Independent Appeal: The new cooking stove that protects African wildlife by cutting human need

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The Independent Online

In the end, you have to do it sideways. That's the principal lesson. You can't solve the clash of interests between Africa's wildlife, and Africa's millions living in poverty, by simply telling the latter they can't touch the former.

The direct route prohibition doesn't work. Poor people with pressing needs ignore "no entry" signs on national parks, and get over fences meant to keep them out. Sideways thinking is what's essential, and often it's pretty simple as simple, say, as coming up with a different way of burning wood. Over the past month we have illustrated a number of methods of what you might call sideways conservation, being sponsored and supported by the Gorilla Organization (GO), formerly the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, one of the charities featuring in the current Independent Christmas Appeal, which closes this weekend.

GO sprang from the legacy of the celebrated American primatologist who, over 18 years living and researching in the mountains of Rwanda, brought to the attention of the world the mountain gorillas of the forests of the Virunga massif among the world's rarest and most charismatic animals.

Dian Fossey herself fought a head-on battle with poachers who were killing the gorillas, and paid the ultimate price she was murdered on Boxing Day, 1985, presumably by a poacher. In the years since her death, however, thinking about conservation in Africa has shifted substantially and now there is a widespread recognition that communities living close to wildlife must be brought to support it, rather than simply policed to prevent them touching it.

The essence of this community-based conservation is the satisfying of needs that people would otherwise seek to satisfy in the habitats of wildlife species, coupled with awareness-raising and education about the value of biodiversity. And satisfying needs in a different way is where the sideways thinking comes in.

People often go into the Virunga national parks, for example, in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to collect water, so GO is helping communities harvest rainwater by building large rainwater cisterns in local villages. Sometimes they go in to site their beehives and collect honey, so GO is helping beekeepers with modern equipment outside the parks. Sometimes they go in for meat that is, to hunt, or poach, so GO is helping communities near park boundaries build up their own herds of livestock, replacing the need for "bushmeat".

But what people seek more than anything from the forests of the Virunga massif is wood, above all, wood for the cooking fire. There are two ways of solving that need. One is to plant lots of trees outside the national parks, and GO is busily involved in many tree-planting schemes. But the other, which is perhaps the perfect example of the sideways thinking that can deliver conservation in Africa, is to build a better fire. In fact, the idea is to build a stove to replace the traditional open cooking fire, a stove that seals its own heat in, and so uses a tiny fraction of the wood fuel an open fire consumes.

GO is heavily involved in promoting firewood-saving stoves. They are quite large, about 3ft by 5ft almost an African Aga and take some time to construct, although the job is very simple and they are cheap (they cost about 10). The body is built out of bricks, subsequently covered in clay, and the hob contains holes that are an exact fit for the cooking pans or pots which they are to heat. The design means that very little heat escapes, and it has been estimated that such a stove saves up to 80 per cent of the wood which is burnt on a conventional cooking hearth.

Their other great advantage is that, because they also have chimneys, they drastically reduce the indoor air pollution which is one of the banes of domestic life in African villages. Last year the World Health Organisation estimated that the death toll from household air pollution exceeded 800,000 children and 500,000 women.

GO field staff are showing villagers how to construct such stoves and the organisation hopes to put about 3,000 in place around the Virunga massif, thus drastically cutting back on the demand for wood. It is the sort of oblique answer to a problem that is the way forward in the difficult job of saving the majestic wildlife of Africa, while at the same time responding to the needs of Africa's people.