who spend the most time in the house. But there are efforts to improve the traditional cookstove. Ingrid Lobet traveled to Honduras, and found that relief and development organizations are increasingly interested in finding and funding more sustainable wood cookstoves.

(birds chirping, footsteps)

LOBET: Most mornings it's pretty quiet here at the home of Dona Leticia Rodriguez. The only sound, really, is the birdsong.

(conversation in Spanish, and hammering)

LOBET: But today, the house in Suyapa, Honduras, 30 miles from the capital, is buzzing with activity and anticipation. The household is getting a new stove. Dona Leticia and her daughter Isaura tell what a trial their old stove has been.

LETICIA: (speaking in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: It always take a long time to light the stove, and I have to tend it constantly in order to keep it lit. I have to relight it every time I need it, because it doesn't hold heat at all.

ISAURA: (speaking in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: Normally it takes us almost all morning to make breakfast. Only then can we start with the tortillas.

LOBET: Not only can traditional stoves be hard to light and require frequent stoking, they burn through lots of wood, forcing families to fork over scarce cash to the firewood man. Worst, they often have no chimney, so women and young children, especially, inhale high daily doses of dangerous particulate smoke. In fact, experts say most exposure to air pollution worldwide happens in the countryside, indoors, in kitchens like Marta Berea's. She's one of Dona Leticia's neighbors, who's come by to watch the creation of the new stove.

BAREA: (speaking Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: I cough, I always feel like I'm suffocating. I know it is the smoke, and I try to move away from it, but I have no choice. I'm cooking, I have to be there, breathing it.

LOBET: International development groups have long promoted alternative cookstoves, often out of a desire to preserve forests. But the supposedly improves stoves didn't always deliver. One widely-built model, the Lorena, was designed at the Aprovecho Commune in Oregon, which is devoted to sustainability. But today Aprovecho trainer Dean Still candidly admits they no longer promote the Lorena because it had a significant flaw: it was packed with mud, and designers didn't realize the earth mass would absorb heat away from the stove top.

STILL: People didn't have an understanding of the difference between insulation and thermal mass, so that people were using earth and thinking that it was insulation.

LOBET: Since then, Aprovecho's technicians have become more sophisticated. They collaborate with scientists and test their stoves in the lab and in the field. Several years ago, they developed the basic guts for a hotter, cleaner stove. Then, in the surge of interest that followed Hurricane Mitch, they got a grant to take the prototype to Honduras and adapt it to local needs. Saul Guzman works with Prolena, a non-profit that works on what here they call socio-forestry issues.

GUZMAN: (speaking Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: So, in January of 1999, some friends from Aprovecho came and brought us a model that they hadn't tested yet. So, it was here that we really were able to test and improve the stove.

LOBET: These stoves, known as Dona Justa stoves, can be built of metal, clay, brick, or mud, depending what's available. In Suyapa, they're handsome, burnished earthen boxes that can be whitewashed or even tiled. But the breakthrough is inside, where combustion takes place in an improbably small 5-inch diameter clay elbow that takes pieces of wood too small to have been useful in the past. The elbow channels the heat upward toward the cooking pots.

(burning and cooking noises)

LOBET: The stove at Dona Leticia's is now done, and she and her neighbors carefully gauge how well it heats up.

BEREA: (speaking Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: To me, it looks good, economical, very little wood. So little wood. We are used to putting whole branches in there, and only then to get a fire. This is more efficient and more decent, less smoke filling in your face.

LETICIA: (speaking Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: It's good. I believe it is working. I think I will be able to buy less wood and save some money.

(pinging noise)

LOBET: Dona Leticia's savings on wood will depend very much on how efficient a firebuilder she was with her old stove, and how careful she is with her new one. She'll save at least 1/4 and up to 4/5 of the wood she's been using.

(conversations in Spanish, clanking)

LOBET: Dona Leticia begins pressing tortillas between wax paper. Then, her tiny frame becomes a blur as she moves between the stove and the press. Her guests joke about whether she'll be able to keep up with the new stove, which fits 16 tortillas, 4 times as many as before -- but she does.

(conversations in Spanish, laughing)

LOBET: "So fast, little grandma," says one, "How old did you say you are?" "72," she answers. "72? You're as strong as an oak." "No," jokes one neighbor, "that kind of wood you can't get anymore." People are starting to hear about the Dona Justa stoves. A non-profit group in Colorado called Trees, Water, People, is funding several hundred stoves in Honduras. The people at Aprovecho are trying to teach technicians in Russia how to build the stove via email, and the group Prolena, in Nicaragua, has applied for a $1,000,000 grant from Finland to build a factory. They want every family in Nicaragua to switch to the Dona Justa stoves to protect the health of the country's remaining forests, and the respiratory health of it's people.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Suyapa, Honduras.

(Spanish conversation, music, birdsong)



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