This post was written by Brittany and Calvin Helfenstine, GE international volunteers in Ecuador.
Biodiversity varies with latitude, so it should come as no surprise that Ecuador, straddling both hemispheres, is among the most species-rich regions in the world. Nestled high in the Andes, a winding 5-hour drive from Quito, and bordering Colombia, the Ecuadorian province of Carchi sits in a remote stretch of the country. Abundant species of birds, lizards, butterflies, orchids, and the occasional Andean bear are among the inhabitants that make the area unique. With this dramatic environmental backdrop, Carchi is one of the current focus areas for Green Empowerment (GE) and local partner organization ALTROPICO in their efforts towards sustainability.
In the small villages that dot the landscape, subtle eco-friendly practices like energy conservation, walking to work, and consuming locally-grown produce are long-standing parts of daily life, often out of economic necessity as much as anything else. Behind the scenes, bringing local crops to table, however, often means clear-cutting and burning acres of former forest land, and smoke clouds frequently hang over the area’s steep valleys. The impact of agriculture on the environment, compounded by cash-crop monoculture farming practices and the expansion of transportation infrastructure, manifests in a variety of ways, ranging from changes in drinking water quality to road-blocking landslides.
Less apparent but potentially more significant is the impact of daily food preparation. Despite subsidized propane gas and a reliable electrical grid, a number of factors contribute to the continued use of traditional wood-burning stoves. In addition to the ecological impact of firewood consumption, considerable resources are often expended locating, collecting, and drying fuel prior to use. Significant health risks accompany the practice of burning wood for fuel, cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) as deadlier than HIV/AIDS and road accidents combined. WHO experts estimate that annually “over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels”.
In response to the environmental and health risks posed by traditional firewood cooking, GE and ALTROPICO are working to implement an improved cookstoves program across Carchi and neighboring regions of Colombia. With the core principles of efficient heat transfer, complete combustion, and removal of harmful by-products, the team has developed a cookstove design coupling local materials with many of the technical details shared through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. With support from the Christadelphian Meal-a-Day Fund of the Americas and the Leiter Family Foundation, GE and ALTROPICO have installed over 150 cookstoves to date and plan for another 250 by early 2018. Aiming to reduce wood consumption and limit dangerous indoor air emissions, they are taking steps to test, measure, and improve the existing designs. A newly-developed “portable model” will allow field trials of potential modifications and enable demonstrations of the technology’s benefits in new, more isolated locales.
To further enhance the impact of the stove program, the team plans to incorporate kitchen hygiene training, nutritional awareness, and watershed reforestation elements, with each beneficiary family adding at least 100 trees to the landscape. Overall, using our method of iterative improvements, community involvement, and consistent field presence, Green Empowerment and ALTROPICO are set to make a lasting impact on local human and environmental health.