SUCCESS STORY: Reforesting Guatemala - the careful way

Posted: 18 March 2009

At least two-thirds of the Central American nation of Guatemala is already deforested and settlers are even slashing and burning the last remaining rainforest in the northernmost part of the country, with disastrous effects on the environment and on the lives of people who breath in the smoke from open fires. Here Anne Hallum reports on one successful project that is tackling the problem, the careful way.

It seems a simple item: a brick stove constructed in a Guatemalan rural home. But these stoves address the overlapping problems of climate change, deforestation, poverty, lung disease and cultural survival in many parts of the world.

Stetson AIR stove
Stetson AIR stove
A Stetson AIR stove in construction.
The stoves also demonstrate just how complicated it is for non-profit environmental organizations like The Alliance for International Reforestation Inc. (AIR) to tackle all of these problems.

What most people do not realize is that a primary cause of this deforestation is daily use of firewood by at least 80 per cent of the population - for cooking and heating. The other drivers are clearing land for farming, and some illegal logging.

In addition to deforestation, the daily burning of firewood in homes means that women and children, especially, are breathing smoke from open fires all day long, and suffer from asthma and lung disease by the millions.

So, when staff and volunteers of AIR, a US non- government organisation, began working in Guatemala in the early 1990s, people back at the headquarters at Stetson University in Florida, often suggested sending the people portable, solar-panel stoves or small gas stoves. This sounds logical, until you see a few gas stoves in rural homes that are being used to store clothes, or passive solar stoves that have flowers planted in them.

Why are rural families in Guatemala unwilling to use the solar or gas stoves? Think about the popularity in Europe and North America of smoked foods and cooking over a grill. Then, think about the fact that for thousands of years, Mayan families who make up the large majority of rural residents in Guatemala have cooked over fires, and tortillas simply don't taste the same if they are cooked any other way.

Why would mothers suddenly change their cooking and eating habits, which are so tightly linked to their culture and beliefs? (Corn, or maize, for instance, is traditionally sacred to Mayan families in Guatemala, as is fire.)

Appropriate technology

Faced with this reality, AIR staff members, working in two departments in south central Guatemala, quickly discovered that a brick stove with a ventilating chimney, would use less firewood and would vent the harmful smoke outdoors, allow the family to be warmed without danger of open fires. And the tortillas would taste the way they were supposed to taste.

The early design models were not very expensive - at less than $100 - but that was out of the reach of these farm families, so AIR provides all materials for the very popular stoves.

This use of appropriate technology may seem like an undesirable compromise to environmentalists who want to end deforestation and the burning of firewood quickly. But cultural realities are often an obstacle to environmental purists, impatient for improvements in our rapidly warming world. It is more effective to use appropriate technology that will actually be used, than to use western technologies that will have no effect at all on climate change or any of the other concerns. In the case of the brick stoves, we are assured that they will be used to reduce use of firewood every day.

To address the problem of deforestation more adequately, AIR staff incorporated the stove with other projects. The stoves constructed in family homes have encouraged the villagers to help build a tree nursery and to plant thousands of trees - a partnership with AIR technicians that lasts for five years.

The partnership involves many components: establishing a tree nursery; introducing an environmental curriculum for the local school complete with games and field days; providing a scholarship programme for high school students; teaching and implementing organic farming methods; planting thousands of trees in each village - and building the stoves.

Detailed approach

After five years of such working together to improve family health and nutrition, and to reforest the surrounding areas, the residents have a "graduation party," and the technician moves on to new villages.

Dr. Anne Hallum
Dr. Anne Hallum
Dr. Anne Hallum, Stetson University, Florida, is Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors of The Alliance for International Reforestation, Inc. (AIR). The organization has many volunteers, but paid staff are native Guatemalans, knowledgeable of the culture -the driving force behind AIR's effectiveness.
It might be simpler to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in Guatemala and be done with it, as some large and wealthy environmental organizations have done, here and elsewhere. But experience has shown that, as with the gas or solar stoves, behaviour does not easily change, in this case from traditional slash-and-burn farming. The trees will simply be cut down as soon as they are big enough for firewood or the area burned for the same old destructive farming methods.

In contrast, AIR's slow and detailed approach has been been effective in changing old ways. In the last 15 years, the organisation's technicians have trained over 1,600 families in sustainable, organic farming methods - sometimes even doubling their food crops. Staff and volunteers have planted well over 3 million trees that will stay in the ground, because residents understand their value in preventing soil erosion, building up soil nutrition, providing habitat, and combating climate change.

The technicians have also designed a much more fuel-efficient stove, with a slanted interior that draws the smoke in, and a cast iron plate on top, that stays hot continuously. Almost 750 stoves have been constructed, conserving 700 tons of wood each year in reduced use. Large areas of the Department of Chimaltenango have been reforested and AIR is also working in neighbouring Solola.

Progress has not been easy and the model for what works best has been learned through trial and error over many years. But like the story of the 'tortoise and the hare' it is much slower to include five years of training, implementation and incentives, than to bring in a planting programme, but then the lessons stick and more reforestation occurs in the long run.

The hope is that financial support for AIR's methods will grow so that its work can expand to new areas of Guatemala and neighbouring countries. We are all in this together, in the struggle to reduce hunger and heal our planet: Somos un equipo; somos una familia (we are a team; we are a family).

Dr. Anne Hallum is a professor of Political Science at Stetson University, DeLand, Fla. and founder and chair of the Board of Directors of the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR). AIR has many volunteers, but all the paid staff are Guatemalans.