National Geographic : 2017 Sep
78 national geographic • september 2017 deforestation, as trees are felled for firewood. And they’re a major source of black carbon— a sunlight-absorbing component of soot that contributes to climate change. In the 1970s a major earthquake in Guatemala brought international aid groups to the coun- try, where they learned about the costs of open cooking fires. Since then a diffuse network of engineers and philanthropists has invented and distributed hundreds of kinds of improved stoves throughout the developing world, ranging from tiny, gas-powered camping stoves to massive wood-fired ranges. Guerra now owns a factory in central Guatemala that manufactures eight types of improved cookstoves. Cookstoves, however, are easier to change than human habits. For a new stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve simultaneously. And woe to the cook whose new stove produces food that doesn’t measure up. Expedita Ramírez Marroquín, a Guatemalan midwife who works with an international team of environmental health researchers, observes that when it comes to safer cooking methods, critical mothers-in-law often are the highest barriers to change. Given time, though, even in-laws can adopt new ways. In the western highlands of Guate- mala where Ramírez works, great-grandmother Eugenia Velásquez Orozco remembers when her household switched from an open fire to a chimney stove. She missed the direct heat on cold mornings, but she got used to the change. Now her granddaughter-in-law is learning to use a gas stove. “Give me another five years,” Velásquez says with a grin, “and maybe I’ll get used to that too.” j O n Easter Sunday morning, in the small town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes in central Guatemala, Elbia Pérez and her sister, daugh- ters, and 18-month-old grandson are crowded around their kitchen table. On the table, a large pot of tamales, handfuls of spicy meat and corn dough wrapped in plantain leaves, is waiting to be steamed. The room is filled with talk, laughter, and smoke—gritty, eye-watering smoke that provokes deep, scratchy coughs. The problem isn’t that the family lacks a functioning stove. In fact the aluminum-sided kitchen—part of a compound that shelters 45 extended-family members— contains three. But the two-burner gas stove is out of fuel, and the Pérez family can’t afford to refill it. Their efficient woodstove, a knee-high concrete cylinder donated by an international aid group, is too small to support the tamale pot. So, as she does about once a month, Pérez has fired up the old wood-burning stove, a brick ruin whose smoke pours directly into the kitchen. Everyone notices the smoke, but it’s a familiar annoyance—and compared with the daily chal- lenge of affording food and fuel, it’s a minor one. Some three billion people worldwide cook their food and heat their homes with open or barely contained fires, and while the smoke dissipates quickly, its accumulated costs are steep. The typ- ical cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour. In the developing world, health problems from smoke inhalation are a sig- nificant cause of death in both children under five and women. To fuel the fires, families can spend 20 hours a week or more gathering wood. “ The first thing we swallowed every morning was smoke,” remembers Marco Tulio Guerra, who grew up in rural eastern Guatemala and whose brother was severely burned as a child by the family cooking fire. Household fires also promote BY MICHELLE NIJHUIS PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON NGM MAPS GUATEMALA NORTH AMERICA PAC IFIC SOUTH AMERICA OC EAN The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a grant to support this story.