Unexpected Bonuses in Bolivia

If I give money to an organisation, I may simply be expecting the thing they said would happen, to happen. If that was the case, I’d probably be happy enough. However, often when good development activities are carried out, there can be positive ramifications beyond what was expected.

If I may use the example of Irish Methodist funded work in Bolivia. The basic idea was to provide solar ovens (10% of cost was paid for by recipient) for domestic use. The results:

1. As intended, time has been freed up for women to explore other productive activities or even recreational pursuits. As one women has said, “I think I love my oven more than my husband!”

The forests, previously used as the source of firewood, are being conserved. All this was hoped for before things started.

However, there have been other consequences:

2. The involvement of the Methodist Church in Ireland has led to new Bolivian Methodist communities joining the scheme.

3. Because of the ‘extra’ time now available to women, community discussions have been initiated and training delivered around gender roles within the community.

The solar ovens have become less about economics and the environment and more about women’s empowerment.

4. The ‘ovens project’ is happening where a proposed hydroelectric dam may be built. It is risky to do leadership training in such an area as the powerful and wealthy do not wish to be challenged.

However, the ‘ovens project’ provides a cover under which such training can happen less obviously so that local people can understand the issues and mobilise themselves to lobby for their rights.

5. The ovens and their success has been seen by other local NGOs and this has led to an increase in demand. A deal is now being brokered with local commercial enterprises to produce the oven parts locally and the increased demand will mean a reduction in cost.

Also, importantly, it is expected to lead to 800 new jobs.

As was told to me by Emma Donlan, Christian Aid Country Manager for Bolivia, “The Methodist Church in Ireland has been the springboard”. It is great when development throws up unexpected bonuses and very significant bonuses at that.

NB Irish Methodist World Development & Relief co-funds some work with Christian Aid Ireland. In the above case the ‘shared’ partner is the Bolivian NGO, Soluciones Practicas.


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.

Solar Oven 1.jpg

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.


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.




Sustainability in the Amazon

Soluciones Practicas, one of our co-funded partners with Christian Aid Ireland, work in Bolivia to eradicate poverty. They do this by developing skills, using new technology and working with the poor to influence social, economic and institutional systems that promote innovation.

In this blog, Emma Donlan (Christian Aid's Country Manager for Bolivia) explains why this approach is vital for sustainability and the future of our planet. 

When most people think about Bolivia, images of snowcapped mountains and llamas usually come to mind. However, over 3/4 of the country is covered by forests - that’s about 2.5 times the size of the UK.

The Bolivian Amazon is home to over 30 different indigenous ethnic groups, most with their own language and rich culture and it is also one of the most bio diverse places on this planet. Protecting the Amazon rain forest is not only about protecting the land rights and home of the indigenous communities that live here - but it is also a global imperative for the future sustainability of our shared planet.

The Amazon is a complicated region and logistically difficult for NGOs. The communities are disperse and isolated - often the only way for us reach the projects is by boat, quadbikes or trekking hours through the forest. Many other NGOs have tried but have given up. Christian Aid has was one of the first development NGOs and we are now a reference point for work with indigenous communities in the Amazon. The impact that Christian Aid and our partners, like WDR, have had over the past 20 years has been transformational. We have secured land titles to over 347 thousand hectares of land and empowered indigenous men and women – who for generations were the forgotten people, invisible and remote in the forests - to finally have their voices heard and participate in decision making processes that affect them.

Working to achieve impact across such vast areas, means that we cannot work on small isolated projects. Our 10 local partners coordinate on joint programmes sharing their different areas of expertise, to reach more people so that we can optimize the limited resources that we have.

There`s a sense of urgency to our work. The land rights that we all fought so hard for are being increasingly eroded by the climate change, mining, logging companies and the megaprojects such a hydroelectric dams which threaten to literally sweep away the livelihoods of many small forest communities.

This is why building resilience of vulnerable communities is at the heart of what we do, developing  community action plans to manage risks and mapping the areas where they are vulnerable and also the areas where they have resources - not only the material things, but also the experience, knowledge and relationships that they can draw on - before, during and after a disaster hits.


We are also drawing on natures powerful gifts, such as the sunshine. Funds from the Irish Methodists, through WDR, have supported Christian Aid to provide solar energy to transform the lives for remote forest communities. During the past year we have piloted solar panels to bring light to the homes of communities, also to charge phones and radios so that they can communicate with markets and receive news from the world beyond the forests. Solar pumps draw up clean water for those communities affected by the contamination of their rivers, and solar driers to improve the quality of their coco beans, so that they can fetch better prices on the market. With your support, we are will be providing 300 families with solar ovens over the next 3 years. Most families rely on firewood to cook - but during the long rainy seasons or when there are floods, there is often no dry fuel to cook food or boil safe drinking water.

The solar oven not only saves up to 3kg of firewood a day, but really makes life a lot easier for women like Lourdes. Each day she used to spend about 4 hours collecting fire wood and cooking over a smoky fire. Now Lourdes has more free time to get on and do other things, such as making handicrafts to sell or playing in the women’s football team!

The indigenous people refer to the Amazon forest as “Our Common Home”. They see it as a special bountiful place for this planet which offers protection, medicine, food, water, oxygen and a home for us. Faced with so many imminent threats, there is an increasing sense of urgency to Christian Aid`s work in the Amazon. The ongoing support and solidarity of the Methodist Church of Ireland has never been more important to us, not only in terms of fundraising, which enables us to reach the poorest and most remote communities -  but also it enables us to innovate and to demonstrate to authorities and decision makers that there are alternative and more sustainable ways of development for our planet and the people of the forests to thrive and to live in dignity.