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Masons on a Mission: Enabling Safer Cooking in Mayan Communities

Nominated by David Foley

My nomination goes to a modest group, doing a small thing, making a huge difference. They are Masons On a Mission, started by my friend Pat Manley. The organization constructs safe masonry cook stoves for impoverished Mayan villagers in the highlands of Guatemala.

The problem they're addressing is summed up on their website:

A smoky three stone fire in Ixtahuacan -2000
We are replacing what are known as 3 stone fires, with hand built masonry cook stoves, known locally as estufas, or la plancha. The 3 stone has a fire in the middle of 3 stones set as a triangle, with a metal plate (often the lid from a 55 gallon drum) laid over the top to cook on. These 3 stone fires are commonly located within a dwelling, providing heat as well.
The problem with this method of cooking and heating is that there is no way of properly venting the wood smoke. These open fires are the sole source of cooking and warmth for thousands of Mayan families, but also the source of much misery.
There are deadly and debilitating results from constant exposure to the toxic smoke from a wood fire while inside the dwelling. There are the obvious respiratory illness’s and the stunting of growth in children’s young lungs. At higher elevations there is also a decreased level of oxygen in the air. Not usually a problem, you or I would just walk a bit slower and just huff and puff more as your blood tries to absorb some oxygen. In a high altitude smoky dwelling it is much different. Everyone's blood has an affinity for carbon monoxide, meaning it prefers to absorb poisonous CO2 over what little Oxygen is available to begin with. No one needs to do any special studies to determine it is a very unhealthy situation. One that is easily made better with smoke vented from their dwelling.
It also makes the women that live and cook with the 3 stone fire all day, cry every day. Their eyes are wet and red, and faces drawn, as the result of years of constant exposure to hot, toxic wood smoke. Such exposure results in what they call “clouds” in their eyes. Here we would call it significant loss of vision, or blindness. There are also many very serious burn injuries from children's accidental falls into the open fires.
Each estufa (which is of a Central American design) that we build adds MANY YEARS of health, and vision, to the lifetime of every member of the family, especially the children. ALL of the money we raise is used to buy (in Guatemala) the masonry materials that we need, as well as to hire and train local Maya to help us to build hundreds of estufas, even after we come home.

It costs about $150 U.S. to build an estufa. Masons On a Mission is training Guatemalan masons to build them, and raising money to get them built.

This piece is part of Worldchanging's Attention Philanthropy campaign. All week long, the Worldchanging Network will be delivering "attention grants" to worthy projects, individuals, resources and more. You can learn more about these gifts of notice and find other entries by clicking here.

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