The wood-burning cook stoves commonly used by rural populations can cause unintended harm – from carbon monoxide poisoning to rapid deforestation.
Sustainable Harvest International is a nonprofit and enduring EARTH University partner dedicated to providing long-term assistance and technical training to rural Central American farmers. The goal? Reduce the region’s poverty and environmental degradation. One of its primary tactics is widening the use of more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves.
Each year, Sustainable Harvest mentors a handful of EARTH students during a professional third-year internship.
Last year, Víctor Arboleda (‘17, Ecuador) and Mastercard Foundation Scholar María Fernanda Romero (‘17, Colombia) were two of the lucky interns. Stationed in Honduras and Panama, respectively, they collaboratively led a study on the effects improved stoves have on decreasing fuelwood consumption and limiting resulting particulate matter and carbon monoxide emissions.
Their efforts took them to Tropentag last month. Held annually at the University of Bonn in Germany, Tropentag is one of the world’s most esteemed interdisciplinary research conferences on tropical and subtropical agriculture, natural resource management and rural development.
We caught up with the duo upon returning to Costa Rica from Europe.
How did you get to Tropentag?
Víctor: Part of our internship plan was to publish the study’s results in a scientific journal. Ricardo Romero, our Sustainable Harvest International supervisor, gathered some options on where we could publish or present. As he had already participated in the Tropentag, he understood that conference and helped us make our case to participate. We put together an application, which included a summary of our work, a poster and a full academic article explaining the results.
María Fernanda: While we were in the internship, we never thought we’d have this opportunity to present our research. Regardless, we knew the results of the study would be important.
How many countries were studied?
V: Sustainable Harvest International has programs in three countries (Belize, Honduras, Panama) from which information was collected. However, the paper only comments on the results from Honduras and Panama, where we worked. The organization’s goal was measuring the impact it achieves through spreading its improved stoves.
What was the project about?
When we started the internship, we had two tasks: to evaluate the families already participating in existing projects and the system for measuring the stoves’ pollution production. We assessed carbon monoxide, particulate matter and, as something extra, wood consumption.
After collecting the data, we had to build a database.
Are all these stoves in rural communities?
MF: Yes, the aim has always been to help really remote communities where, for example, it’s impossible to access electricity.
What were the most important results?
V: A traditional stove generates 3000 mg / L of carbon monoxide. We found that the Honduran version of our improved stove generates only 9 to 10 mg / L, which means it is far less harmful to users’ health. Additionally, the improved stoves cut wood consumption in half.
What is the design of the improved stoves?
MF: The Panama model is an adaptation of the design of the fair (common) stove, based on the principles of a rocket elbow. They can handle more than 3000°C (5432°F) and are encased in refractory brick.
Between the elbows and the brick wall remains a space for ashes, which work as an insulating material – keeping the inside toasty while the outside remains cool, a feature that conserves wood. Because cooking areas in these rural areas are often outdoors, no chimney is required.
V: In Honduras, before Sustainable Harvest came to help, they used to have huge stoves that were filled over and over with firewood. What we did was make the combustion chamber smaller and fill it with tinier logs. It is nearly the same as the Panama model, but it differs in that it does have a chimney.
How many stoves did you measure?
MF: The results are based on a 100-stove sample per country – 50 traditional and 50 improved.
In what communities did you work?
V: In Honduras, we worked with 12 communities in Siguatepeque both with families already known by Sustainable Harvest and others that weren’t.
MF: In Panama, the organization was established in the province of Coclé, in the center of the country. There we worked in eight communities: Las Delicias, Piedras Gordas, La Estancia, Membrillo, La Candelaria, Ojo de Agua, Pedregosa and Caimital.
How does Sustainable Harvest find the families it works with?
MF: The organization uses an evaluation system and a profile. The communities that meet the profile are convened by the organization, and interested families are registered. A study is conducted, and Sustainable Harvest starts working with the families that meet the criteria.
Will the new interns working with Sustainable Harvest this year continue this research or start a new project?
V: The new interns are focused on nutrition. In the case of Honduras, many people’s diets are primarily tortillas and coffee. When I was there, I was told that vegetables were hardly ever eaten. There are families now part of the organization that have orchards, and their diets are radically different. The EARTH students there (Harol, Nohelia and Victor) will work on measuring the results of diet diversification among the Honduran people.
What was it like interning at Sustainable Harvest?
MF: Sustainable Harvest interns serve an important role within the organization, far beyond being an assistant or what is normally deemed as intern work. You keep track of your own efforts, manage your own time. No one is constantly checking on you or holding your hand. This helps you discover the divide between what you know and what you don’t, and it teaches you how to act when you don’t know how to do something – especially by reducing the fear of asking.
V: When working with Sustainable Harvest, you’re not close to the city or other amenities you might have if interning elsewhere, but, on a professional level, the experience puts you in a non-controlled environment. Stepping outside Costa Rica to help these communities solve their challenges prepares us for what awaits after leaving EARTH.
Although you were based in different countries, this internship necessitates your constant communication. How was the collaboration?
V: We shared stories and data at least weekly on Skype. That regular connection we had helped earn us a spot in Germany.
MF: We continued collaborating when we returned to EARTH, and we received a lot of additional support from professors.
Anything surprise you about the conference in Germany?
V: Something surprising is that no one at Tropentag traveled from Latin America. There were Colombians and Nicaraguans in attendance, but they were master’s and doctoral students in Germany. Another curiosity is that we were the only undergraduate students to exhibit at the event.
V: We want to get the results published. Our study is featured on the Tropentag webpage, but we want to spread it further so more people can adopt the technology. In Ecuador, for example, the use of improved stoves is rare, and they could really benefit from them.
MF: The publication of our work would open many doors for us because it’s not common for undergrads to have both produced a study like this and participated in a conference as outstanding as Tropentag. My graduation project at EARTH deals with stoves too. I believe there’s currently an information imbalance. Although much information on the topic is available, it’s not readily applicable to Latin America. There are thousands of pages on efficient stoves adapted to India, African countries and even rural Canada, but the needs of Latin America are different because of people’s diets and cultures. So, I see this as an opportunity. We can even do tests using other technologies – without requiring the burning of wood – to help with the protection of forests and aid rural families, our goal since we started studying at EARTH.
Congratulations to Víctor and María Fernanda for their quality work with Sustainable Harvest International. Interested in reading their full research? Click here.