Texas-based group fires up a revolution in Guatemala
Safer, efficient cookstoves made available by Helps International are changing lives
By JENALIA MORENO, Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Oct. 8, 2006, 1:05AM
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SAN JORGE LA LAGUNA, GUATEMALA — The firewood is piled high, nearly touching the tin roof of the one-room home Anacleta Ramos built using discarded wood planks, branches, cinder blocks and tin.
Spatulas, spoons and other cooking utensils dangle from hooks on the wall of the kitchen area.
It is a tidy home but for the ceiling, which is permanently tarnished by 20 years of smoke from the open pit where she cooks. Some escapes through cracks in the walls, but most remains trapped inside the home.
As she lights the fire to heat coffee, one of her six children coughs.
"It creates smoke, and it burns your eyes," Ramos said.
It can also be deadly, especially to young children.
In 2003, for example, respiratory infections, brought about largely from exposure to the smoke of indoor wood-burning stoves, were responsible for 22.6 percent of the deaths of children younger than 5, down from 30.7 percent in 1999, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
For centuries, Maya people have cooked over open-pit stoves in their homes.
But it's a way of life Helps International hopes soon to change by spreading the use of the low-cost stove it has developed that burns less firewood, heats faster and creates less smoke.
Several years ago, the Dallas-area organization — founded in 1984 by investment banker Stephen Miller initially to bring medical care to Guatemala's poor — realized the need for a safer, more efficient stove.
"What we noticed was that most of the problems that we were seeing in the hospitals were due to open fires in some way or another — hernias because of carrying heavy weights, burns because of the open fire and small children falling into them, respiratory due to the smoke caused by the open fires," said Richard Grinnell, Helps International executive director of Guatemala.
In 2000, Helps began distributing the stoves to Guatemalan women whose "life is a little better," said Miller, who works out of the Dallas suburb of Addison.
Now, the stoves are being introduced to poor women in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and there are plans for expanding the program into southern Mexico.
Helps International officials visit communities, demonstrate the stoves, train community leaders how to use them, gather lists of women who want one, then deliver the appliances.
The organization says the simple stove — dubbed the Onil stove by indigenous women who misspelled inventor Donald O'Neal's last name — has lowered the rate of respiratory infection, reduced the deforestation of the countryside and given women more time to spend on other pursuits.
Standing on his property in the coastal community of Rio Bravo, where some of the concrete components of the stoves are made, Grinnell ticks off a list of the stoves' benefits.
In addition to reducing injuries and sicknesses, the Onil stoves require 70 percent less firewood than an open pit. That in turn helps reduce deforestation, a major threat to Guatemala's forests, he said.
"It looks like a small problem, but when you look at it as a whole it becomes a huge deal in the way we can help them," said Grinnell, as workers nearby pounded concrete blocks out of plastic molds. "The women are the ones who are going to be able to change this country. If we free up their time by giving them a faster cooking solution, they don't have to go collect wood as often. They can actually become part of the economy for their homes."
Jewelry maker Ramos, 44, wants to improve her economic situation by spending less time collecting firewood in the mountains surrounding the idyllic Atitlan Lake.
"We see that the stove is nice because it doesn't use up firewood," Ramos said in a mix of Spanish and the indigenous dialect of Cakchiquel. She plans to spend more time making colorful beaded bracelets, earrings and belts after she buys the stove. "Instead of collecting firewood, we will make handicrafts."
She is saving the money she earns making handicrafts, such as a belt decorated with beads in the shapes of ducks, scorpions, deer and other animals. It took her a month to craft the belt, which she hopes to sell for nearly $10 in the nearby city of Solola.
Meanwhile, Ramos is trying to save the equivalent of $26 in Guatemalan quetzales to pay for her new stove, which costs about $83 to produce.
Some families, however, don't have to save for the stoves, thanks to a program run by Wendy de Berger, wife of Guatemalan President Oscar Berger.
Wendy de Berger gives the stoves away to women who participate in community projects.
Instead of saving money for stoves, for example, 75 women in the town of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, west of Guatemala City, put their money into their community group, Sociedad Civil Guatemaltecas de Corazon, and last year were able to open a small bakery.
In addition to receiving a stove for their homes, the women gained a measure of notoriety for participating in Berger's program.
That's because most of the other bakeries in this town off the Pan American Highway are run entirely by men.
"The men were surprised," said the group's president, Maria Felipa Boj, 23. She recalled that local male bakers stopped by to stare when the bakery opened.
Every morning, before the breakfast rush, women take turns making bread. In the afternoon, they fill baskets with their wares and sell their sweet breads and rolls on the streets. During lunchtime, they feed local senior citizens free of charge.
One morning last summer, Boj rushed to prepare for the arrival of Wendy de Berger, who checked in on the progress of the bakery.
Wearing the traditional Mayan attire of a woven colorful blouse and skirt, called guipil and corte, Boj helped make cookies the women gave to Berger and foreign visitors. Pine needles were spread on the floor of the patio outside the bakery to celebrate Wendy de Berger's visit, as is customary in the Mayan community here.
Boj hopes that soon some of the women will learn entrepreneurial skills and open their own for-profit bread shops so they are not forced to seek jobs at maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, outside the town.
"We want the bakery to grow," said Boj, as she rolled balls of dough for french bread after Wendy de Berger departed.
More time to volunteer
Women who participate in the program have more time to volunteer in the bakery because they don't have to spend as much time collecting firewood or pay for firewood, she said. And because the stove heats faster, women spend less time cooking.
"The stove is more economical," Boj said. "You can leave your food there cooking and return to work. You make things faster."
That sounds ideal to housewife Dora Mendez, who like 1.4 million Guatemalan families, still cooks with open fires, according to Grinnell. But she has seen how the stove changed her sister-in-law's life.
Across Guatemala, women such as Mendez, 22, spend their days collecting firewood. One morning, she picked up small branches and sticks along the roadside in Santo Domingo Xenacoj and precariously balanced nearly 50 pounds of firewood on her head.
"I use firewood to cook beans and corn," said Mendez, as pickups rumbled past her. "For coffee, I use a stove to save gas because gas is so expensive, and sometimes you have gas and sometimes you don't."