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Brazil Fights Pollution and Deforestation with Thousands of Ecological Stoves

Eco StoveWoodland in Brazil is being cut down, day after day. The local people say they need it to make a living. This is not the Amazon rainforest deforestation, but the woody landscape of Caatinga in the North Eastern corner of Brazil. Caatinga’s inhabitants are cutting wood for cooking.

The wood is burnt for cooking and brick making or used for fence production. Today more than eighty percent of the scrubland in Caatinga, an ecologically rich and sensitive area within the Ceará region boasts a biome comprised of trees and bushes up to seven meters in height, has disappeared.

However, what remains is still home to around 932 types of plants, 148 types of mammals, 510 bird species and countless insects and other creatures. Unlike the rainforest, Caatinga’s climate is semi-arid and subject to long lasting droughts and a short, but intense rainy season.

Yet until a year or two ago, most Brazilians were unaware of Caatinga’s plight. But then two things happened. The federal government’s new environment minister, Carlos Minc, drew attention to the deforestation spreading more rapidly than that of the Amazon, and announced plans for its conservation and recovery. Some time previous to that, a campaign to abolish the toxic, antiquated cooking habits of Caatinga villagers hit the national news.

Using the power of television, for the first time people all over Brazil heard about efficient cook stove technologies which drastically cut the use of wood as a fuel. Something clicked in the consciousness of Brazilians, as better ovens in the home meant less wood consumption, which in turn spares thousands of trees.

Enter four key players in a story that has blossomed from a small pilot of 20 stoves to a sweeping reform affecting thousands. IDER – Brazil’s Institute for Sustainable Development and Renewable Energy – is the NGO that initiated the program. The Global Village Energy Project (GVEP) is the London based organization that funded the initial pilot project.

The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), an international partnership focused on policies, regulations and financial mechanisms in support of clean energy, provided the cash for the project’s second phase, funding its development to a further 200 stoves.

Last but not least is Joaquim Cartaxo, Ceará’s State Secretary for urban and rural development. Cartaxo’s involvement has ensured that, a couple years after the pilot, another 4,000 stoves have been paid for by the state’s government, with investment in a further 18,000 currently under construction. The total funding amounts to over US$ 4.5 million.

Why did this project succeed, when so many others grind to a halt? One reason is that IDER found a major ally in Cartaxo, a politician who immediately saw the benefits of the cook stoves and took action. Dangerous smoke from basic wood stoves used in many developing countries can cost lives and many people have developed serious lung diseases as a result.

Hospitals have to treat villagers for respiratory illnesses and eye infections, which costs public money. Studies from the World Health Organization say that worldwide two million people per year die from indoor pollution caused by inefficient cook stoves.

By installing efficient cooking stoves, hundreds of thousands of dollars may be saved. Not only will people’s health improve as the project workers scrap the ashen slabs bearing their iron pots perched on rickety props, but local businesses will benefit. The new Brazilian stoves consist of a metallic hob and oven frame surrounded by a case of new brickwork that is laid on site.

IDER and their colleagues aim to roll out the mass production of the metallic component while providing income for local masons. The homes that will benefit are occupied by families generally in the poorest section of the populace that are unable to afford this type of equipment themselves.

If it all seems common sense, that is underestimating the pressures and conflicts governments face. NGOs have to be subtle, persistent and loud to get government funding for small scale grassroots projects like IDER’s.

In this case, IDER was struck both by good fortune and good timing, both of which it needed in large quantities, for Brazilian ministers were completely unaware of what IDER was proposing. “Governmental bodies…had never heard about efficient cook stoves and the benefits they could provide [before the project started]” says Joergdieter Anhalt, Director of IDER.

Since a local politician – Cartaxo – took a personal interest in the problem, a straightforward money saving project got off the ground. But one might ask why saving money should be such hard work – it is something politicians might jump at since they are usually hungry for cash. Yet there are numerous technical, administrative and logistical barriers that IDER and its partners had to overhaul themselves.

All too often, governments are too busy fighting larger problems to worry about the environment or indoor air pollution with public health ramifications. Problems in a rural corner of the country may appear insignificant and intangible. Bureaucracy may get in the way. Finally, these types of projects are often quite small in nature, coming from grassroots initiatives that may be short of substantial funding for advocacy and campaigning.

Yet in this case, something went right: as Anhalt wryly explains, “We caught the politicians’ attention in two ways – money and votes.” He attributes some of the success to the good fortune of having Cartaxo on board, since he fully understood the financial, environmental and health benefits. “He took an interest straightaway and found the money to do it…luck played its role like it always does – the right person with decisive power in the right place at the right time,” remarks Anhalt.

Prior to Cartaxo’s involvement, the organization had been trying to get the central government interested, but had found it an uphill struggle. Anhalt suggests that good communication was a crucial factor that gave the project the exposure it needed to get government funding for further expansion. However, IDER first needed to deploy more cook stoves and to develop the necessary dissemination tools. So they approached REEEP for grant funding to purchase and install 200 stoves in order to attract the government and financial institutions to the project.

“Under REEEP we had in mind to develop a dissemination strategy, test the logistics for widespread implementation and develop the basis for extensive environmental education measures,” says Anhalt. Some of REEEP’s funding was used for communications, including the production of a video about the improved stoves that was broadcast across the country.

The story hit the media because most people in Brazil had never heard of efficient cook stoves; there was novelty value in the project. According to Anhalt, the pilot project workers had to hold back reporters and camera crews so that they could finish stove installations in people’s kitchens first.

“This attitude was fundamental for the subsequent effectual exposure by the press. Having consolidated data at hand, a substantial quantity of stoves installed and very positive declarations from the women made all the difference,” he states, adding that “information and communication was the key that got our pilot project the necessary attention.” Key project staff and villagers were fully briefed to be able to answer questions from the reporters.

The program landed on the governor’s desk at the right moment. Gas prices had been rising and the use of improved stoves was found to be an acceptable alternative for the poor. At the same time that all this was going on, IDER and its co-workers were continuing environmental education and planting trees in the villages.

They still had a great deal to demonstrate. First, they had to quantify the precise health cost savings made from the new stoves. Secondly, they had to work out exactly how many tons of carbon dioxide are saved by the project – the first step to applying for carbon credits.

The stoves are located all over the region and their use varies according to family size and cooking habits. These discrepancies mean that it is important to use an adequate monitoring methodology. The methodology needs to establish credible baseline data for comparing traditional stoves with efficient stoves in order to calculate the resulting carbon savings. Data collection techniques need to be consistent in order to ensure quality project monitoring.

IDER estimates average carbon savings of about 1-1.2 ton per year per stove from the project, with a total of 22,000-26,400 tons of avoided CO2 emissions per year by the end of 2009. Anhalt asserts that the stoves used in his project have a much longer lifespan than some cook stoves models used in other projects that broke down within a couple of years. In this case, he predicts a service life of seven to ten years with only minor maintenance requirements.

REEEP achieved its objective as a catalyst to reduce poverty through clean energy solutions. REEEP Director General Dr. Marianne Osterkorn states, “This REEEP project demonstrated our strong commitment to improved access to clean energy for the poor. We are very pleased that IDER was able to attract state financing for dramatic scale-up. This is an excellent example how REEEP projects can have significant impacts.”

Cartaxo himself has praised the project as a major improvement on previous efforts: “This cook stove project has a greater impact and lasting effect than other social projects” he says. It was the project workers’ attention to detail, he explains, that made a significant difference.

“The cook stoves have been perfectly adapted to the habits of the rural women, who are their main users. This was sometimes not the case in other projects.” As a result, the local state government says it is confident that this technology has a future, hence its promise to a major roll-out of additional 18,000 in 2010.

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