Guatemala: Cutting through the haze


In the mountain farming town of El Yalu, Guatemala, wood smoke lingers everywhere. Used by everyone here for cooking and heating, it’s a way of life.

It’s also a way to die.

Lower respiratory infections (pneumonia and bronchitis among them) are the leading cause of death in low-income countries such as Guatemala, according to the World Health Organization. One common cause of LRIs is wood smoke from indoor cooking fires.

Rather than get vented out, smoke from open cooking fires in the cornstalk-walled houses here often just hangs, meandering out doors and windows slowly. Around mealtime, that leaves many homes here sitting in a gray haze.

Building into lives

To battle the problem in El Yalu, Los Olivos Church – an Evangelical Free Church of about 800 people from the nearby city of Sumpango Sacatapequez – started building wood stoves for people two years ago.  With assistance from American short-term missions teams, Los Olivos has built more than 60 stoves here in an effort to care for the physical and also the spiritual needs of local people.

It takes two people four days to build a stove. However, Oscar Chiquitó, project director at Los Olivos, usually has five or six people from a visiting team visit one house. While two people work, the others talk and develop a friendship with the family members.

“With building the stoves, what we are doing is showing people that we care about them because God cares about them,” Oscar says.

Constructed of cinder blocks and bricks covered with cement, the stoves measure about 4 feet by 4 feet and stand about 3 feet high. The cast iron stovetops have four burners with removable caps through which to load wood. A 6-inch steel stovepipe vents the smoke outside.

The cost of materials runs about $250 U.S., but Los Olivos charges the families $30. The rest is covered by local and outside donations.

“What we want by having the families pay 30 dollars is that they would have ownership of the stove,” Oscar says. “And it’s been working well, because we see that families, and the especially the women, really care about the stove. They take care of it, and the clean it up, and they keep it in a good condition.”

Saving wood, saving trees

Cooking three things at once on a stovetop rather than one thing at a time over a fire with the same amount of wood, the stoves also help stanch deforestation — a national problem that only gets worse as the country’s population increases.

Every year since 2005, population growth in Guatemala has hovered at or near 2.5 percent, the highest rate in Central America. In that same time period, annual loss of Guatemala’s primary forest almost tripled from the previous five years to 3.72 percent – a trend on display in the bean and corn fields cut into the steep hillside forests surrounding El Yalu.

El Yalu resident Maria Rosa Grande Avila has been using her stove for six months. She sometimes still burns an open fire on the floor to keep her cornstalk-walled hut and her five children warm. However, the stack of wood she uses for cooking that once lasted two or three days now lasts a week.

“I used to cook with an open fire on the floor, with a comal [a heavy iron skillet],” Maria says. “When I wanted to make tortillas, I could not cook any other thing, like food or coffee. Now that I have the stove, I can cook many things. So it is working well.”

The stove project represents just one way that Los Olivos is trying to share the good news of Jesus to people in and around Sumpango. Even though 40 percent of Guatemalans call themselves evangelicals, Oscar says, extending the gospel in majority Catholic communities such as El Yalu needs to be a process of show and tell because local leaders can be leery of evangelicals.

“We have to be very careful about coming and sharing the gospel the first time we see them or meet them,” Oscar says. “So what we are trying to do there with the stove project is to reduce respiratory problems and also to save the trees — but more than that, through the action, we are telling people that we care about them, that God cares about them. That’s why we are doing this kind of project.”

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WHAT YOU CAN DO: Los Olivos wants to build 120 more stoves so that every family in El Yalu can have one. The up-front cost is $250 per stove. To donate to this project, follow this link.

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