Many Nicaraguans cook on stoves hard on the climate and their health. These Canadians are trying to help | CBC Radio

Many Nicaraguans cook on stoves hard on the climate and their health. These Canadians are trying to help | CBC Radio

A group of Canadians is working with locals in Nicaragua to replace traditional wood-burning stoves with more efficient, cleaner-burning models that are better for the climate and the families who rely on them.

“Most of the Central American countries are struggling a bit,” said Douglas Thompson, a retired doctor and a volunteer for The Canadian Outreach Medical and Multi Impact Team (COMMIT), based in Stratford, Ont.

“Most of the energy source there is fossil fuel. Their electric grid doesn’t extend well into the rural areas as well. So there’s a challenge. And for the most part, cooking is done on an open fire stove.”

COMMIT is upgrading the stoves because not only is burning wood for fuel a big contributor to greenhouse gasses, it also has major health implications.

Anna Maria Guevara Umaña, who lives in the rural community of Nandarola, Nicaragua, says she’s been burned many times by the open fire in conventional wood stoves and that she often worries her family will also suffer long-term health impacts of breathing in smoke on a regular basis.

“[It’s bad] even if you don’t have a cold, but if you do, it is even worse,” she said. “Because the smoke makes you sneeze, it makes you cough, you get runny eyes, and all the smoke gets in your face. You are inside there with all the smoke and it can hurt.”

Janice Rauser, a registered nurse and COMMIT volunteer, says respiratory issues are among the biggest complaints with the patients she sees in the country. “So coughing, asthma, COPD, sore throat, burning eyes, symptoms like that.”

A tricky transition

According to a report from the United Nations Clean Cooking Allianceburning wood as fuel is responsible for approximately 1.9 to 2.3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Nicaragua, burning woodfuel is estimated to contribute five to 20 per cent of total emissions.

But making the switch to alternative sources of energy is not an easy transition for developing nations.

Gajanana Hegde of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat said emissions from these stoves are a huge problem worldwide.

A local Nicaraguan man trained by volunteers from Canada lays the foundation for a new more energy-efficient wood stove in the rural region of Nandarola, Nicaragua. (Janice Rauser)

“More than two billion people around the world still lacked access to clean cooking at the end of 2021,” Hegde said.

Though the UN member nations set a target of universal access to clean cooking by 2030, Hedge said they’ll likely fall short by 30 per cent. “The progress so far has not been enough.”

A report from the International Energy Agency, also looking at the Nicaraguan population as of 2021, found that just 56 per cent had access to more modern fuels and technologies for cooking.

Edgar Avila, director of projects in Nicaragua for COMMIT, said that many residents turn to harvesting woodfuel because “firewood is just easy to get and it’s not as expensive as gas. Because the economy here is really bad.”

To build these new stoves, COMMIT has partnered with an American organization called Stove Team International, which runs trips to Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador every year for similar projects.

In May the Stratford team travelled to Nicaragua to build stoves in three different communities: Casa de Piedra, La Enrramada and Nandarola.

Not Justa stove

The stoves the group installs are called Justa stoves, named after Doña Justa Nuñez from Suyapa, Honduras who helped design it. The Justa stove differs from regular wood burning stoves because it produces more heat while using less wood and making less smoke. Whatever smoke that is created from the wood burning process is taken out of the kitchen via an attached chimney.

According to Stove Team International’s website, the Justa stove significantly reduces smoke and saves at least 14 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere over its five year lifespan. Meanwhile, the UN Clean Cooking Alliance estimates that 0.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses per year could be mitigated by reducing the harvest of woodfuel.

Thompson said that COMMIT’s goal is to help build 200 stoves. To do this, they’ve enlisted the help of locals in neighbouring communities to expand local expertise and create a micro-economy.

However, many of the local trainees say that they’re doing this for more than just money. Trainee Johnny Flores has travelled from the neighbouring town of Andami to Nandarola to help build stoves. Flores said the women often cry when they receive their new stoves, which makes him equally emotional.

“It takes me two days to build one stove and seeing their happiness, it makes me feel that my work is of worth. And it makes me feel very excited and motivated to continue helping them,” Flores said.

Members of COMMIT and Stove Team International have returned home,  however both check-in regularly to support the trainees and to ensure the stoves are working well for each resident.

A Latinx woman stands next to a stove built by volunteers and trainees in Canada and Nicaragua respectively.
A woman in Nandarola receives a replacement Justa stove named for the woman who helped design the model. (Janice Rauser)

So far Flores and the other stove builders have completed more than 100 stoves in three months and say they will complete the remaining 100 in the next three months.

Thompson says that as long as COMMIT has the funds, they’re going to keep going to ensure the stove initiative is a long-term, sustainable project.

Each recipient contributes $7 to a contingency fund for repairs or replacement parts.

There’s already a measurable reduction in health concerns, said Rauser.

“I remember talking to one of the women that had gotten a stove after,” she said. “And she said: ‘I used to have asthma. I was coughing all the time and now since I have this new stove my symptoms are gone.'”

As for Guevara Umaña, she says she loves her new stove and says it’s a completely different experience cooking without the fear of smoke.

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