Santiago Atitlan at dawn,

smothered in a blue haze of wood smoke

   from the morning's open cooking fires.

The ONIL stove Project

The Problem:

Cooking over the traditional Mayan three-stone hearth, still in use in the majority of Tz'utujil homes in the Lake Atitlan basin, consumes huge amounts of firewood. Cutting trees for fuel is the main cause of deforestation on the mountains surrounding Guatemala's legendary Lake Atitlan. Deforestation contributes to the degradation of the lake water, diminishes soil quality, and leads to erosion and landslides. Obtaining firewood is a major expense for the family, either in terms of money or time spent procuring firewood. Open fires are the cause of widespread respiratory and ocular problems for mothers and children who spend the most time in the smoke-filled kitchen. Open-hearth fires result in burns to children who fall into them. Entire communities are covered in dense blue clouds of wood-smoke during the morning and afternoon hours of food preparation -- smoke which contains particulates which are deposited into the lake adding nutrients for the aquatic plants which threaten the survival of  the lake. This smoke also  contributes to the CO2 pollution of the planet's atmosphere.


Our Solution:

Tui’k Ruch’ Lew/ Helping the Earth promotes the use of ONIL energy-efficient, clean-burning cook stoves, which save one tree per month for each family using one. Reducing firewood consumption by about two-thirds makes a dramatic, positive financial impact on family budgets. Stove recipients pay what amounts to a significant portion of their budget to purchase the stove – even as the cost of the stove remains highly subsidized by our donors. The stove covers its cost in fuel savings in just one month. When people comprehend this great savings,  their minds are also opened to the dangers of indoor and outdoor smoke pollution and the effect of deforestation on the lake waters, the source of water for more than 350,000 people in the lakeside communities.

For twelve years, our three-person team has been conducting a highly successful program of installing and most importantly, maintaining, ONIL stoves in the homes of people who have learned about the positive environmental impact of the stove and who are committed to its correct usage. 

Our program includes five home visits per stove in the first year to insure the appropriate siting, installation, correct usage and resolution of any problems.  Annual visits are scheduled to maintain the stoves, with replacement parts available and installed. These durable stoves have a minimum life of at least fifteen years. Our educational strategy couples technological adaptation with environmental education over the first year of stove installation. Alongside training stove owners to successfully adapt to this new technology, TRL’s Outreach Team ensures that families are aware of the direct impact of their wood consumption on the local ecosystem. On each visit, beneficiaries learn about the link between ONIL stove use, decreased wood consumption, local ecological threats, and global climate change. The team discusses increasing deforestation rates on the volcanos and the ecological consequences for Lake Atitlán, such as air pollution and agricultural runoff. 

On especially hazy mornings, when dense blue clouds of wood-smoke visibly cover entire communities, our team explains how on a community level, individual food preparation on open fires produces this smoke. Beneficiaries then learn about the harmful particulates in the smoke that are dangerous both to human health and the health of the lake, which is already threatened by fecal matter contamination. They discuss how PM concentrations present in the local atmosphere contribute excess nutrients to Lake Atitlán, where the survival of aquatic plants is threatened by eutrophication levels surrounding densely populated lakefront communities. Larger discussions surrounding wood smoke’s contribution to global atmospheric CO2 levels follow.


These educational visits are conducted entirely in Tz’utujil by trusted community members, who can bridge the language and cultural gaps and who foster an environment where participants are comfortable interacting with TRL staff. Beneficiaries can ask questions and contribute their own knowledge and perceptions of local ecological threats. This kind of exchange helps our Outreach Team gain contextual insight into the environmental state of the lake from members across the Tz’utujil community. We want to generate greater discussion and awareness within the lake community about imminent ecological threats, as well as encourage individual accountability to preserve biodiversity within the Lake Atitlán basin.

A family using the ONIL stove saves one tree per month.  With more than 2,000 stoves installed to date (2019), over the life of these stoves our project will save 360,000 trees from being harvested for firewood. These trees will absorb some 73,284 tons of CO2 from the planet’s atmosphere.

Our work at a glance

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