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.

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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."

 

 

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?

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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!

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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”.  

Gladys

Gladys

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.

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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.

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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.