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Solar Cooking Saves Trees and Does Global Good
The next time you turn on the stove to boil water, think about this: Between 50 and 60 percent of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — still build fires with wood and other biofuels to cook meals.
That’s a lot of trees going up in smoke — and contributing to deforestation, as well as climate change. Burning wood releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
What’s more, social action groups say widespread reliance on cooking fires is leading to health and social problems including respiratory illness, poverty and even violent crime in many regions.
The team at nonprofit Solar Household Energy (SHE) says there’s a solution that comes up every day: The sun. SHE and other organizations including Solar Cookers International, Jewish World Watch and the Solar Oven Society are bringing solar ovens and education into remote communities in countries around the world.
How can something barely bigger than a breadbox do that much good? These gleaming contraptions are fueled only by direct sunlight — no gas lines, firewood or even solar panels required. Sun cookers can roast up a hearty meal faster than you might think — in the middle of nowhere. In places like Darfur, Kenya, Rwanda and Central America, that can make all the difference in the world.
How solar cooking takes on global problems
Kenya has lost five percent of its tree cover in the last 10 years as villagers and refugee camp residents cut trees for firewood. And in Botswana, where many people cook with wood fuel, annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions are 2.2 metric tons per person, compared with 1.1 in China, according to the World Resources Institute. “There is nothing more important than solar cooking for fighting climate change and biodiversity degradation,” says SHE Training Director Louise Meyer.
Once local trees are gone, firewood must be purchased — and it isn’t cheap. “The poor in these areas spend 25 percent or more of their income on fuel,” Meyer adds. “We call it fuel poverty when your daily spending for fuel threatens money you need to spend on food.”
Cookers provided to Darfur refugee camps by Jewish World Watch have reduced the need for firewood by up to 75 percent. And for many — especially women — in these regions, the ability to cook with the sun’s energy is much more than a free alternative to buying firewood. Annual deaths from respiratory diseases related to breathing cooking smoke stand at 1.6 million.
But solar cooking’s social impact is perhaps the most compelling part of this story. In refugee camps in Darfur, it’s the women’s responsibility to get firewood, and often they must forage for miles outside their camps. But this puts them at risk of beatings, rape and murder at the hands of roving Janjaweed patrols and local villagers competing for scarce resources. Harnessing the power of the sunlight shining down in their own camps enables these women to remain safely inside the camps instead of out walking miles beyond camp boundaries.
Meyer says access to solar cooking also enables families to use money previously spent on fuel to buy a more nutritious variety of food. And SHE is showing people how to use the solar cookers they’ve received through its program to run small restaurants or bakeries, as well as to dye fabrics, can produce, or sell and repair solar cookers and train neighbors in how to use them.
SHE builds solar cooking success story in Mexico
SHE’s work to address all of these issues extends from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru to several countries across Africa.
In Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Nature Reserve, SHE teamed up with Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza to introduce solar cookers and educate area residents on how to use them.
“I cook chickens perfectly in my solar cooker!” says homemaker Teresa Díaz Martínez from nearby Oaxaca, who tried a solar cooker as part of SHE’s Sierra Gorda program. “We must teach people how to solar cook rather than use a lot of fuel wood.”
Solar Cookers International makes a difference in Kenya
Margaret Owino, regional director for the East Africa region of Solar Cookers International, says sun cookers offer an instant solution to a multitude of problems. Owino’s work bringing solar cookers to villages and refugee camps in Kenya is profiled in the Earth Cinema Circle featured documentary Suncookers.
“The sun is an infinite resource,” says Owino, “and we can use it for one of the basic human needs — to cook food and make water safe to drink. We have the technology; we just need to support the venture. My passion is speaking the news that the sun can cook.”
Washington is getting the message
SHE recently collaborated with a number of organizations to demonstrate solar cooking on Capitol Hill and raise awareness among policymakers about how solar cooking programs are helping to solve social and environmental problems. SHE representatives served samples of solar-cooked foods, from chocolate chip cookies to Cornish game hen, ratatouille and corn muffins.
The demo made waves. “Want to stop global warming … and excessive [use of] wood?” blogged Capitol Hill renewable energy advocate Adam Siegel. “Solar cooking is a path toward achieving this.”
How you can support solar cooking for social good
Sales of Gaiam's HotPot solar cooker subsidize SHE’s distribution of solar cookers in developing regions. And Solar Sport Oven’s manufacturer donates a portion of proceeds to help support similar programs. You can also make a tax-deductible donation directly to SHE or Solar Cookers International.
Images courtesy of Solar Cookers International