Get Cooking with the Sun
- South America, Peru
- Personal Essay
My name is Brian Lange and I am a water and sanitation Peace Corps volunteer living up in the mountains of Peru. I live in a city of about 12,000 people, located 45 miles east of Trujillo, the third largest city in Peru. I'm originally from Texas but am loving living up in the cold at nearly 8,000 feet.
As a water and sanitation volunteer, I focus mainly on things like water systems, trash collection, and household hygiene. However, water and sanitation issues often overlap with environmental issues. For example, in communities without access to clean drinking water, people need to use fuel to boil their water on the stove or over a fire. I started thinking about sustainable ways to help fulfill this need, and what started originally as a kind of pet project for me-using simple materials to construct solar ovens hot enough to boil water-has turned into something that can possibly help hundreds of families where I live. Within the next few months I am scheduled to teach about 50 people how to build solar ovens.
In the city, nearly everyone uses gas stoves to cook their food. However, this changes when you move out into the small surrounding communities. In these small towns, nearly everyone uses wood-burning stoves to cook their food. The stoves certainly fulfill their function, but they have two major drawbacks.
First of all, obviously wood burning stoves require wood. Even though I live up in the mountains, they're not beautiful pine mountains like you'd find in Colorado. For 8 or 9 months out of the year, it hardly ever rains. Because of this, there aren't that many trees to be found. The trees that you do find are often eucalyptus, a non-native species that weakens the soil and kills most native species of plants. Trees aren't just important for firewood; they also prevent erosion, act to cleanse the air, and serve as habitats for animals. When people cut down trees to use in their stoves, they can be doing pretty serious damage to the local ecosystem. Because wood burning stoves require such large amounts of wood and the populations in many of the small communities are growing, more and more trees are being cut down every day.
The second major drawback to wood-burning stoves has to do with health. Houses in the mountains of Peru are built with adobe and in order to conserve heat in them, most have very few windows. None have chimneys. This means that when the women are cooking in their kitchens, there's really no place for the smoke to go. If the woman has children that aren't yet old enough to go to school, there's a good chance that the children are in the kitchen with her. Breathing in large amounts of smoke is, simply put, not healthy. Over the course of days, weeks, months, and years, the smoke can do serious damage to the respiratory tract. Where I live, the second most common health problem in children under the age of 5 is respiratory infection. Wood-burning stoves pose a serious health risk not only to the women in these communities, but to the children as well.
Solar ovens, on the other hand, have neither of these problems. First of all, solar ovens require no fuel. That means they don't burn wood, coal, gas, or any other kind of combustible material. All they use is the power of the sun. Secondly, because they don't burn any kind of fuel, there's no smoke at all. Really, the only health risk is the possibility of burning yourself on the pot or pan as you take it out!
There are several different kinds of solar ovens. The two main kinds of solar ovens you'll see are "box ovens" and "parabolic ovens." While parabolic ovens are considerably more efficient and cook faster, they're also more difficult to build. For reasons of simplicity and cost, I use the box design. The blueprint I use can be found on the website solarcooking.org, where they call it the "minimum solar box cooker." Don't let the name fool you, though. Just because it's minimum doesn't mean it's not powerful. I have boiled water, fried an egg, and baked cookies using this design.
The solar oven provides a great alternative to gas and wood-burning stoves because they don't require any fuel and also don't produce any smoke. For my neighbors in rural Peru, this means solar ovens have the potential to help improve both personal and environmental health with little more than a pane of glass, some aluminum foil, and a couple of cardboard boxes.
Want to find out more about how box ovens work and learn how to build your own? Follow along with my photos and instructions.