Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Ecostove project aims to improve health, environment in Guatemalan village

Most college students don’t contemplate the role of a stove outside of its ability to bake or broil a decent meal.  But the members of Whitman Direct Action (WDA) will spend the next few months learning and appreciating its value as part of a project to bring eco-friendly stoves to a Guatemalan community.

“There’s a need in rural Guatemala for better stoves,” said sophomore Natalie Jamerson, one of the leaders of the project. “The stoves they have right now can emit a lot of smoke, causing health problems, and are often very energy inefficient.”

Currently, five Whitman students are planning to spend the summer in Guatemala helping to build and install eco-friendly stoves, as well as educate the community about their benefits. Jamerson explains that the project is more than a service trip: students involved in WDA are working throughout the course of the semester to educate themselves about stove technology and Guatemalan culture. This academic approach to the project is something Jamerson believes will make it more successful.

“Rather than just giving aid, we are supporting a community,” she said.

As part of the project, WDA has set up two independent study courses to support the students travelling to Guatemala this summer. The first course is led by Julie Charlip, director of Latin American studies at Whitman.

“Guatemala is a key example of what is going on in the rest of Latin America,” said Charlip. Her independent study course focuses on Guatemalan history and economic development, and allows students to read a variety of books about these topics before they travel to Guatemala for the summer.

The other independent study course is led by Bob Carson, professor of geology and environmental studies. Carson’s course focuses on designing and building a model eco-stove, as well as researching the environmental and economic benefits of more efficient stove technology.   Carson said he’s excited to work with WDA on creating a stove design.

“[Eco-stoves] reduce travel time for firewood and decrease deforestation, which in turn decreases erosion,” he said. “They also greatly improve indoor air quality.”

The eco-stove class is the largest independent study Carson has ever taught, with seven students enrolled. Over the course of the semester, the group will learn about stove construction, as well as their ecological and heath impacts. For a final project, the class plans to make an informational booklet in English and Spanish on how to build and maintain eco-stoves.

“Most students haven’t built anything close to a stove,” said Carson, “not even a tree house like I did when I was younger. But these kids have been very interested and have brought a lot to the table.”

WDA’s eco-stove project is part of a larger partnership with a Guatemalan organization called Semilla Nueva, which focuses on sustainable development and agriculture. Semilla Nueva was founded by WDA alumni and has worked with WDA in the past. The continued partnership allows WDA to work on long-term plans for community development and receive ASWC funding for the trip. A change in college policy earlier this year stipulated that no student international travel without a professor would be eligible for funding, but WDA’s partnership with Semilla Nueva allows for an exception to this policy.

Carson said that he supported the continuation of WDA’s unaccompanied travel.

“While I understand the liability and insurance reasons for not funding groups of students without a professor, it is difficult for faculty to take, say, two months off to visit Guatemala,” he said. “I’m not convinced that faculty will make student trips safer, especially in this case if a professor doesn’t speak Spanish.”

To learn about eco-stove design and construction, WDA has also sought guidance from Aprovecho, a U.S.-based NGO which teaches stove building. WDA recently received a grant from the Outdoor Educational Leadership Fund (OELF), which will allow students to travel to Oregon for a weekend and receive training from Aprovecho staff.

Jamerson hopes that the academic support behind this year’s project will help make it more successful.

“Independent study lends a really academic and thoughtful manner to the way we carry out our projects, and I think the professors add another level of seriousness,” she said.

Another goal for the project is to empower women in Guatemala, because they do the vast majority of cooking and consequently suffer the worst effects of indoor air pollution due to inefficient stoves.

“Aid can often be very focused on helping the men of the community who work on the construction and economic management of villages,” said Jamerson.  “We hope to do something a little different.”

Ultimately, Jamerson hopes that the project will allow WDA members to learn about international community while applying their knowledge to help people in Guatemala.

“We have a valuable gift of education that we can share,” she said.

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    ChuckFeb 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    These students are absolutely right on when they discuss the need for eco-stoves in Guatemala. I recently returned from a 15 day visit there and one of the big problems I noticed was all the air pollution caused by wood smoke.

    By the end of the trip my lungs were burning and my clothes smelled like smoke. We walked almost everywhere and cooking smoke was ubiquitous. I can’t imagine what the health impact must be for those who are breathing that air continuously.

    I commend you for taking on this vital project.