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  • Writer's pictureTamara Winter Nelson

Salute to the 3-Stone Fire By Tamara Winter Nelson

Salute to the 3-Stone Fire

Hello Dear Friends of Tu’ik Ruch' Lew,

Recently we had the pleasure of welcoming Tamara Winter Nelson as a volunteer at Tu’ik Ruch' Lew for nearly 6 weeks. Tamara is from Colorado, USA and loves all plants more than anyone I know; so naturally she is a great supporter of the work that Tu’ik Ruch' Lew does to save the forests and biodiversity. Tamara went with TRL’s stove team to learn about what we do and how we do it. She has written her impressions in three personal posts, accompanied by her photos, which we will share with you. Below is her first one.


Salute to the 3-Stone Fire

By Tamara Winter Nelson

I grew up canoeing, camping and cooking over a fire in an exotic and far away land called Wisconsin. After finding camp I’d scamper off to collect firewood, secretly competing with my less industrious siblings and collecting the biggest load of wood. By the time I was old enough to be a Girl Scout, I already knew all about fire making: tinder, kindling, fuel, teepee and log cabin construction styles and how to place a ring of stones around the outside. We smeared the cooking pots with a heavy layer of Ivory soap to make them easier to scrub clean. Fire building was surely the first badge sewn on my green Girl Scout sash. Early on my father taught me a very nasty swear word for someone who lets the fire go out. "ilde schluker" A quick Google translation suggests my father made this word up, but I would not be such a person.

Cooking over fire. I've got this, or do I? Our cooking pots were set on a metal grate balanced precariously on an arrangement of wood or on the bed of hot coals. Eventually the support would burn and if no one was watching the meal would be lost. Here in Guatemala, a cooking pot is set on three stones. The tripod provides a sound base for the pot and vents air to the fire below. How did I not know about this simple and superior technique of the 3-stone fire?

Maya culture is deeply infused with fire and smoke. Guatemala wraps around 37 volcanoes: 3 active, others dormant or extinct. Upwards to 93% of rural Mayan families cook over fire, usually using a 3-stone fire on the ground. Sometimes the cooking fire is built on a metal sheet set on blocks or rocks to elevate the "stove" to waist level. It is a life of bent backs, smoke, soot, flesh burns, low birth weight babies, hacking coughs, asthma, and rheumy eyes.

Firewood in an open fire does not burn cleanly. It releases very fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (called PM25), greenhouse gasses and black carbon, the heavy soot that blackens walls and lungs. Homes are small and closely packed together making your neighbor’s smoke yours to breathe as well. Those most affected by this chronic household pollution are the women who cook and the young children not yet old enough for school. Babies are often wrapped onto a mother's back getting a powerful dose of smoke as tiny infants.

A lifetime after Girl Scouts, at 60, I’m volunteering to install fuel efficient wood stoves with Tu'ik Ruch’ Lew (TRL), “Helping the Earth'' in Tz’utujil communities around beautiful Lake Atitlan. The stoves are called Onil and are quickly assembled on site from modular units. These stoves sport a combustion chamber designed with exact dimensions for maximum fuel combustion. When the fire is burning brightly the smoke is barely detectable as it vents out of the stove pipe. One stove costs TRL $178 U.S or 1,362 Quetzals. Families must contribute Q350 themselves, as experience has shown that families value what they have to pay for. Families receive instruction on correct maintenance of the stove and with proper care it can last up to 20 years. Furthermore, families receive education on health, family financial, gender equity and environmental conservation.They must agree to let TRL collect pulmonary health and economic data in order to measure the impact of our work. Donations from generous individuals and grants cover the rest of the stove cost plus the educational program.

Stove Pipes without and with a combustion chamber.

The benefits reported by families and measured by the data we have collected are numerous. TRL stove users report:

  • Decreased consumption of fuelwood. Instead of gathering wood daily a family may only need to go out once every 3-4 days. One estimate is that a typical family saves 12 commercial firewood trees a year. Meanwhile, those that have to buy wood spend 70% less money and will recoup the cost of the stove.

  • Decreased incidence of upper respiratory illness and asthma.

  • Cooking time is reduced because the stove heats up faster and burns at a higher temperature. This saves time for other work.

  • The smoke created by the fire is vented out of the home, keeping the kitchen and pots clean and the families’ clothes free of the pervasive smell of smoke.

  • The risk of burns is reduced because the stove sides are not too hot to touch and raised off the ground so children cannot fall onto it.

  • The stove adds appeal to the home. Its insulation holds the heat and warms the house on cool nights.

No doubt about it, a 3 stone fire cannot be beat for practical purposes, but the invention of the combustion chamber has a huge impact on forest preservation, and the stove owner’s health and quality of life. Perhaps the biggest motivating factor for the incredibly industrious Tz’utujil people is financial. Time is money and time no longer spent gathering wood can be used for work that generates income. Despite their hard-working ethos they remain very poor yet rich in gratitude and generous with their smiles. Surely in this work I have earned another badge to add to my Girl Scout sash.

The every day chore of gathering wood.


Thanks to Tamara for sharing her impressions and to all of you for your continuing interest in and support for the work of TRL. Stay tuned for Tamara's next report!

Candis E. Krummel

Co-founder & President, Board of Directors

Canton Xechivoy Santiago Atitlan

Sololá, Guatemala Centroamérica

+1 502 4888-1244 WhatsApp

Skype: candis43

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