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Forest for the future — Mormon program brings Guatemalan families efficient ovens to help save trees

SEAMAY, Guatemala — High in the Alta Verapaz, the fires are seemingly always burning.

They burn to clear land to farm corn and coffee.

They burn the rain forest to make way for cattle.

And in the jungle of the Peten, not far from the Mayan temples of Tikal, some 37,000 acres of national forest burn every year for agriculture and mining.

"A long time ago there was a huge forest here with big trees," remembers Blas Cuz, a farmer in Guatemala. "Now, those forests are gone. We have to walk farther and farther for wood."

Cuz lives in the small village of Seamay, deep in the mountains of northeastern Guatemala. For most of his life, he has hiked at least an hour, several times a week, to gather firewood.

But over the last decade, Cuz has seen a steady retreat of forest, which he says has caused temperatures to rise in his village.

Deforestation is a problem throughout rural Guatemala, which lost 17 percent of its forest between 1990 and 2005, the fourth worst rate in the world. The effects are far reaching. Soil erosion reduces agricultural yields, while hills denuded of vegetation are more susceptible to landslides during tropical storms. In 2005, a hurricane killed 650 people, 250 of whom were buried alive near the city of Panabaj.

There is no simple answer to stopping deforestation in the developing world. Cuz mourns the loss of so much nature near his village, but he has to gather wood from the forest to cook meals and boil water. (Traditionally, rural Guatemalans cook over open-pit fires). And the discarded lumber and twigs that make up the walls of his humble home came from the forest as well.

One small solution, however, may be the new high-efficiency stove Cuz recently installed in his kitchen. He bought it with assistance from the LDS Church and the Maya Relief Foundation, a California-based charity. Since 2002, the charity has brought hundreds of the stoves at a heavily subsidized price to Guatemala.

The stove, which is made of fired clay and sits on concrete blocks, reduces wood consumption by 70 percent, thus saving an estimated 12 trees each year per family. Over the last year, the Maya Relief Foundation, working with the LDS Church, has brought stoves into the homes of 100 people in Seamay, who pay one third of the cost.

"We're trying to build self-reliance," says Leon Reinhart, the founder of the Maya Relief Foundation. "If we can reduce the amount of wood they need each week, that's time they can spend working to improve their lives."

The stove also has tremendous health benefits. For years Cuz's wife, Magdalena, cooked meals over an open fire on the dirt floor in their small home. The trapped smoke burned her eyes, gave her headaches and sometimes made her sick. The new stove, on the other hand, has a tin chimney, which pumps smoke out of Cuz's house.

It also makes homes in Guatemala much safer for children. Respiratory infections caused from exposure to smoke result in about 22 percent of the deaths of children younger than 5 in Guatemala, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Hospitals also regularly see injuries caused by open-pit fires, including hernias from carrying heavy loads of wood and badly burned toddlers who accidentally fall into fires.

The push to bring stoves to Seamay is part of a broader effort by the LDS Church to improve life in the village. Over the last year, the church, in partnership with several U.S.-based charities, has built a water system in Seamay, begun construction on a school and helped several villagers get loans to start small businesses, such as chicken farms.

For Blas Cuz, the new stove means more time with his family.

He used to have to go out several times a week to gather wood, often taking his children along. Now he only goes out on Saturdays, which means that his children can stay in school. With his additional time, Cuz is training to become a mason, a job that will allow him to provide a better standard of living for his family.

But for Cuz the stove may have an even broader impact — not just for his family, but for the future of his village. "We have hiked six miles to get wood," his wife Magdalena says. "We realize that the forest is disappearing. We worry where our grandchildren will go for wood."

Carlos Barrios, the Guatemala director of the Maya Relief Foundation, says this is a concern shared throughout the remote outreaches of the country, where the tie between the people and the land is deep and abiding.

"The historic impact of what we are doing is great," Barrios said. "What we are doing here can make a great difference for future generations."