In this rural agricultural community located in Panama, most houses use wood-burning stoves to feed their families. These open-fire stoves are inefficient, consuming large quantities of wood and thus contributing to deforestation in the community, releasing copious amounts of smoke, contaminating the air and posing health risks. The project “Eco-Stoves for a Cleaner Environment and Healthier Homes” will culminate in the construction of twenty new “eco-stoves” which create a more efficient burner out of bricks. The project will also repair five previously built eco-stoves. The stoves ́ benefits are numerous: reduced wood consumption (and thus less deforestation as well as reduced time spent seeking and cutting firewood), less harmful smoke emissions (decreased air pollution and health risks), and lowered risk of fire burns since the flame is contained inside the stove rather than an exposed fire. In order to participate in the project, families chose between two environmental education and capacitation options: attend eight environmental activities or create and maintain a small-scale tree nursery in their home of at least 30 treelings to be planted by August 2020. Families have participated in project planning every step of the way, and have committed to comply with the environmental education requirements, provide certain construction materials, learn how to build and maintain their eco-stoves, attend community work days and provide the physical labor needed for construction, and, if they chose the reforestation option, to maintain their treelings with care and eventually plant them along the critical watershed the community is located in.
The community is the driving force behind this project principally because they truly want and need the eco-stoves and will do what is necessary to be able to have this environmental and human health friendly cooking option for their families. During the community meeting after my first three months in site where we discussed environmental issues in the community, community members voted for eco-stoves as a top priority just after organic home gardens (which we are also working on extensively in community). Their vote during the initial community meeting, and their attendance and enthusiasm in subsequent follow-up organizational meetings and environmental activities demonstrates the commitment to this project. I might be the one writing the grant (for it must be done in English), but community members are defining the norms of the project (such as how many environmental events and trainings are required in order to be considered part of the project) and planning the fundraisers needed for all the parts the grant does not cover. Community members are committing to attending environmental activities and/or working on their home reforestation project, learning how to construct and maintain an eco-stove, and providing the required construction materials and physical labor needed during the construction.
The benefits of this project will be sustained as the well-built and well-maintained eco-stove provides many years of healthier, more environmentally friendly cooking. The community will sustain the benefits of the project well after the initial material support has ended through their continued maintenance of the stove such as keeping the stove under a roof and out of the rain, replacing of the ashes as needed or not putting pots directly on the bricks. Stove maintenance techniques will be explicitly covered during the mandatory stove-building workshops so that all project participants are well-versed in proper eco-stove care and maintenance. Well-maintained eco-stoves have been shown to last well over 10 years, and if the community does need to repair, replace, or build more stoves, they will have gained the necessary stove-building skills through this project, as well as knowledge on where to find the necessary materials. In addition, the environmental project design and management skills the project participants are developing through this project will serve them in the future if they decide to organize to build more eco-stoves, continue to reforest, or pursue any other type of community environmental project. The environmental knowledge and consequential environmentally- conscious habits gained through the environmental education activities can become life-long habits. For example, environmental activities can instill in the community the desire to care for the natural environment, maintain reforestation efforts, and protect the precious natural resources present in this important part of the Panamanian Canal Watershed. The environmental activities and reforestation will not only foster environmental awareness but build capacity in the community to take action to protect and conserve the environment in the future.