Mario Ardany de Leon is a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of man—a particularly good quality for EcoLogic’s Guatemala Program Officer to have, as every day he is overseeing projects that aim to solve some of the region’s most pressing issues. Unsurprisingly, he is a great source of information for project updates, stories, and explanations about what EcoLogic does and why.
As Mario leaned forward with his head bowed toward his computer in order to hear our voices more clearly through the often-wavering Skype connection, which serves as the easiest method of communication between the field and EcoLogic’s Cambridge office, we took advantage of the clear line and cut to the chase. We asked if Mario had any significant stories from the field related to the recent visit of our friends from Global Giving in Totonicapán—the site of the EcoLogic Forest of the Water Spirit project. Global Giving is an online giving platform that has promoted EcoLogic’s work for years, so it was an excellent opportunity for them to see the impacts that they’ve helped EcoLogic attain on the ground!
Perhaps Mario’s candid and venerable demeanor comes from his 15 years of experience working with small scale farmers in Guatemala, or it could be due to his direct knowledge of the issues that rural communities in the area face, as Mr. Mario Ardany de León himself is native to Totonicapán—a place where The Association of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantones, our local partner, practice a unique relationship with nature and those who enter their forest. These villages view their communal forest as the provider of water, and therefore life, which is an ancestral belief that has been in place for over 800 years. So perhaps more appropriately, Mr. Mario Ardany’s clarity and directness when discussing such issues, is a reflection of this time-honored perspective.
As we sat in the Cambridge office, we found ourselves gazing through the computer screen at the sunwashed bitter-orange and salty-teal hues of the crackled paint on the rafters and support beams inside of Buga Mama Restaurant—a favorite meeting place of EcoLogic staff in Livingston, Guatemala, due to its internet capabilities. It is also in close proximity to the boat launches in Amatique Bay, which lead upriver to project sites. Mario, who had just traveled cross-country from the highland, western department of Totonicapán to the humid, eastern coastal town of Livingston, to check in on EcoLogic’s projects, dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief and began to tell us a significant story of success.
This is the story of Lety.
(Scroll around the interactive map to explore the areas we mention in the story!)
As any good storyteller would, Mario began Lety’s tale with a phrase meant to draw us into what he was about to tell us, and with soft tropical music in the background along with faint, melodic clinks and scrapes of kitchen activity in the waterfront restaurant, we felt like we were just across the table from Mario.
“Now, pay close attention,” Mario declared. Once our attention was properly focused, he began his story:
We took our friend from Global Giving, Daillen Culver, along with representatives from the Natural Resources Committee of the 48 Cantones, to visit some of the communities we are working with to build fuel-efficient stoves—and there we encountered a family that told us of an experience they recently had. They said that a single mother in the community wanted a stove, but had no house in which to construct it. She had been living with various family members and would cook for her children on an open pit fire outside. The same community organized and helped to construct walls of adobe and mud. They brought wood planks, corrugated steel sheets, and between all of them they were able to construct a small living place for her. She didn’t have her own place so she wasn’t able to have a clean stove, but the community pulled together so she could have the benefits of the stove. Afterward, they checked on her to see how she was doing—how she felt with her new stove and her own place to live; to see if her new conditions had transformed her family environment. Seeing and wanting a clean stove led her to receiving her own place to live. It’s nothing too big, but this is a story of success for us.
As we exclaimed our amazement from the office, we were so happy that Daillen was able to learn about this marvelous story firsthand. Daillen was warmly welcomed by the community, as Mario and a community representative guided her on a trek through the countryside to see the work that EcoLogic is doing in Totonicapán—and during this trek is where she first heard the story of Lety.
Lety’s desire for a fuel-efficient stove was likely inspired by seeing the benefits of fuel-efficient stoves in the community where she lives. In Totonicapán and other project areas, EcoLogic promotes and facilitates the use of fuel-efficient stoves in communities that are inspired to lessen the impact that their reliance on wood has on the forests surrounding them.
As wood is a primary fuel source for cooking and heating in these areas, the depletion of trees is an obvious cause for concern. The fuel-efficient wood stoves that EcoLogic helps introduce and install significantly reduce the impact that the use of fuelwood has on the community’s standing forests, as they improve combustion efficiency. This reduces the need for community members like Lety to cut and collect fuelwood. Additionally, these stoves are significantly safer for families and children in particular, as the venting of smoke alleviates the concern of stagnant smoke in the home—which has been known to cause respiratory illnesses.
These benefits are what Lety wanted for her family, and—having experienced these benefits themselves—the community was inspired to join together, pool the resources they could spare, and build Lety a new home with a fuel-efficient stove.
Though the story of Lety is only the story of one family and one community coming together and embracing change. This is an incredible testament of success for Mario and the for rest of us at EcoLogic. It reaffirms that what we are doing in Totonicapán is truly working for communities and shows that the relationships we strengthen can engender unexpected ripple effects that positively impact people’s lives and the environment.
If this story isn’t a strong indicator of empowerment, we’re not sure what is.
EcoLogic is always looking for ways to expand our toolbox of practices and techniques that inspire the active participation of rural communities is conservation. And we’re also always looking for ways to connect our partners to the skills and expertise of other groups that can add value to our collective work. There are a few aspects to EcoLogic's stove program in Totonicapan that you may not know about - like our partnership with ArtCorps! EcoLogic’s relationship with ArtCorps is a perfect example of both of these efforts. This past month, EcoLogic and ArtCorps combined forces once again to conduct a hands-on workshop with teachers in Totonicapán, Guatemala. A key component of our initiative in Totonicapán is working with our local partner, the Association of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantones, to preserve indigenous Maya K’iche’ knowledge and beliefs around forest protection—beliefs which have enabled the K’iche’ communities of Totonicapán to effectively protect over 50,000 acres of forest for the past 800 years—and making sure that that knowledge passes down to younger generations. To achieve this, we use several techniques, including leveraging the expertise of ArtCorps!
ArtsCorps is a non-profit arts education organization dedicated to developing creative habits of mind in young people. EcoLogic and ArtCorps are old friends, having worked together in both Honduras and Guatemala. In 2012, we jointly released a children’s book of stories and pictures related to environmental stewardship created by indigenous children of Totonicapán. This time around, ArtCorps held a three-day workshop to train teachers in arts-based methods for building leadership, transferring knowledge, and inspiring creative action for positive behavior change related to environmental protection. ArtCorps, in collaboration with EcoLogic and our local partner, agreed to train teachers from 18 different primary and middle schools in the region. Teachers are a critical population to equip: they have a captive, eager audience in the classroom; they can influence a large number of students; and they can utilize the techniques for years to come.
Once teachers are trained by ArtCorps, EcoLogic assists them in identifying how to apply those skills so that children understand and become inspired to maintain their unique cultural heritage which is so tightly linked to nature and its protection.
After a series of ice-breakers and creative introductions, a key activity of the workshop was to collectively design a giant tree that represents their community. The roots represent people’s dependency on nature. The trunk represents the current state of natural resources and their threats and challenges. The branches represent the skills, knowledge, and talents that community members have. And the leaves represent ideas for how to apply those skills and talents in ways that address the identified challenges. As EcoLogic’s Regional Program Director, Gabriela González, expressed “the tree model was an incredibly effective way for the teachers to reflect upon and analyze issues and solutions.” And this model can be replicated in the classroom quite easily because it is so interactive, creative, and colorful.
Many of the teachers approached EcoLogic staff after the workshop—freshly inspired and humming with ideas—and shared their interest in expanding our reforestation program in Totonicapán. Over the past 8 years, EcoLogic and the 48 Cantones have organized and trained community members to reforest over 500,000 trees! But there is certainly more that can be done. It was great to hear the interest and drive amongst the teachers. They also urged us to replicate the workshop in other communities in the area because so many more schools would benefit from the tools they gained. Moving forward, we are particularly excited to see the teachers apply their new skills in the classroom, and to see what kind of new solutions and recommendations the students come up with as well!
Community-based trainings such are these comprise one element of our integrated approach for protecting the communal forest of Totonicapán. In addition to our work preserving and transmitting traditional K’iche’ knowledge and beliefs related to forest stewardship, we are also working with community members to reforest areas that are essential for water provision (over the past 8 years, EcoLogic and the 48 Cantones have organized and trained community members to reforest over 500,000 trees!), installing fuel-efficient wood stoves in communities in order to decrease pressure on the forest (195 stoves were installed in Totonicapán in 2015), and working with our partner and local authorities to curb illegal logging that takes place in the forest.
Dear Global Giving supporter,
After working at EcoLogic for a year and a half, I finally had the opportunity to visit Guatemala during an all-staff retreat in January. I’ve heard and retold the stories of so many of our fuel-efficient stove beneficiaries — but I had never seen one of EcoLogic’s stoves in real life! Because of this, I was so excited to meet Josefina on my visit to Plan Grande Quehueche, Guatemala. Josefina received her stove three years ago, and she loves it. This model keeps her family safer from burns, and she said she can cook more food on the stove at once due to the larger surface are. She recalls how smoke from her old stove used to fill the house, and is thankful that this stove is more hygienic.
“We don’t have to take our kids to the clinic as often because of burns or because they are sick from the smoke.” When you live in a remote village like Plan Grande Quehueche, a trip to the doctor’s is not a simple journey. In Josefina’s home, an issue has been how to place a chimney in the thatched roof house (the traditional building style in this remote village) — you can’t put it through the roof without creating a risk of fire. But EcoLogic técnico Daniel Herrera developed a solution to this. You can position the chimney so that smoke exits the house through a reinforced hole in the thatched roof, which is much safer and healthier than allowing the smoke stay low in the home where people are breathing.
Fuel-efficient stoves require much less wood. Josefina’s family is using less than half the wood they used to, meaning they don’t have to carry as much, or go collect it as often — just a few pieces burn all day long. Hearing how happy Josefina is with her stove made me think of how happy all of you would be to hear that your support is creating a safer home for thousands of families like Josefina’s and reducing the impact of cooking on the nearby forests. Please give today so EcoLogic can reach our goal of working with 800 more families to install fuel-efficient stoves, for their health and the health of the forests.
Don’t underestimate the impact a stove can have on a woman’s life. In rural communities in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico, women do most, if not all, of the cooking for their families. In many homes, this means spending hours bent over an open fire, breathing in damaging smoke and carbon monoxide. Cooking over an open fire is detrimental both to women’s health and to forests. Harvesting firewood for cooking is a driver of deforestation in many rural areas in Central America and Mexico. By building fuel-efficient, clean-burning stoves in our project communities, EcoLogic helps improve the health of both families and forests. All of the stoves that we use reduce families’ fuel wood consumption about 60 to 70%, compared to traditional open-fire cooking methods. This saves women and children time and energy harvesting wood, and also reduces pressure on forests.
Stoves, however, are not one size fits all.
A family in Oaxaca, Mexico, will have different local conditions, cooking needs, and traditions than a family in Atlántida, Honduras. Some features are constant throughout most models. For example, “Throughout Central America, people like to cook tortillas, so most models we use have a tortilla griddle, or plancha,” explained Reyna Guzmán, an engineer at the Stove Certification Center at Zamorano University in Honduras. However, to make sure that a woman gets the most out of a new stove–and continues to use it for a long time—we build different models depending on the needs of communities in different regions.
EcoLogiccurrently uses six different kinds of stoves, depending on the region and community. The best way to decide which model is right for a community is, of course, to ask the women who will use them. Usually, EcoLogic field technicians use their knowledge of a given community to propose a few stove models. We bring women together to discuss the features of different stoves, and they decide which model they think would work best for them. Then, we choose a small number of families to pilot the stoves, to make sure that they work well for that community’s needs. Finally, we expand the stove program in that community, with the ultimate goal of building a fuel-efficient stove in the home of every family who needs one. After we build the stoves, we also train women to correctly use and take care of their stoves, and our field technicians regularly check in on families with new stoves to help them with the transition and to answer their questions.
Here are three of the models we use the most—
Where we use it: Guatemala
How it’s built: Plancha means “griddle,”and the name refers to the iron cooking griddle on top. The Plancha stove usually features three burners for cooking, which are made by simply cutting holes in the iron. The body of the stove is made from a mixture of clay and sand. There is a combustion chamber for fuel wood and, importantly, a chimney to let smoke escape from inside the home.
Good for cooking:The separate burners make it easy to cook pots of rice and beans at the same time. Rice and beans, or arroz y frijoles in Spanish, is a staple dish throughout Guatemala. Black beans are simmered for hours until they are tender and creamy, and then mixed with sautéed onions, peppers, and garlic and white rice. Rice and beans are often served with corn tortillas—ideally also freshly made on the Plancha stove—and fried plantains.
How it’s built: The Justa stove is built from bricks or blocks of concrete or adobe. As with all the fuel-efficeint stoves that Ecologic uses,Justa stove models feature a combustion chamber for wood, as well as a chimney for ventilation. The Justa stove is topped with one large metal griddle, or plancha, for cooking. Justa models also feature an attached shelf on the side to store food, plates, or cooking equipment. “Cats and small children can sit there, too, although that’s not what the shelf was built for…” laughed Guzmán. Many women in Honduras decorate the stoves with painted ceramic tiles at the end of construction.
“Cats and small children can sit there, too, although that’s not what the shelf was built for…” laughed Guzmán. Many women in Honduras decorate the stoves with painted ceramic tiles at the end of construction.
Good for cooking: The large griddle makes theJusta stove ideal for flipping fresh corn tortillas. For a hearty breakfast, stuff a hot tortilla with refried black beans, crumbled queso duro cheese, and the Honduran-style sour cream known as mantequilla to make baleadas. Some recipes also add fried eggs, avocado, or seasoned ground beef or pork.
Where we use it: Oaxaca, Mexico
A Patsari stove in the small community of San Bernabé, in Oaxaca, Mexico
How it’s built: the Patsari is a squat stove that is usually built from brick, but can also be constructed from concrete. It features two or three burners. One or two are smaller, which makes them good for pots of rice or beans, and the third is larger, which makes it an ideal griddle for cooking fresh corn tortillas. A small combustion chamber is located near the bottom of the stove, and like all fuel-efficient stoves, it features a chimney to keep smoke and soot out of families’ homes.
Fun fact: Patsari means “the stove that cares” in Purépecha, a language spoken by the indigenous Purépecha people from the state of Michoacán.
Good for cooking: Oaxaca is famous for its delicious cuisine, and the state is home to more than 200 known recipes for mole, a rich, complex sauce made from chili peppers and a long list of other ingredients, which sometimes includes chocolate. Because mole takes a long time to cook, it is usually saved for special occasions. Mole negro, or black mole, is slightly sweet, dark in color, and can made from toasted chili peppers, plantains, onions, tomatoes, tomatillos, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, nuts, and more, depending on the recipe. On Día de los Muertos in November, the aromas of smoky mole negro simmering in pots on Patsari stoves perfumes the air in the village of San Bernabé, located within EcoLogic’s project site in Oaxaca.
EcoLogic designs all of its project activities with an emphasis on building long-term capacity for local communities to manage forests through proper monitoring, evaluation, reforestation and protection techniques. After a plan for fuel-efficient stoves and reforestation is implemented in a community, we work with our local partners to monitor the reforested and restored areas to make sure great progress is being made! We set short term milestones for each project that lead to overall goals to improve the livelihoods and natural resources in all the areas we work.
Our fuel-efficient stove projects significantly reduce the amount of trees cut in the forest because they use less fuel wood. In tandem, as part of our forest protection solutions, we teach farmers an agroforestry technique called “alley cropping” or planting Inga edulis trees along with their crops. Agroforestry, an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, improves the soil and reduces the need for clear-cutting forest land to make new arable farmland. This year with our partner, APROSARSTÚN in Guatemala’s Sarstún region, our goal is to achieve the following short-term and long-term conservation outcomes:
We at EcoLogic are excited that these communities are making so much progress conserving their land and water - and we have you to thank for supporting us!
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