Solar ovens: Challenging traditional gender roles in the Amazon

A few months ago, we shared a blog from Emma Donlan (Christian Aid Country Manager in Bolivia) who explained a bit about the work of our shared partner Soluciones Practicas. Here she updates us on the use of solar ovens in the Amazon, and how their benefits reach far beyond their practical uses... 

"I spent the weekend up in Rurrenabaque with women leaders who came together from across the Amazon, many travelling for over 2 days by foot, boat and long bus journeys to share their experience of receiving and using the solar ovens over the past year.

They were representatives of the 20 communities and over 250 families we have now reached with solar ovens. These women have taken up the role of leadership in their communities to provide technical and moral support to the families who are integrating this new technology into their lives.

On Saturday morning we had a meeting in the local university with municipal leaders and community authorities who joined us to congratulate the women and present them with certificates and the new recipe books that the project has produced  - and of course to sample the delicious food that was prepared in the ovens. It was like the 'Great Bolivian Bake Off' as we enjoyed all sorts of cakes, breads, marmalades, steamed fish, chicken stew, desiccated coconut etc. as well as marvelling at they increasingly innovative ways that they are using the ovens to make handicrafts for drying wood and seed and even for preparing natural plant medicines.

It was a truly celebratory day and very moving to hear the words of each woman as they shared with us the impact that these ovens have had on their lives. I think what most moved me was how they correlate the use of the oven to looking after the environment and the future of their communities.

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It is very clear that the ovens are so much more than “a domestic appliance”. They have come to represent in a very real way, that alternative low carbon energy models of development are possible and are being implemented. This is especially relevant in the current context of this Amazonian region where the government plans to build hydroelectric plants and is prospecting for oil and gas which will destroy the livelihoods and delicate ecosystems of the forests which, only 2 weeks ago, were recognised as the most biodiverse place on the planet.

We were really impressed by the women. For many it was their first time leaving their regions and their communities to travel so far, and for the way that they spoke out against these threats and the need to develop local solutions to protect their land rights and the environment. They talked about the amount of time they have saved and the fact that they are no longer tied to the kitchen all morning and this gives them time to spend more time talking with other outside the home. We detected a new confidence in them to speak up and assume this leadership role. We're now considering how we can extend this solar oven initiative to other communities which are under threat and where there is very low participation of women in decision-making processes and public spaces. These are the places where implementing  “gender and female leadership” workshops is often difficult because of the existing domestic burden of women and the suspicions of the men in the community of challenging gender relationships.

The solar oven project has succeeded in doing just that, challenging gender relationships, not only giving women more time to do other things outside the home but also it has brought men and women together to learn how to build the ovens and to cook with them. One women this weekend told me that it would have been unthinkable for her to have left her home to attend an event like this a few months ago as her children would have gone hungry, but now she can leave her husband in charge of the kitchen and he was happy and confident to prepare meals for all the family – something that would never have happened in the past before they had the solar oven.

On Sunday, the women took the ovens to the local market where they prepared food and sold small plates of chicken stew to the lines of people who queued up, eager to try food cooked in the ovens. I looked on as the women explained how they prepared the food, how the oven could work in the sun or on rainy days as a thermal cooker. Within minutes they had sold everything they had prepared and several townsfolk and local businesses were enquiring where they could buy the ovens as they were convinced not only be the delicious taste but also by the amount of fuel and money they could save, enabling them to recover their investment.

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This opportunity to meet the high demand for ovens is being taken up by Christian Aid, WDR and  our local partner Inti Illimani. 

We appreciate the support so much of WDR. If it hadn’t been for your funds that first enabled us to explore renewable energies in the Amazon we would not be getting these great results now. Thank you for believing in us and for continuing with us along this journey.

Emma."