Erin Beasley in Honduras

A Proyecto Mirador technician installs a new, efficient cook stove.About halfway through my bucket shower with mosquito larvae this morning, I thought, Why didn’t I spend this summer with my grandma? She being my go-to symbol of childhood creature comforts: air conditioning, trips to the North Park pool, walking through the mall, soaking up MTV and eating Klondike bars on her couch. Grandma would have loved six weeks of me lounging around her house this summer. Why did I trade that for a gaudy, creepy hotel room in the tropics with no running water and often no electricity?

I’m still not entirely sure. A part of me feels that I’m another step closer to understanding how most of the world deals with climate change. I want to know what kinds of changes are feasible in our daily lives, as well as the impacts and benefits associated with building low-carbon societies.

Of course, there’s also the part of me that cries, “You’re too late! Too old! Not idealistic enough to make any significant changes!” I worry that my research project here in Honduras is somehow selfish or self-serving, and that I’d be better off spending time with those who truly love me, not hopping around Latin America, sitting on someone else’s couch, chatting with someone else’s grandma.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Who knows if I could ever write about the ways we will build our societies in some imagined future. I hope to. I also manage my doubts with the same skepticism: I don’t know if I’m too old, if my work is too late, or if it will change anything, but if I always waited for certainty, I’d still be on my grandma’s couch eating Klondike bars, and I never would have had the chance to talk with little old ladies in a little farming town called Azacualpa.

But here I am. These women have seemingly nothing to do with climate change. Few have ever driven a car, the electricity here powers a few CFL light bulbs, maybe a refrigerator, and the laundry tub out back holds a cubic meter of water, to store enough for when the water isn’t running. Moto taxis, the tuk tuk kind, arrived a few years ago, but until then almost everyone biked and walked most places in town. In Honduras, the largest source of household energy is still from burning wood to cook food. The traditional stoves are placed at the back of the house, or sometimes in the kitchen, and the smoke from incomplete combustion of the wood fire can cause significant respiratory conditions for the young children and women who are exposed daily. The smoke contains black carbon, which is also an air pollutant.

Proyecto Mirador is a locally-run NGO that subsidizes construction of efficient cook stoves that use less firewood and minimize smoke (and smoke exposure). Efficient cook stoves seem pretty cool to me. This elegant technology uses simple, easily found materials to engineer a highly effective combustion chamber using the same physics as a jet engine. Sounds complicated, but the actual stove is very simple. The result is a wood burning stove that puts heat where it’s supposed to go: on the cooking surface, and then up and out of the house through the chimney. The complete combustion of the wood means that there is virtually no smoke and less air pollution.

But my research is not about the technology itself; instead, I’m interested in the social interactions that occur in the process of spreading this technology. Proyecto Mirador doesn’t spend its money on marketing its cook stoves; it relies on word of mouth. As news spreads, and new people become interested in using Proyecto Mirador’s cook stoves, new customers will sign up in a group, attend a workshop, and gather the construction materials for a technician to do the installation. Across Honduras, Proyecto Mirador is installing about 2,000 stoves a month. My research attempts to track some of the social connections that lead people to the stove (or not).

For me, it’s strange not to be involved in the actual work–instead trying to study the project after the fact. The women look on encouragingly when I tell them that this research is not for Azacualpa, that I’m not signing people up for more stoves, but that I’m trying to understand how these projects work in different towns and different countries. They know my questions don’t matter to them. They’ve already gotten their stoves and they either work well or they don’t. But they are kind and willingly answer my questions.

I do think these surveys are important. Cook stove projects have catalyzed tinkering around the world. Project implementers can guess and assume why families adopt their technologies, or they can get the direct perspectives of the people affected by their project. That’s what a well-designed social survey does–it solicits the voices of adopters and non-adopters alike, bringing their realities to project administrators, stove designers, and academics around the world so we can better understand the effects of our work.

I hope my research in Azacualpa can provide numbers not just on inputs and accomplishments, but also on the social processes of implementation. Based on my initial results, I expect to find that social distance, more than geographic distance, is an important factor in accessing information–that there are neighbors who find themselves “left out” of many conversations and opportunities, because they lack the same social networks as the “adopter” households. This kind of information can help cook stove projects access communities through more than one set of social networks, and encourage stove requests from several local groups.


  1. Pingback: Sage Magazine – School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Summer Blog ’13

  2. Erin, Thank you for your thoughtful blog and for sharing your experience in the Honduras, mosquitoes and all. It must have been quite a change living without electricity, running water, creature comforts (Klondikes!). You are an inspiration and I wish you much success!

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