In our first months of work in the Isthmus, we enjoyed the satisfaction of helping out, but we also noticed the limitations of initiatives like ours. We discovered that, although humanitarian aid arrived in abundance, there were problems with its distribution, the type of materials received, the lack of compatibility with local needs and the consequent exacerbation of dependence, inequality, and the displacement of local culture and traditional knowledge amid rapid and profound changes.
As an example of this, we noticed the need to rebuild traditional ovens, most of which had collapsed. These ovens, composed by a hollow pot held within a clay structure, are fundamental for everyday life in communities of Zapotec (binniza) and Huave (ikoojts) communities.
Known as comixcales (or comiscales) in Nahuatl, Xukiis in Zapotec and Puow in Huave, these traditional clay ovens are the heart of the homes in the region. Their use supports food, family cohesion, native culture and the economic income of countless women who depend on the sale of totopo (large, crunchy tortilla) and other products from the oven in local markets to support their families.
Donations of canned food, gas stoves and the lack of support for reconstruction of the ovens were undermining the use of this traditional technique and, with it, the food and general welfare of families accustomed to eating fish, beans, and totopo that women cooked in it. For this reason, we decided to refocus our work to support the reconstruction of this tradition.
Initially, the objective that we set for ourselves was the reconstruction of 50 traditional ovens. However, with the kind donation from people -most of them from Italy, Germany or Denmark- and organizations such as El árbol de la esperanza, Grupo Pujol, Fondo semillas, and Just Peoples, we have delivered the pots and cash resources for the reconstruction of more than 160 traditional ovens in San Dionisio del Mar as well as other communities in the Isthmus.
The pots of the ovens are made by a family of Zapotec potters from Juchitán, who also lost their home during the earthquakes. With this, in addition to obtaining high-quality ovens, highly appreciated by the beneficiaries, we have achieved the parallel objective of detonating a circular economy so that the greatest amount of benefits remains in these communities.
Totopo ovens are the hearth of the Isthmus kitchens
As we move forward with the reconstruction of traditional ovens, we also became aware with its undesired consequences: a high use of firewood as fuel, increasing costs to cut and carrying it, risks of smoke inhalation among women and children, and impact due to deforestation in the surrounding forests.
In this sense, we proposed to a group of beneficiaries of traditional ovens in the community of San Dionisio del Mar the possibility of working with solar stoves. For this, we sought the support of La Sazón del Sol, a group of specialists in the construction and operation of solar stoves in the region of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.
These specialists (Victoria Aguilera and Maylene Velazco) gave a demonstrative workshop on solar stoves in San Dionisio, in which, with the support of interested women, a Tapado de Pescado (a traditional dish of this fisher community) was cooked. In this way, the participants experienced the viability of this technology, knew its principles and aired doubts and concerns.
As advantages of the solar stoves, the women highlighted the fact that they do not need more fuel than the sun, which could involve savings of up to 30 USD per month per family, in addition to avoiding the overexposure of women to woodfire smoke in their kitchens. It was also reiterated that solar stoves could not substitute the traditional ones, for example, in baking totopos or in the preparation of meals at times when there is no sun.
Under the experience of this workshop, the initiative to implement a pilot project of solar ovens was proposed and approved in subsequent meetings of this group of women. In this regard, it was agreed to seek funding from Fondo Semillas, an organization based in Mexico City which kindly responded to the request of San Dionisio’s women and granted the necessary funds to jump-start the project.
Our colleagues of La Sazon del Sol developed a solar oven prototype that is adapted to the conditions of San Dionisio del Mar, addressing mainly the issue of strong winds in that region. The oven was tested and adjusted in late 2018 and, in January 2019, it was presented to the future beneficiaries during a public test in San Dionisio.
Currently, Mexiquemos and La Sazon del Sol are working to assemble 45 ovens, which will be delivered to women of San Dionisio during 2019. To optimize the use of the solar ovens, we will also arrange capacity building sessions throughout the year.
We hope that in September 2019, by the second year of the earthquakes in the area, the solar ovens have strengthened resilience of these women and their kitchens in San Dionisio.
During the reconstruction of traditional ovens, we understood some of their disadvantages, as their great consumption of firewood or charcoal.