the science and soul of an innocent world

Trees, Water and People Work and Win

By Brook & Gaurav Bhagat

sunrise and trees

TWP is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities protect and manage natural resources. Their work is based on, in their own words, two core beliefs:

That natural resources are best protected when local people play an active role in their care and management; and

preserving local trees, wetlands, and watersheds is essential for the ongoing social, economic, and environmental health of communities everywhere.

Trees, Water and People... from the beginning, it sounds like this NPO, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, has got its priorities straight. And the more we learned about the work they are doing in the American West and around the world, the more we were convinced.

We’re not the only ones, either-- this year, TWP, along with their partner group ADHESA (Honduran Association for Development), won one of eight internationally coveted Ashden Awards, also known as the green Oscars. The British Ashden Trust gives the awards, which recognize organizations who have excelled in bringing sustainable energy solutions to the developing world.

Of their many projects, it is the Honduran Micro-Enterprise Stove Project in particular that caught the eye of the Ashden Trust, and earned TWP co-founder and international director Stuart Conway the honor of shaking the hand of Prince Charles, not to mention a grant of £30,000-- about $54,000-- for the program.

For the last 20 years, Conway has been working with indigenous and low-income communities throughout Latin America. TWP’s innovative community-based reforestation and development programs focus on environmental as well as financial sustainability, in one stroke helping communities move towards empowerment and independence and addressing the needs of the environment.

The ecological problem that the stoves address is the fact that most families in Central America-- about 80%-- cannot afford electric or gas stoves, and while their kitchens may be indoors, they have to cook on open wood fires. When entire communities and cities are considered, the rate at which the forests are destroyed for firewood is phenomenal. In the last thirty years, more than 2/3 of Central American forests have been destroyed, and the rest would be gone by 2050 if nothing were being done to save them.

People are suffering from this cooking situation too, almost as much as the trees are. The smoke that is inhaled by women, equivalent on average to smoking about two packs of cigarettes a day, leads to respiratory infections, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, eye disease and complications like low birth weight in pregnancy. Their young children, who also spend a lot of time in the kitchen, are even more vulnerable-- lung disease is the number one cause of death for children under five, and they are also constantly at risk for burns from the fire.

According to the World Health Organization, about 1,600,000 women and children around the world die each year from the toxic smoke of indoor biomass-burning stoves used for cooking and heating; in Honduras, these are the stoves that 90% of rural families and 50% of urban families still use. 90% of the potential wood energy is wasted, and the burning contributes to global warming as well.

What TWP did, with the help of ADHESA and the Aprovecho Research Center, was develop the Justa stove. Built of bricks or adobe, its unique design uses 50 to 70% less firewood than an open cookstove, and has a chimney that carries 95% of the toxic smoke out of the house. Because they burn hotter than traditional stoves, they also save up to 70% on cooking time. For villagers, it also saves hours spent searching for and carrying firewood, and for urbanites, the money spent on it. Those whose livelihoods depend on cooking, like women who make and sell tortillas, have less overhead and see a jump in profit. Or, for an ordinary laborer, the stove can mean about 20% of the family’s income no longer going up in smoke.

In Nicaragua, another version, called the Ecostove, has been developed with the Wood Energy Development Association (PROLEÑA), with similar results. The main difference is that these are made of metal and assembled in workshops ready to install, rather than being literally built in the kitchen like the Justa model.

The Honduras program, however, has gotten the most attention-- the Ashden Award, of course, and also a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of $132,000. The money has been used to start a micro-credit program in Honduras, allowing families to pay back the cost of the stove with monthly installments over the course of a year. At $65-70 per stove, the cost of a Justa stove may not look like much, but if, like an average Honduran laborer, your monthly income is about $100, it remains out of reach, no matter what the savings will be. The micro-credit program will make the stoves available to families like these.

The goal of TWP in this and their other international and domestic projects is to create self-sustaining programs, and they are slowly getting there. Although the Honduran Micro-Enterprise Stove Project is a commercial enterprise, 70% of its funding was originally coming from TWP, Rotary Clubs and other local NPO’s.

Now, however, TWP and ADHESA, with technical support from the Aprovecho Research Center, are training four stove producers to make 720 new stoves in urban areas this year. “There is more incentive to build the stoves in urban areas, where people have to pay for firewood," said Conway. “Now farmers and companies are getting interested, too."

26 vendors will sell the stoves to the public in markets, bus stations, and shops. ADHESA is also promoting the stoves and spreading awareness of their advantages with demonstrations, TV and radio ads, and brochures.

The Ashden award is only given to projects that are up and running, not to good ideas. To date, the Stove Project has installed over 8000 stoves in Central America-- Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala alone. In 2003, the program expanded to include Mexico, Brazil, and Bolivia. The total, since TWP was founded in 1998, is over 14,000 stoves.

The most difficult thing, Conway said, has been getting people convinced to try something new. “How food is made is central to culture; it’s not easy to change. The best way we have found is to find women who are community leaders, and they convince the others."

He said one of the most rewarding experiences of the project has been visiting the people. “If I go back and visit a woman’s home after she’s had the new stove for a month or six months, it’s a day-night difference, she’s not coughing... it’s a great joy to go down and talk to them."

As TWP’s international director, the other program Conway is involved with is community reforestation, a fitting piece to Central America’s ecological puzzle.

In Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua combined, the reforestation projects currently contribute to the planting of about 250,000 trees each year; the total since 1998 is over 1,000,000 trees (just see the momentum).

The programs are different in each country, but all of them involve working with local people and NPO’s, establishing nurseries, replanting trees in deforested areas and moving towards self-sustaining enterprises.

In Nicaragua, working again with PROLEÑA, three Forest Replacement Associations have been developed since 2000. The model of FRA’s came from Brazil, where there are now many successful programs.

An FRA is basically a legal partnership between farmers and commercial builders, like lime producers or brickmakers, who depend on large amounts of firewood for their business. The way it works is that seedlings raised in nurseries are given to farmers for free (paid for by the builders), with a guarantee that the builders will buy it at market price when the wood is harvested. Farmers generally have some amount of land and labor to spare, so it is not a big investment for them, which returns a profit. The farmers are furthermore not obligated to sell the wood to the industry, but can keep it or sell it to the highest bidder. In times of flood, drought or other emergency, the cash crop of wood provides valuable insurance to the farmers.

FRA’s have many obvious benefits for the farmers, but the difference between Brazil and Nicaragua is this: in Brazil, the government requires commercial industries to be financially responsible for the deforestation they cause. These laws are enforced, and the industries were forced to pay fees for replacing the trees they had destroyed; thus the FRA system was born, which was less expensive than the government fees, and the FRA’s flourished.

The problem with duplicating the system in Nicaragua is that the Nicaraguan government has no resources to enforce forest sustainability policies, and thus there is no financial incentive for the commercial builders to participate in the program. Although the forestry authorities are slowly gaining interest, commercial responsibility for deforestation is not yet a reality. For this reason, international aid, NPO’s and TWP have been essential to getting the FRA’s off the ground.

Over the next year, Conway said, two Nicaraguan nurseries will be moving toward privatization, and TWP’s goal is to establish 2-3 more Forest Replacement Nurseries.

In the community reforestation project in Guatemala, fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing seedlings are not given but rather sold to farmers in a particular package-- one fruit tree and three forest trees for about $4. The fruit (generally citrus fruits like orange, lemon or mango) can be kept for the family or sold, like the wood from the forest trees.

In all the Central American reforestation programs, TWP provides training and micro-enterprise loans to establish self-sufficient tree nurseries with local seedlings and replant them in deforested areas.

The other co-founder of TWP, veteran arborist and environmentalist Richard Fox, directs TWP’s domestic projects. He and Conway, both Colorado natives, met in Washington, D.C., and decided to move their families back to the Rockies and start the NPO together.

One of Fox’s main projects is called the Tribal Lands Renewable Energy Program. Similar in spirit to the Latin American projects, the program gives Native American communities a practical way to lower their bills, create industry, beautify their land, and practice their ancient tradition of honoring the Earth.

“The program has two main approaches," Fox explained. “One is treeplanting in the springtime, and the other is building solar heaters to help lower utility bills in winter."

The work started in 2002, on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. In the sweltering summers and freezing winters on the barren prairie, residents were spending up to 70% of their income on heating and cooling their homes. Because electricity is so expensive, many people have to heat their homes with firewood, which is scarce, or propane, a pollutant.

Communities apply for the program. In the spring, at the home of an individual or family who has been selected, a half-dozen 5-7 foot-tall trees are planted on the Northwest side as a windbreak; in the fall, Cottonwoods are planted on the Southwest side for shade. These trees alone lower utility bills by about 20%.

With partners Oglala Lakota College, the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce, Youth Build, and the Youth Opportunity! Organization, the goal of the project is to provide the idea and technical training so that the community can carry on the work on its own after TWP is gone. This provides a great experience for young people, and employment opportunity, which is scarce on the Reservation. The trees are bought from a Lakota tree farm, so that money stays in the community, too.

The other part of the program is installing a supplemental solar heater, which saves up to 30% more on winter heating costs ($100- 200 per year). The heater, which runs on a 12-volt fan, pumps hot air whenever the sun is out; its lifespan is about 20 years, and it currently costs about $1000.

Even though the heaters save money, it is too much for most people to spend up front, and TWP is still trying to find more funds for the project. So far, funding has come from individuals and grants from the Bush Foundation (no relation to the presidential family) and others. The Alternative Gifts Catalog, which makes it possible for an individual to make a donation to the program in someone’s name as a gift, provided $46,000 in funding this year.

“We are building up the Lakota crew," Fox said. “It will be a business operation for them. By next summer, they will be building the solar units on Pine Ridge. The cost will go down to $700 per unit; they will take over, and TWP will move on to Rosebud[another Reservation]."

“In three years, we did 12 workshops and demonstration projects," Fox said. “It takes time to build up respect. You have to start off slow, and do one thing at a time."

Slowly but surely, it has worked. So far, TWP has been involved in planting over 200 large trees at five different reservation communities, and has installed about 30 solar heaters. The momentum is growing: by June 2007, TWP hopes to put in at least 200 more, and other Native American communities, like the Shoshone and Arapaho, have given permission to put in demonstration models on their reservations as well.

The Tribal Lands Renewable Energy Program was recently the cover story for Worldwatch Magazine, and in early October, CNN did a video shoot at Pine Ridge for their environmental show “Earth Matters."

TWP has also received funding from the U.S. Forest Service to make a video about how to establish a tree-planting program on a Native American Reservation. 400 distribution copies of the video, called, “Honoring the Earth: Planting Trees in Native American Communities" will be out next summer.

TWP’s biggest effort in the “water" category is their Rocky Mountain Watershed Training Program. This program answers the call to protect the “Headwaters of America," the runoff from the snowy mountains of the West that provide drinking water for over a million people.

As the area has developed and the population quickly increased, many small watershed protection groups have sprung up to try to protect the supply and quality of the water, most with small staffs and limited funding. What TWP is doing is providing them with technical and organizational training, so they have a better chance of succeeding at protecting water at its source.

“This is the cutting edge of democracy," Fox said. “These watershed protection groups are the most important thing that has happened for natural resource management since the formation of the U.S. Forest Service-- it is about how people work with the government."

The groups are mostly NPO’s made of stakeholders: federal, state and local government agencies, landowners, ranchers, environmentalists, and any other interested individuals. Their goal is to seek cooperative ways to approach watershed problems and potential problems.

“There is less separation between the government and the people," Fox continued. “They work together in a collaborative process."

In Colorado alone, there are more than 40 of these groups, each with their own individual goals and projects. TWP is helping them become sustainable by teaching them tricks of the NPO trade-- how to go about fundraising, find and use volunteers, form a board of directors, etc. They also provide technical training in areas like water quality analysis: how to get samples, analyze watershed data, and turn it into usable information.

The National Watershed Health Project, funded by the EPA and managed at the national level by, is basically an extension of the same work. There are four pilot sites, in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado; TWP manages the Colorado pilot.

“It has given us access to more experts, and more training. We are able to learn from the other pilot states, and since it’s a project on the national level, it has the potential to grow even more," Fox said.

Finally, TWP’s Community Resource Protection Program is literally rooted in their own backyard of Fort Collins, Colorado. Over the last seven years, they have helped put together 160 different natural resource volunteer events in the town and around Northern Colorado, ranging from tree-planting and wetland restoration to riverbed cleanups; between 20 and 120 youth and other volunteers per day show up for the events.

Partnered with the City of Fort Collins, Larimer County, and the Poudre School District, TWP has created four outdoor science labs called “living laboratories." This project has transformed local storm water detention ponds, which were before just breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease, dangerously located in suburban neighborhoods.

Trees and berry bushes are planted and walkways are built. Eggs are nestled in the grass. Even a “bat box" is brought in and placed in a dead tree, 30 feet in the air. Suddenly, the cesspool is a tiny wetland teeming with life-- ducks, foxes, other birds (who eat mosquitoes), and even the occasional mountain lion.

Schools are also near the living labs. Children come to take samples for water quality analysis, see the bugs and monitor wildlife. By participating in these and other local environmental projects, kids get a hands-on experience of the natural world, and a sense of responsibility for it, that can go deeper in them than the dirt under their nails. These feelings and impressions can benefit them, and the Earth, long after we are gone.

To conclude, Trees, Water and People’s complex and innovative programs, which span the spectrum from local to global involvement, can all be summed up in this simple, heartfelt statement from Richard Fox: “When local people can see progress, they’re absolutely willing to get involved and make long-term commitments to protect natural resources. People love doing things where they can really see a difference-- they get excited about it, and it’s excited me too."

For more information on TWP and to find out how you can get involved, go to:

By phone: 877-606-4TWP (toll free), 970-493-7922
By fax: 970-224-1726
By email:

By regular mail:
Trees, Water & People
633 Remington St.
Fort Collins, CO 80524

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