Harnessing the sun

Harnessing the sun
Haiti, in its original form, could easily be described as a tropical paradise.

As a French colony, Haiti became one of the richest lands in the Caribbean. But the country paid a terrible price.

Its wealth through the ages has been based on forestry and sugar-related industries, but only through the heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation.


Haiti has been plagued by political violence for most of its history. Today, it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Russ Stone and Curt Jopling, two Vermillion men who are members of the First United Methodist Church here, know they likely won't see a marked improvement in Haiti's economic status anytime soon.

The two men, however, believe in offering aid to the impoverished country, even if it's on a small scale.

That's why they've chosen to get involved in efforts by the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church to ship solar ovens to Haiti and give people there training on the equipment's use.

"We left on Jan. 30 and arrived back in Vermillion on Feb. 13," Jopling said. "And we really need to give a big plug to the outreach committee of the First United Methodist Women that funded us."

"And we also had many other people from our church and community who sponsored us," Stone said.

"There were nine people from South Dakota who made the trip," Jopling said. "We assembled the ovens, and we also put on seminars while we were there for the Haitians to learn how to cook in them.

"In order for the people to receive an oven, they have to go through a three-day seminar," Stone said, "and they are taught how to use the ovens, how they impact the environment, and how using the ovens improves the deforestation they have there."

Both men agree that training is a crucial part of introducing this technology to the nation.

"It is very likely that with the training, the people will be more likely to use the ovens," Stone said. "One of the problems early on is they weren't used correctly � some people even tried using them inside, or in the shade."

Man has stripped the lush jungle areas and mountainsides of Haiti bare.

"Only 1 percent of the country's land mass has trees left. They used the trees to make charcoal for fuel, which they use for cooking."

No trees means no fuel for carrying out basic necessities, like cooking or boiling water. Haiti's environment is also suffering greatly.

The two men also noted that in Haiti's recent history, government leaders have profited through charcoal exports.

"On top of that, the Haitian people have to buy charcoal to cook with," Jopling said.

"They also use charcoal to purify water, because the water is pretty bad down there," Stone said. "A lot of families spend a third of their yearly paycheck just on charcoal."

Haiti is hot and sunny most of the time, making it an ideal place to use solar ovens.

"I think the analogy of cooking with the solar oven is like using a crock pot," Jopling said.

"The temperature gets to about 250 degrees inside the oven, and it can be as high as 300 degrees if you use a reflector. You can fix just about anything you would fix in a normal oven. While we were there, the people were baking bread, making stew, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, beans and rice � pretty much anything you wanted," he said.

"One of the things they use the stoves for, too, is to purify water," Jopling said. "What they use to indicate that the water has come up to the proper temperature is a little plastic tube that's filled with wax that melts at 150 degrees. They put that in the water, and when the wax has dropped down from the top of the tube to the bottom of the tube, they know it has reached the right temperature.

"And then when they want to do another one, they just flip that tube over and stick it in another pot of water," he said. "The wax will have hardened after it cools, and by flipping the tube it's back on the top, so they can use that tube of wax over and over again."

A nearly equal number of men and women received training on how to operate the stoves.

"The husbands really want to know what they are getting, while the women are primarily interested in receiving the training on how to cook with them," Stone said.

"They cook a meal with the ovens during each seminar. It's really impressive," Jopling said.

The two men spent a great deal of their time in Haiti's capital, Port-Au-Prince. The city alone is estimated to be home to as many as half of the country's eight million residents.

The two men admitted it was an eye-opening experience. Electricity is provided to the public for about three hours a day in different sections of the city.

Facilities that require a more stable form of electric power must purchase their own diesel generators, if they can afford them.

"Part of the problem they have with the lack of hydroelectric power can be traced to the deforestation," Jopling said. "When they cut all the trees down, instead of all the water flowing down to the watersheds into the streams and rivers, it just flows down the mountains and the rivers are basically dry."

That means millions of people in just Port-Au-Prince alone are in need of solar ovens. The recent work of the South Dakota delegation barely scratched the surface, in the scheme of things, of meeting those needs.

Stone and Jopling aren't discouraged.

"We're doing something," Jopling said. "We could use three million of those ovens, and when you're building 250 of them as a group, it is a drop in the bucket. But I think the idea behind it is to show that there is an alternative to using every last bit of wood in the country in order to feed your family."

"And with the money that a family can save by not having to buy charcoal," Stone said, "they can afford to send one kid to school. It is one step at a time, but it's one child at a time, too. And the only thing that's holding us back is the financing that's needed to build new ovens and ship them down there."

Both Jopling and Stone plan to travel to Haiti again in the near future, to build more ovens, and train people on how to use them.

And to make Haitians make one more baby step out of poverty.

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