From August 6-17 2011, we joined 14 other volunteers on a work tour in Honduras, run by Trees, Water and People, a Fort Collins-based non-profit. I had been intrigued for many years about their work, and I met with international program director Stuart Conway in their offices in the fall of 2010.
TWP published my short ‘day in the life’ account, “Bricks and Mortar” in their Fall 2011 newsletter (click on fall 2011 newsletter and scroll to “Bricks and Mortar”).
TWP began doing reforestation projects in Central America in 1998. Forests there are being cut quickly as people gather firewood for cookstoves. Around 85% of Hondurans cook with firewood, even in the cities.
Many of them cook indoors, and respiratory ailments from inhaling cookstove smoke are an epidemic. So TWP soon added a second program, building fuel efficient stoves. Their stoves burn slow but hot, producing minimal smoke. They reduce the amount of firewood people must gather, slow deforestation, and dramatically improve indoor air quality.
On the 10-day work tour we were led by TWP international program coordinator and El Salvador native Claudia Menendez. We stayed at the rustic Loma Linda conference center, in the mountains south of the capital of Tegucigalpa.
We worked with TWP’s in-country partner AHDESA (Honduran Association for Development). We met Honduran families as we helped build stoves in their homes and plant trees nearby. We were fed lunch by a couple of ADHESA members’ families.
We saw that running an international program is a delicate balance for TWP. They fund AHDESA, so they have considerable leverage. They can provide technical support, offer advice and make suggestions, but they can’t tell AHDESA what to do.
The good news in Honduras is AHDESA is building cooking stoves fast. So far, they have completed 16,000, but there is a present need for as many as a million more.
So who gets the stoves ? It appears that many people find out by word of mouth. So in practice, it appears family and friends who know the technicians may sometimes get first choice, not necessarily the people with the most urgent need. In a country where the need for better cookstoves is so widespread, is this a problem ? I don’t know.
Large reforestation programs, like TWP has built in Guatemala and El Salvador, are not AHDESA’s emphasis, but they have gotten a tree nursery up and running. There are plenty of seedlings ready to be put in the ground.
But where should AHDESA plant them? The government, so far, has not made it possible for ADHESA to plant on government-protected watersheds. For now, the next best thing, Claudia advised, is replanting on private property where the trees can stay and grow.
Among the planting projects we did were a schoolyard, and a portion of someone’s farm too wet to grow crops. From what I could see, ADHESA’s placement of trees was not always well thought out, but you have to start somewhere.
Laura Conway, Stuart’s daughter was along on the tour. Fresh from summer quarter at UC Berkley studying international development, she stepped back from the small mountain communities where we worked. “This (international aid to poor countries) is all an experiment” she said, “It’s new. No one really knows if it works.”