Retired engineering prof bringing efficient stoves to rainforest dwellers

Retired engineering professor Eugene Lewis of Fredericton is working on a project to get very efficient stoves to people who live in the mountainous jungles of Guatemala.

“Not only are we helping these women and their children … we’re considerably diminishing the exhaustion of the rainforest,” said Lewis.

Vast numbers of people who cook with open flame are susceptible to often-fatal ailments related to smoke inhalation.

Close to four million people die each year from issues related to cooking pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

And the rainforest, which plays a key role in regulating the climate, is being cut down at an alarming rate. The tropics lost 12 million hectares of tree cover in 2018, according to Global Forest Watch.

Lewis and his partners in the project send illustrated booklets about the stoves home with students at remote Guatemalan schools, so they can find families interested in having one. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

The model of stove Lewis is distributing, which is called La Chapina Bonita, can run for five months on the amount of fuel burned up in one month of open-fire cooking, according to a Mayan woman interviewed in a promotional video from Rotary Club.

For families, it means they have to spend only two days a month looking for wood, instead of two days a week.

It’s a drastic improvement in their personal safety since people are frequently shot dead for removing as little as a dollar worth of fire wood from the wrong place, Lewis said.

And the stove’s many chambers nearly eliminate waste and air pollution.

An easy-to-build stove

“There’s just powder for ash in the bottom and almost no smoke.”

Lewis likes the simple design, which was developed by Guatemalan engineer Carlos Galvez. The stove is made of 70 bricks, it’s easy to transport and construct, and it takes about two hours to build, he said.

“I go down and help with delivery,” Lewis said. “We look for the villages that need them. Sometimes we’re in villages where, they’re not even on the map. We’ll find 20 to 30 huts in a small place and the place doesn’t even have a name.”

They find a co-ordinator in each place, often a school teacher.

Families that don’t have an efficient stove spend two days a week gathering firewood anywhere they can to burn in open fires for cooking. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

“We’ll go into a school and say, ‘Hey, we can get the smoke out of your kitchen.'”

They set up a demonstration stove and it doesn’t take long for orders to start coming in, said Lewis.

It’s not uncommon for women in these villages to be running in and out of their homes while doing their cooking, in order to try to escape the smoke, he said.

Those who want a stove have to buy the bricks they need, which cost about $20, and the group Lewis works with provides the remaining $80 worth of necessary supplies, he said.

Lewis said he’s seen between 400 and 500 efficient stoves installed, but Galvez, who he works and stays with when he goes to Guatemala, has done 4,000.

This is the type of traditional open-fire cooking set up used by people in areas of Guatemala Lewis has visited. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

“Within the next year we want to do a thousand more.”

Lewis has applied to the Rotary Club for funding and is optimistic it will come through.

“They said, ‘Our application is long and hard, but sit down and we’ll help you apply.’ So, we’re pretty sure we’ll get it.”

Several chapters of the club have already sponsored projects using the same stoves.

For his work on those projects, Lewis was made an honorary Rotarian, and given a Paul Harris Fellowship, an honour usually reserved for veteran club members.

Woodstock club member John Slipp nominated him.

Projects need cash

“Eugene is a unique individual who is always looking for new ways to help others and I felt that in many ways his motivations embody the Rotary motto, which is ‘Service above self.'”

Lewis feels a lot of money is wasted by individuals travelling to poorer countries to work on various development projects. 

“What these Rotary clubs need is cash,” he said.

Lewis said he puts about $3,000 into a stove project every time he goes to Guatemala.

The Chapina Bonita stove is made of 70 bricks and only needs a few sticks of wood for cooking. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

His host looks after all of their expenses while he’s there, including their forays into the jungle.

Galvez is a fellow Rotarian from Guatemala City, who made his fortune in industrial cleaning materials, gas stations and mini malls.

He’s now turned over his businesses to his daughter, said Lewis, in order to work on stove projects full time.

“I look for … someone local who knows what he’s doing,” said Lewis.

“I’m useless on my own. I get lost in my own tree lot across the river,” he said, referring to his Christmas tree farm, Hillcrest U-Cut, on Fredericton’s north side.

Not deterred by risks

As an example of the difference a capable guide can make when working in a foreign country, Lewis recalled the advice he got from a driver before venturing down a road where many people were known to get robbed.

The driver told him to bury most of his money down deep in his belongings, but to keep a little out in plainer sight.

“He said, ‘When they rob you, they’ll be happy to have $5 or $10. But if they find $1,000, they don’t want any witnesses.'”

One of the women who received an efficient stove from a project Lewis worked on. Lewis says on trips back to areas where stoves have been installed the women and children line up to express their gratitude. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

Sometimes the dangers are less predictable. 

Like the time the Fuego volcano erupted, wiping out two villages he’d visited just hours earlier.

“That was as close as I’ve come to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Lewis, who is 78, is not put off by the hazards or the physical challenges and plans on continuing this type of work for some time to come.

“I have no ailments. I still ride donkeys up mountains. I’ll do it as long as I can do it.”

Haitian experience changed him

Lewis felt compelled to go to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and has been working on one charity project after another ever since.

“I went to Haiti because I saw a photograph. It was a photograph of six little babies on a mattress. … And the story was that there were 20 babies in that orphanage and only six survivors.”

“I said to my wife, ‘Look, I’m going to Haiti. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to Haiti.'”

A year later he was recruited by former Fredericton car dealership owner Jerry O’Leary to help build an orphanage and ended up working on several other projects there.

Inspired by kids

His favourite was the Mark Gallagher School.

“When you see the sacrifice those women make it’s just incredible,” he said, referring to the nuns who run the school, the orphanage, and several other institutions.

“There’s a lot of inspiration on the top of that mountain.”

Lewis said it took him two years to realize his motivation was helping children. 

“If you can get those kids to school, if you can get them fed and healthy so they can learn, they will change their world when they grow up.”

Lewis’s experiences in Haiti and Guatemala have already changed his world.

For one thing, he has a deeper understanding of poverty.

Grateful to be Canadian

Now when he hears someone complain about something like losing road space to bike lanes, it tends to set him off on a small tirade.

“I’d love to take those people to countries like Haiti, where 85 per cent of the people are on the streets trying to sell something so they can eat that day.”

But he also has a deeper appreciation for everything he has in Canada.

“We live in, without a doubt in my mind, the best country in the world.”

“The way someone described that to me recently, they said, ‘If you’ve been born in Canada, you’ve already won the lottery.’ And I believe that to be true.”

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