Working with Communities to Combat Climate Change: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story

By Courtney Columbus

Three times a day, my neighbor in the Dominican Republic (DR) balances pieces of locally found firewood on top of three stones in her backyard. She cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her family on this slow-cooking fire. Although her pots of fire-cooked rice and beans nourish her and her family, the smoke that spirals up from this fire and into her lungs poses serious health risks.

My neighbor’s cooking technique is common practice in the DR, and in other developing nations. However, this isn’t the only practice that is harmful to health and the environment. In my region, near the Haitian border, many families also make their own charcoal, which requires cutting down trees. This region is hot and arid, making it difficult for deforested areas to ever fully recover. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the DR often dedicate part of their service to finding ways to improve this situation.

To help address the environmental and health problems caused by cooking on firewood and charcoal, a group of dedicated doñas (this is a respectful reference to older women) and I decided to build improved cookstoves in my community. These stoves have an enclosed cooking chamber that burns firewood more efficiently than cooking out in the open. The fire inside the stove heats up two hot plates, so Dominican women can still cook their daily pots of rice and beans, but unlike an open fire, these stoves have chimneys that take smoke away from the cook. Also, the improved cookstoves reduce the use of charcoal by rural families, because the stoves work best when dry firewood is used. Less charcoal use means that more trees in my community can remain standing!

There are inconveniences being a PCV: a broken-down bus never shows up to take me to a meeting; a grant application gets delayed; I lose the finer meaning of a project partner’s speech in Spanish at a community meeting. But, on the opposite side are moments that make it all worth it. Those mornings when I stop by my neighbors’ wood-slat-and-rusty-tin-roof homes and see them contentedly boiling a pot of coffee on their improved cookstove gives me the motivation to keep working.

Although the 70 stoves that we built in my site are a microscopic drop in the bucket of global efforts to combat climate change, many PCVs throughout the DR have also been building stoves. Several PCVs in northern DR have built over 100 stoves each with their community members. We hope to see the project continue in the future. Improved cookstoves have changed the way that women in our sites cook, changed the air that they breathe, and changed the way they treat their environment.

About the author: Courtney Columbus is from Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania has been serving as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in the Dominican Republic since 2012. A graduate of Allegheny College, she is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader.