At first it was unclear if families would adjust to the new contraptions having spent years cooking food in traditional ways on wood fires. But after plenty of practice and training women have become masters of what they now call ‘solar cooking’
International Women's Day: Gender Justice is on the march in the Amazon
8th March, 2017
It's not often that something comes along that tackles climate change, protects Amazonian biodiversity, saves money, benefits forest communities and empowers women. But in Bolivia, something as simple as a solar oven is doing just that. JOE WARE reports
For the women of the often patriarchal communities the solar ovens have also had a transformative impact on their social and political lives too
For the indigenous people who live in the Bolivian Amazon, life is hard. People are increasingly suffering from the effects of climate change, both forest fires caused by prolonged dry seasons and flooding due to more intense rainfall. The flooding has the knock-on effect of causing malnutrition and disease because forest communities rely on firewood. When there is no dry wood, cooking food or boiling safe drinking water becomes extremely difficult and gas is often too expensive to get hold of.
The dependency on firewood not only reduces the unique biodiversity of the Amazon, collecting it and cooking with it is a time consuming and back breaking task which mainly falls on women. Deforestation also means these women must walk further and further to find the fuel they need to feed their families. It is estimated that women spend four hours a day cooking on wood and an hour collecting it.
But now the versatility of renewable technology and the natural energy provided by the sun is starting to change all this. Through its local partner organisations in the region, UK charity Christian Aid has started to give solar ovens to women. These orange boxes, powered by solar panels to capture sunlight, have already proven effective on the high plains of Bolivia where radiation is strong. But they have now been shown to also work further down, in the lower, more forested valleys, and even during the rainy season.
At first it was unclear if families would adjust to the new contraptions having spent years cooking food in traditional ways on wood fires. But after plenty of practice and training women have become masters of what they now call ‘solar cooking'. They prepare the food in the morning, place it in the oven in a sunny spot and then let the power of the sun and human-made technology do the rest. It's remarkable to see the oven lids opened after a few hours as clouds of steam emerge and pots full of delicious food are lifted out.
The 3 kilograms of firewood each family used to use for every meal is obviously a great saving for the forest, reducing deforestation and protecting the Amazonian ‘lungs of the earth'. For the women of the often-patriarchal communities the solar ovens have also had a transformative impact on their social and political lives too.
Doña Natividad Matareco, from the Bermejo region of Bolivia, said the saved time had allowed her and other women to become more politically empowered. "The Women Organisation in the community has meetings on Sundays in the afternoon," she said. "We discuss important issues about the community. Before I could not attend the meetings because I thought ‘I cannot go, I have to cook. If my husband comes back and the food is not ready he will be upset'. But now I can attend the meetings. For me this is a big change. Now I can be in a meeting all day, discussing important community issues. As women, we need to decide ourselves that we have the right to participate, to organise ourselves, to look after ourselves."
This newfound ‘spare time' has also helped women's economic empowerment too. In another community, Doña Esther Guarayuco, now is able to run a small shop. She explained: "I now have more free time which I use to clean my house, or to sew things with my sewing machine. I also have my small grocery store: I can do one thing and still sell."
In the era of Donald Trump - whose behaviour towards women and threats to action on climate change are well known - it's easy to feel despondent. But it's worth remembering that in the jungles of the Amazon, away from the news headlines, environmental protection and gender justice is on the march.
Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid and a New Voices contributor to the Ecologist. He is on twitter @wareisjoe
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