Why EcoStoves matter

Last year the World Health Organization warned us that over 2 million people a year were dying from cooking smoke—three times the number of people dying from malaria.

Read that again: cooking smoke. Because most people on this planet cook on open fires in closed spaces. Forget propane or electric or even chimneys for the wood fires. We’re talking Mom and Grandma and the kids who follow them around walking in, and breathing, a fog of smoke, pretty much all day, because the fires smolder even between meals. The smoke is always there. Asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, higher blood pressure, even lung cancer.

Now the WHO has revised its numbers: 4.3 million people will die this year from illnesses attributable to cooking smoke.

What’s the answer? Clean cookstoves, that is, stoves with chimneys, that use less fuel, that can be dampered down between meals. There’s a big push on around the world to bring these stoves to the homes that need them. One group, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (co-founded by Hillary Clinton) will be having a big meeting in New York this November.

Meanwhile, some of us in Nicaragua are ramping up efforts that have been around for years, but have lacked urgency. Meet the EcoStove that we of the Newton, MA/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project have been promoting really big time since 2014 (see more pix here):

Fidel & model stove Jamileth's new stove

The legs are made of 1.5 liter plastic bottles wrapped in chicken wire and buried in cement in a mold. The bottom and top slabs (plancheta y quemadora) are of iron-reinforced cement. We make the sides of the “fire box” with our own Compressed Earth Blocks, but you could use ordinary bricks. We make our own cement chimney tubes, but only use one (closest to the fire) per stove; above that we use rolls of zinc that go right up through the kitchen roof. And we give folks plugs—of cement or metal–to close up all the holes between meals.

The materials (which we supply) cost about $30 per stove. But we don’t sell them (which the Global Alliance thinks we should do). We do however make people work for their stoves.  Project Director Fidel Pavón (bright green shirt) finds a village that wants the stoves, then identifies the specific families ready to promise a serious commitment: one member of the family will come to the work area for a full day every day for about two weeks. Stragglers get dropped. Nobody gets her stove until the components for EVERYBODY’S stove have been completed. And each family has to come up with half a bag of cement during the actual installation of the stove. Sounds like a slog, right?

In fact it turns into a two week Social. People who knew each other only superficially suddenly bond on a shared project to better lives all over the village. And once the stoves are installed the change is instant: no more coughing, rubbing eyes all day, carbon crud dripping from the ceiling. Smoke goes up the chimney and disappears. By the end of 2014 we and our partner families will have built and installed over 200 stoves just this year. True, beyond the glitzy beach town, there are 32 villages in San Juan del Sur’s 250-square-mile township, which means we have our work cut out for us. But that’s OK: we’re on a roll.

 David Gullette is VP of the Newton/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project (www.newtonsanjuan.org). We’re glad to show visitors how our stoves get made. Write david.gullette@simmons.edu


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