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SANTA MARÍA RAYÓN, Mexico, Feb 28 2010 (IPS) - The lives of many rural women and children in Mexico are changing, and the country’s high deforestation rate could be reduced, as inexpensive fuel-efficient cook stoves are being distributed by non-governmental organisations with corporate and government support.
The open cooking fires replaced by the improved stoves cause respiratory and eye infections, as well as severe burns, which are especially frequent among young children who stumble or fall into their mothers’ fire pits.
Acute respiratory infections are among the main causes of childhood morbidity and mortality in Mexico and many other poor countries around the world.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which has designated the issue as one of the four most critical global environmental problems, estimates that 1.6 million people, especially women and children, die prematurely each year from exposure to high levels of indoor smoke from home cooking and heating practices.
Some 28 million people, out of a total population of 107 million, are dependent on firewood for cooking and heating in Mexico, using 2.5 kg of wood a day per person.
Mexico has 56 million hectares of forests, of which more than 500,000 hectares a year are felled, making this country second to Brazil in Latin America with respect to deforestation, in absolute terms.
One of the models in use in Mexico is the ONIL fuel-efficient wood-fired stove, named for its inventor Don O’Neal, a retired mechanical engineer from the U.S. who did not patent the technology so that anyone could use it. The stove reduces wood consumption by 70 percent and virtually eliminates indoor smoke.
Helps International, an NGO founded 26 years ago in the southwest U.S. state of Texas, set up a factory in April 2009 that produces ONIL stoves in Santa María Rayón, a municipality of 7,400 people near the city of Toluca, southwest of Mexico City.
The NGO, whose vice president is O’Neal, initially tested its fuel-efficient stove in neighbouring Guatemala, where it has already distributed thousands of units with the support of other NGOs and private companies and foundations.
“At first, there was resistance to using the new technology, for cultural reasons, because women were used to cooking in their traditional indoor fire pits, which use large quantities of wood,” Helps International’s vice-president of international development, Richard Grinnell, told IPS.
The ONIL improved biomass stoves are made of locally available materials: clay for the combustion chamber, concrete blocks for the structure, and a steel or tin chimney that keeps the smoke out of the house, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“This clean technology helps reduce firewood use and pipes harmful smoke and emissions outside of the dwelling,” the coordinator of the rural energy programme of the non-governmental Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technology (GIRA), Víctor Berrueta, told IPS.
Researchers that work with GIRA, which is based in Pátzcuaro, in the state of Michoacán, 325 km west of the Mexican capital, designed the Patsari fuel-efficient stove. The name of the stove means “the one that keeps” in the Purhepecha indigenous language, referring to its ability to preserve heat and guard over the health, environment and economy of rural households.
The Patsari stoves are made of brick and cement, a combustion chamber where the wood is placed, metal hotplates and a prefabricated chimney.
Another improved cooking stove is the massive, earthen Lorena stove developed in 1976 in Guatemala by Larry Winiarski, technical director of the Aprovecho Research Centre based in the northwest U.S. state of Oregon, and other colleagues.
Although the stove, which is made of rammed earth and takes its name from a combination of the Spanish words “lodo” (mud) and “arena” (sand), is cheap to build and has a chimney that removes smoke from the kitchen, it was found to absorb heat and use large amounts of firewood.
The modern ONIL, Patsari and Winiarski rocket stove – which uses insulation to keep a fire burning hot – are more fuel-efficient, improved versions of the original Lorena stove.
In the last few years, other models have appeared on the market, like the Justa stove, named for Justa Nunez of Suyapa, Honduras who helped design it, and the Túumben K’óoben stove, developed in Mexico.
“Firewood is still the fuel of the poor. But the victims shouldn’t be blamed; when poverty is reduced, the use of wood will decline,” José Graziano da Silva, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, commented to IPS.
Of the more than 2,500 municipalities in Mexico, 150 have “very high” levels of firewood use, 450 have “high” levels of use, and 300 have “medium” levels of use, according to official figures.
GIRA has installed around 30,000 fuel-efficient stoves in Mexico, and Helps International has installed nearly 15,300. Its plant in Santa María Rayón, near Toluca, produces 230 stoves a week, while its two factories in Guatemala make 160 a week.
“The follow-up stage is the most important. We carry out training in the local communities to help people learn how to use, maintain and repair the stoves, and to help develop local skills,” said Grinnell.
One of the goals of the Mexican government’s Special Climate Change Programme is to have 500,000 fuel-efficient ecological stoves operating in Mexican households by 2012, to help curb the effects of climate change.
“Among firewood users, there are species of trees that are preferred over others because they burn so well and produce less smoke,” said Professor Rafael Ortiz at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, in the state of the same name, 1,300 km southeast of the capital.
“We can’t just blame the use of firewood as the cause of deforestation, although it is one decisive factor,” he told IPS.
A soon-to-be-published government study on the efficiency and safety of improved stoves examined four different models and found that the ONIL and Patsari were more efficient and effective than two others known as the Chiantli and the Citlali.
In 2009, Mexico’s Secretariat (ministry) of Social Development put out a tender for purchasing ecological stoves for distribution, but it focused more on the price factor than on efficiency or durability, critics say.
“Stoves that have not been tested in either laboratories or the field have been presented in the tender,” said GIRA’s Berrueta. “The stoves have to be evaluated, and minimum operating standards must be set. Any stoves that are distributed with public funds should be certified first.”
One difficulty lies in the lack of official standards for ecological stoves, which means manufacturers can assemble them according to their own criteria.
“Governments shouldn’t just distribute stoves, but should raise awareness about the problems in question,” said Grinnell.
FAO representative Graziano da Silva said fuel-efficient stoves are a good tool, but should be tried and tested before they are purchased and distributed.
The ONIL stoves cost between 90 and 140 dollars, while the Patsari stove costs around 75 dollars. In both cases, subsidies from NGOs and the government are available to purchase and install the stoves.
The ONIL and Patsari stoves and other improved cooking stove projects are seeking to qualify for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which awards credits to projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The carbon credits can then be purchased by polluters in developed countries in order to offset their own emissions and meet their commitments to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Each ONIL stove is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by nearly three tons a year, while the estimate for the Patsari stove is between three and five tons a year.
Although Professor Ortiz acknowledged that the proliferation of improved cook stoves could fuel firewood consumption, he said that combined with reforestation efforts, they are a better option than the introduction of electric stoves in rural areas.
Several improved biomass stoves have won Britain-based Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, known globally as the “green Oscars”: the HELPS International ONIL stove, developed by Don O’Neal, in 2004; GIRA’s Patsari stove in 2006; and the Aprovecho Research Centre’s portable fuel-efficient stove in 2009.
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