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Sustainable stoves in Guatemala.

IT'S UNLIKELY THAT retired engineer Donald O'Neal ever expected to have a stove named after him, or to shake hands with Britain's Prince Charles. But that's exactly what happened as a result of his work with HELPS International, a non-profit, non-denominational organization that has provided assistance to people in impoverished rural communities for the last quarter-century.

Among other programs, HELPS sends medical teams to Guatemala on a regular basis. Volunteer doctors, dentists, surgeons, nurses, and other professionals fired their own travel to provide medical services--including a full range of surgical procedures--to communities in the highlands. Villagers often trudge long distances to wait patiently for medical treatment.

Early on, the medical teams noted a prevalence of respiratory illness in the population. "It's a leading cause of death among children under five," says O'Neal, who cites as a cause the smoke and soot of cooking fires in poorly ventilated dwellings. Because they spend a good part of their time inside, women and young children are especially vulnerable.

What's more, children sometimes tumble into the open fire and end up with serious burns. Excessive use of wood for the fires also contributes to deforestation, and this means either longer journeys to find and carry back heavy loads of wood, or a substantial share of family income going to purchase firewood.

This is where O'Neal's expertise comes in. Having volunteered with HELPS, O'Neal saw the possibility of using technology to solve several problems simultaneously. He designed a stove that would raise the fire off the floor, reduce pollution, and use only a fraction of the firewood needed for an open fire. Then he trained and contracted with eight village women to test the stove for one year and fine-tuned it according to their recommendations. The reward for the women was to keep the stove at the end of the testing.

The success of the efficient, low-cost stove is impressive. It decreases both indoor and outdoor pollution, thereby reducing respiratory problems, and because the fire is elevated, it also lessens the risk of burns. The new stove emits only one-twentieth the amount of carbon monoxide of the traditional cooking fire.

From an environmental standpoint, says O'Neal, "It cuts down on deforestation. It's a huge factor." In fact, the new stove requires only one-third as much firewood as was previously needed. Thus, the time once spent gathering firewood can be used for more productive activities, and fewer injuries are sustained while carrying the heavy loads.

Since HELPS' philosophy is one of maintaining local dignity and encouraging self-sufficiency, the recipients of the stoves typically perform a community service or pay a small amount toward the cost of the stove. O'Neal's invention is so successful--"We have stoves in all 23 departments of Guatemala," he says--that HELPS is now spreading the project into neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the inventor has received accolades from several quarters, including the Silicon Valley (California) Tech Museum of Innovation, which named him a 2007 Health Award Laureate. Earlier, O'Neal accepted the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy from Prince Charles. This award recognizes projects that help protect the environment by curbing deforestation and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

In Guatemala, tens of thousands of women are breathing more easily as they cook on the stove known as an onil.
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Title Annotation:iOjo!
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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