I recently ventured into Nicaragua’s Bosawas biosphere reserve.
It is here in the remote rainforest that I witness the quiet simplicity of a subsistence lifestyle and the steadfast loyalty of a people dedicated to the protection and preservation of not only cultural tradition, but also of the natural environment that surrounds them.
Heartbreakingly, it is also here that I witness the rains that prevent beans, a food staple, from being planted – weeks overdue, the dry season has still not arrived; the marginalization of the indigenous people from services of the national government; a state of severe poverty; and a prevalence of respiratory illness. Although, where I see obstacles, the locals see routine.
Change is all around.
Adapting to change has become part of the routine. There is climate change resulting in reduced crop yields and unpredictable weather patterns. There is change in landscape as non-indigenous people burn down the forest and encroach upon the borders of the forest reserve. There is change in the family structure as men migrate from rainforest villages to big cities in search of employment.
In the village of San Andres, I wake to the smell of smoke from stoves that will burn wood all day and to the slapping sounds of tortillas being formed between expert hands. Single mothers welcome me into their homes. They wear smiles. But behind kind eyes, they also wear the daily struggle to gather firewood; grow, gather and cook food for their families; and care for children and the elderly.
Inside, scalding hot bean pots and tortilla pans sit over chimney-less adobe stoves, burning wood inefficiently and filling homes and lungs with toxins. I hold my breath.
For these families, the risks of respiratory illness, blindness, and burns on a daily basis are real. Puffs of black smoke billow out the windows and doors of the simple stilt-built houses.
Except where it does not.
In contrast, smoke gently wafts out the chimneys of houses where adobe stoves have been changed out in favor of high-efficiency eco-stoves. I am welcomed inside these homes as well. Though, they are few.
The mothers wear the same smiles, but without a grey haze in the air, kind eyes appear just a little bit brighter. And, while most of us would find the eco-stove, made of cement and bricks with a sheet metal chimney, rudimentary at best, it is a vast improvement. I take a deep breath.
The women also breathe easier. And have room to breathe. With a fuel efficient stove (requiring a mere quarter of the firewood used in open-fire cooking ), women spend less time gathering wood and more time on child care, agricultural production and community governance.
Change is in the air.
Literally. Due to remoteness and poverty, thousands of women in Bosawas continue to cook over wood burning fires, often in the same room where family members – children, babies – sleep, eat, and play.
Standing in the kitchens in the Bosawas, no matter the type of stove, I felt the same warmth I would extend to family and friends in my own kitchen. It seems there is something universal about the act of cooking. It brings people together to gather, to laugh, to tell stories, and to share time.
Eco-stoves are helping to create healthy spaces for families. They are reducing fuel consumption and deforestation. They are increasing free-time for mothers. Eco-stoves are reducing the risk of child injury and illness.
Eco-Stoves are giving the people of the Bosawas a little breathing room.