CUSCO, Peru - Stale smoke chokes me as I lay down the bricks for a stove intended to change the life of a Peruvian family.
It’s immediately clear that this is not uncommon; I’ll need to chip several inches of black soot from the walls to place the chimney that will take the smoke outside.
In two minutes, I have a sore throat and can only imagine breathing this air for hours at a time.
In the last six years, the organization ProPeru has installed more than 4,500 cleaner-burning stoves in rural Peru.
So far, I’ve installed three.
Traditional wood-burning stoves, often located inside a family’s one-room home, lack chimneys, so the smoke is trapped in the kitchen, deteriorating the health of the women and children who spend much of their day working there.
The stoves installed by ProPeru expel the smoke into the air and use less firewood, therefore reducing pollution both in the home and in the area of Peru known as the Sacred Valley.
ProPeru has utilized several different models, but the current one is ceramic and constructed entirely of local materials. The bricks are manufactured in Cusco, Peru, and barro is provided by the families. Barro is a traditional building material made by mixing a special type of dirt with water and hair from people and cuy (guinea pig, a traditional delicacy).
As strange as it sounds, it works well and apparently has for several centuries.
The women getting stoves today are excited – they welcome us into their homes with a kiss on the cheek and offers of chicha, beer made from corn.
The communities request the installations, and they’ve been looking forward to this day for quite some time.
The stoves have been installed in seven of Peru’s 195 provinces so far. Many of these communities only speak Quechua.
Luckily, I’ve been in places where my Spanish gets me pretty far.
For our work, people serve us food and teach us phrases in Quechua.
The stove materials cost 55 soles (roughly $20), and the families pay 10 soles of that (about the cost of a bottle of shampoo here in Cusco). As a group of 14, we can install 13 to 18 stoves in a day.
At the end of the day, as I cough out old air and rinse barro from my fingernails, I understand a little about how palpable that impact is.