Setting off in a pickup truck from Xela, our ears popped as we wound down more than 7,000 feet into the coastal region, past potato, onion, and cabbage farms, the land powdered white with the lime so commonly used here for its effects on soil nutrients and acidity. Once we reached sea level, we sped by endless coffee fincas and rubber plantations, their slashed trees dripping milky sap into black plastic cups.
Along the way, Guatemala’s struggle with deforestation, and the resulting erosion of already steep slopes, was evident.
Population growth, clearing of land largely for subsistence agriculture, and cutting of trees for firewood have all played a part: in the past twenty years, Guatemala has lost 23% of its forest cover, or nearly 134,800 acres (that’s 102,121 football fields, including the end zones), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A Zeno’s Paradox of farmable land—precarious land tenure, the land distribution legacies of colonialism, discrimination against indigenous peoples, and high birth rates force parents to divide up the little property they have among multiple children—means that cleared land, however depleted the soil, is a valuable commodity.
Land to be planted next season
Factor into this that 95% of tree-felling in Guatemala is carried out illegally by those in need of fuel and/or income, and that unstable eroded soils not only make farming more difficult but can lead to life and home threatening mudslides (the UN ranks Guatemala fourth in the world for risk of death from mudslides), and you have a very complicated problem knit tight into daily life by a web of constraints and trade-offs.
As in much of the world, the simple acts of cooking and getting food on the table each day require large amounts of fuel, labor, and time. Worldwide, two-thirds of people in developing countries cook or heat their homes with biomass fuel—wood, dung, crop residues, or charcoal. In Guatemala, estimates vary, but it’s believed that 60 to 80% of families cook with firewood.
In addition to the environmental effects, there are the health risks associated with burning so much solid fuel. According to the World Health organization, indoor air pollution contributes to more deaths worldwide—an estimated 1.6 million from cases of pneumonia, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer considered “strongly associated” with the pollution—than malaria each year. Women and children are most affected, and the lower a family´s income, the more likely it is to depend on such energy intensive practices on a daily basis.
And finally, buying large quantities of firewood can strain families’ limited resources. In La Felicidad, a typical family spends 2000-5000 Quetzales (around $250 to $650) on firewood per year—a lot for those who depend largely on subsistence farming and whose little income may come from selling a few animals each year and working seasonally on the nearby coffee and rubber fincas. To reduce costs, some families spend hours each week gathering wood.
Convincing arguments for cooking with biogas, right? Beside the initial cost of the biodigester (offset in a year or two in saved firewood costs) and the 15 or so minutes of labor required each day to gather manure and feed the digester, there are few to no costs, the methane gas burns cleanly without smoke, and the process produces an organic fertilizer that can be used in the fields, in some cases replacing costly chemical fertilizers.
I’ve emphasized statistics in this post for a reason. But I can tell you that in rural Guatemala, many of these don’t mean bunk. Life here, as in many places in the world, is rarely decided in response to compelling statistics, or even promises of financial savings on the scale of a year or health benefits over a lifetime. What is compelling is the day-by-day of getting by, and doing things in a way that makes sense to the people doing them.
Take Doña Gloria, who we visited in La Felicidad. Her outdoor cooking area, or polletón, is essentially an open fire—a few iron slats laid across burning wood. Though not as smoky as enclosed kitchens (where it’s estimated that cooking with an open fire is the equivalent of smoking two to five packs of cigarettes a day) polletóns are often in semi-enclosed wood shelters, and the woman stands directly over the fire as she cooks.
A typical outdoor kitchen
Cooking a pot of beans takes 3 hours and lots of wood and smoke
In recent years, NGOs and government institutions such as Guatemala’s Social Investment Fund (FIS) have promoted the installation of planchas, improved stoves with a metal surface into which different sized pots can fit, chimneys to decrease smoke in the kitchen, and in some cases specially modified combustion chambers to increase fuel use efficiency and reduce firewood consumption by 50 to 70%.
A plancha with chimney and cooking surface with removable concentric circles for pots
But… Doña Gloria already has one of the improved stoves. She only uses it during the rainy season, when the wet and wind make her outdoor wood fire impractical. In the dry season, the plancha makes the kitchen too hot and stuffy, so she prefers to cook outside and use her indoor kitchen for organizing the items she sells in her small tienda (store). In other homes, the plancha is used more like a highly accessible shelf for pots and pans than a highly efficient stove. From the colorful plastic containers littering the surface, you can see the planchas aren’t used regularly.
As for the toll that deforestation takes, with a few exceptions, trees are prized not for carbon credits and “ecosystem services,” but are appreciated for the fuel and the shade they provide, especially in this region of blazing sun. Likewise, the smoke from the open fires is valued as a powerful mosquito repellent. And besides—as I can attest from the lunches of stew and tortillas that have been generously given to us when we work in La Felicidad—cooking the food over a fire gives it a lovely, smoky taste, one that people are fond of and used to.
Another issue is the task of collecting manure to feed the biodigester daily: here, most families’ pigs are not enclosed, but run free in the streets during the day, pooping where it pleases them, only returning at night to their corralito. Often, as we left La Felicidad in the evening, we would see the pigs dutifully trotting home for dinner. There's plenty of manure around, but would people want to take the time to collect it?
So, in her outdoor kitchen in La Felicidad, Doña Gloria wasn’t buying it. Without consulting her, her husband had agreed with the community leader (who wants the biodigesters in the community for the financial savings they should bring and for their possible draw as a ecological demonstration site) that their family would be buying a biodigester that cost more than a month’s income. This was Doña Gloria’s first time hearing about making cooking gas from manure, and for all she knew, we were selling snake oil. She was also worried about whether the biodigester would bring odors and flies, and about the surface of her tile counter (she was assured that it would not be harmed). She shot her husband a sideways look much like my grandmother used to give my grandfather when he was trying to make himself “useful” in the kitchen, conveying without words a dubious combination of “Give me a break…” “What have you done?,” and a resigned “Ay, Dios mio…” As we asked her and her husband the questions for the baseline survey, her doubt was palpable.
In another family, the father, who surprisingly had heard of biodigesters before, was fascinated by the technology but also concerned about the cost and whether the investment would pay off. Again, his wife was skeptical. Since it’s the women who will cook with the gas, it’s crucial that they be on board and included, and they obviously hadn’t been in the decision-making process to date. All of which has interesting implications for future efforts to create a Guatemalan biodigester company.
In the end, Doña Gloria and husband decided to wait a few weeks for their installation, while the other family decided to go ahead right away. Would the first biogas produced calm the families’ doubts, or would they continue to fear that we ourselves were full of cow manure? More about the installations in posts to come.
-Larisa Jacobson, D-Lab I and II alum, M.S. candidate in International Agricultural Development