Solar ovens help Chile prevent deforestation

05 Jun 2009

World Environment Day 2009 > Solar ovens help Chile prevent deforestation

As the sun dawns, women in Atacama finish building their own solar stoves, assembling one small mirror at a time.
(Photo: UNDP)
Rosa Castro uses firewood to cook and to heat her home – just like 60 per cent of the Rural Chilean population. But overcutting of firewood has accelerated deforestation, particularly in her rural semi-deserted region of Coquimbo, north of Chile, further drying up already-arid lands.  So as part of a plan to save trees and other vegetation, UNDP and partners are teaching Castro and nearly 200 of her neighbors to build and use solar ovens.

Responding to the urgent need to introduce alternative fuels, UNDP, the Global Environment Facility and the European Union partnered with the Chilean government and communities in northern Chile to bring an eco-friendly and creative solution – using energy from the sun.

“We could have simply bought and distributed the ovens; but it would not have worked”, said Alejandra Alarcon, National Coordinator of the UNDP Small Grants Programme’s Global Environment Facility  . “The only way to see long-lasting results is if people can build their own ovens and share the knowledge with other communities.”

A new eco-business

The project sparked entrepreneurship, and some apprentices have become masters, selling ovens, stoves or teaching the techniques to other communities in other regions. In a previous, similar initiative in Chile’s Atacama Desert, local people built special stoves that look like mirrored parabolic dish antennas. Miguel Perez, one of the beneficiaries, now teaches the solar stove-building techniques to people in neighbouring communities.

“I even helped a group in another town submit a similar project, so they could receive enough funds to kick-start their own stove production,” Perez said in an interview with UNDP outreach workers. Now I am hired as their teacher.”  

Resident Lucila Rojas taught communities in Coquimbo the solar stove-building techniques she learned during the partners’ first such initiative in 1994.  “My life changed not only because I no longer depend on firewood – and I don’t have to waste time searching for logs – but I don’t have that smoky smell all day long,” Rojas said. “As a rural woman my life changed completely, and I’m motivated to teach others so they can build their own stoves, continue teaching other people and improve everyone’s lives.”

In addition to environmental damage, burnt firewood in closed spaces may cause chronic intoxication, leading to obstructive lung diseases – the fourth major cause of deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Besides using solar ovens, villagers in Coquimbo are replanting 30 hectares of native woods to help restore part of the native vegetation. In the region alone, more than 99% of the Quillay native vegetation has disappeared due to logging activities. The programme is part of a global initiative to curb desertification, which is the degradation of land in arid and semi-arid areas.  Human activities and climatic variations are the main causes of this global phenomenon that directly affects over 250 million people, leaving another billion at risk in some one hundred countries.

For more information, go to the UNDP Chile and Small Grants Programme – Global Environment Facility Web sites.