Ovens in the Amazon

In January 2018 Rev. Dr Laurence Graham visited Soluciones Practicas in Bolivia. They are one of our co-funded partners with Christian Aid Ireland. Laurence is currently serving as President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and also sits on the WDR committee. In this article, written for the Methodist Newsletter, Laurence shares a snippet of his visit to Bolivia. 

Don’t worry, I look after this thing better than I look after my husband”, laughed Roxanna when asked about how long her solar oven would continue to be in good condition.   We were gathered just outside Roxanna’s house in the little indigenous village of Alta Marani in the Amazon region of Bolivia not far from the banks of the River Beni. So why was Roxanna so excited about her solar oven, which Irish Methodists helped her with, via WDR?

Solar Oven 1.jpg

The first and foremost answer to that question is that the oven saves Roxanna much time and hard labour.   In the past she had to collect firewood from the forest and indeed there have been times after bad floods in the region when dry firewood could hardly be found at all.   The oven also saves Roxanna from spending up to four hours a day standing over a smoky fire.   As she says herself, “I leave in the morning and come back and it’s all ready!

Roxanna and her husband Norberto spent three days on a training course on how to use their solar oven and also how to build it, so now they can maintain it themselves.   Roxanna told us she is constantly experimenting and sometimes has to slightly adapt the traditional recipes but, “it’s working out really well”.   The slow oven also functions as a ‘thermal box’ during the night when there is no sun.   Many evenings Roxanna cooks rice pudding which she then wraps up and puts in the oven before closing it up and keeping it in the house so that the next morning there is warm rice pudding ready to provide a nutritious breakfast for her children before they go off to school.  

Furthermore, it’s not only about food – she recently discovered that she could use her oven to dry palm leaves and seeds for the handicrafts and beautiful jewellery which she makes, so providing a little extra income.   Norberto also explained how he uses palm leaves dried in the solar oven to make brushes and hats.

Next door, Mariella also celebrated her solar oven compared with her old ‘kitchen’ in which we were sitting at the time and which consisted of a sheet of tarpaulin over some sticks with a log fire on the ground.   To watch Mariella and Roxanna almost dancing with delight as they talked about their oven is all the more amazing since they have only had it since November.

Laurence pictured with Mariella and her family, wearing the hat she made for him. 

Laurence pictured with Mariella and her family, wearing the hat she made for him. 

Earlier in the day we had spent some time standing, in as hot and humid a tropical sun as I have ever experienced, around a large solar panel.   Alta Marani had a really serious water problem until 26th November 2016.   Unlike some other villages, there is no natural spring in this area for drinking water and the nearby river is too contaminated for drinking.   Even getting water for washing clothes etc from the river involved a very steep and dangerous scramble up a muddy river bank.   Engineers from Soluciones Practicas sat down with the community to discuss together what the best solution might be.   The result of that consultation is that the big solar panel drives a water pump which fills a high concrete tank.   The tank was already in existence but the diesel motor had long-since given up and even when it was working it was very expensive to run.   It takes two or three hours for the solar pump to fill the tank which then lasts for two or three days.   From the tank there is then a pipe system into every home in the village.   Each house has a tap and a meter and so everyone pays a little for their water enabling  money to be put aside for ongoing maintenance costs.  

During the installation process the pump was assembled on site in the village so that nine men and women were trained in its maintenance.   The community have organised a water committee who carefully manage the whole project.   It was such a joy to watch the pride in the eyes of Freddy, the Chairman of the Committee, as he carefully held in his hand the key to the little compound which houses the pump.  

This project, which has been supported by Irish Methodist World Development & Relief through Christian Aid Ireland, has made a crucial difference to this village.  “The pump saves the need to carry water long distances it also provides better water and so the children are healthier,” the young Mum in the picture explains.   Even more encouraging is the fact that this system has become a model for other villages and six more systems have since been installed, with public funds.   However, there is much more to do and there is a huge demand for more solar ovens so, Irish Methodists, let’s continue to support this wonderful project through WDR!

Young mum.jpg

The morning after my visit to Alta Marani, I had the great privilege of meeting with three senior leaders of the Indigenous Council of this Tacana Region of the vast Amazon area.   Constantino, the President of the Indigenous Council looked like a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders.   This is because the pressure for so-called development of the Amazon region is constant and the worst culprit is the Government.   “Often we feel weak and intimidated and that’s why partnership with churches and others is so important to us and gives us strength to struggle”.  Roberto, Head of Natural Resources for the Indigenous Council then explained that

we are very aware that Christian Aid Ireland money is not coming from big corporations or wealthy people but from ordinary folk.   We really appreciate this and please pass on our thanks.”  

At this point Gladys, the President of the Indigenous Ladies organisation added,

We are not just thankful to those who give to Christian Aid Ireland & Irish Methodist World Development & Relief because of the money but also because they carry our voices.   Let’s take care of this relationship – we are stronger together”.  



So, let us continue to stand with these indigenous residents of the Amazon Region because, as Gladys put it, “We feel at risk of losing their territory and therefore their future. The flora and fauna are under attack from people outside.”   Roberto explained that it’s all very well having a tin roof over your head but what really protects us is the ‘Casa Grande’ - the big house, by this he means the forest.  

The guiding philosophy of the Amazon people is to ‘live well in the Casa Grande’.   In response I mentioned the words of Jesus in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness  ……”       We all agreed that this sounded very like the concept of ‘living well’.   So let us join together in Ireland and in Bolivia in doing all that we can to ensure that all peoples get the chance to live well in the Casa Grande.