Natural Resources at Work in Chile
It was another hot day, and the desert sun blazed down on our pasty white arms.
My husband and I were shopping for the week’s fruits and vegetables in the local street market. We ran into a neighborhood friend who sells used clothes in the market for about 20 cents an item. She smiled brightly when she spotted us and ran to greet us.
“David and Anita! I want to introduce you to my friend,” she announced, then led us over to a small stand where an older woman sat selling plants. After introductions were made between Señora Marta and us, we were treated to a 30-minute long conversation where we learned quite a lot about life in our new home, the Atacama Desert of Chile. Marta was an Aymara woman whose family traditionally farmed high up in the Andes Mountains.
The Aymaras are an indigenous group found in Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile. Marta told us that her family knew all the secrets of the desert and claimed to be able to grow anything, despite the mountains of arid sand that surrounded us. I believed her too, after seeing all of the beautiful bushes, fl owers and trees she was selling at the market. The problem, she said, was that she and her family had been forced to leave their land and their traditions.
They had come to the city for their children, so that they might be able to get an education and find good jobs. While living inthe city, Marta found that people were disrespectful of the earth. Her family’s eyes were opened to a world of drugs and violence.
Her oldest son studied and got a well paying job working for a salt mine. However, after a month he quit his job, telling his mother that he just couldn’t take part in such destruction. He brought home stories about tons and tons of water being used during the process, resulting in the depletion of underground reservoirs that traditionally provided drinking water to residents of small oasistowns. Marta lamented that this was no way to treat God’s creation and that we must teach our children to respect and care for the earth.
From this conversation in the market, a project was born. Marta asked us if we could teach the community to build solar ovens. In Alto Hospicio, conditions are ideal for solar energy, as we have sun all year round, and it hasn’t rained in almost two years! We explained that we had no clue how to build solar ovens, but that we would look for someone who knew more.
We contacted our local Columban Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) coordinator and asked if he could help. He quickly acted and found a group in Ireland who was willing to finance the project, on the condition that we worked with women and that the project would improve their quality of life.
The project grew from just a one day solar oven workshop to a month-long alternative energy seminar. The JPIC coordinator arranged for an expert to come teach the women about the earth’s diminishing resources, global warming and what they could personally do about it. Granted, in the beginning, the women weren’t very interested in global warming.
They were more concerned about the cost of gas and how they could save money while cooking and bathing. For four weekends in a row, a group of women (and a few tag-along husbands) from our neighborhood came together and learned, hammered, nailed and grew as a community. During the seminar, each of the women made their own “witch’s oven,” solar fruit dehydrators and a very basic form of solar water heaters. Also, they made a very complicated parabolic solar cooker and a large solar oven, as a demonstration of just how far solar energy can go.
The witch’s oven is basically a thermos for food. It’s made of Styrofoam, is cylinder shaped, and allows for a pot of food to fit snugly inside. The “magic” part is that it allows food to cook without direct heat. You set a pot of food to boil for about one minute on a traditional stove, take it off the heat and then place it into the witch’s oven. With a tightly fitting lid, the oven maintains the heat of the pot for hours and allows the food to continue cooking, while saving energy. This was by far the item the women most appreciated.
My neighbors proudly inform me that they use their ovens every single day. While it does take longer to cook food in the witch’s oven than on a traditional stove, the women simply put a pot of rice orsoup on in the morning and leave it to cook while they go about their daily activities. They are able to leave it unattended, since no fire is involved, and there is no chance of the food burning. By lunchtime, the food is ready, and it stays hot all day long. At the end of the seminar, the women came together and held a demonstration of all the knowledge they had gained. It was a festive day with lots of great foods to try. They also promised to continue meeting and to teach other people in the community what they had learned.
Their neighbors are already asking them what those funny looking cylinders are! We also talked about why we offered this course in a church building. It wasn’t hard for them to understand. As Marta said, God created this earth, and it is our job to respect and care for it. It was wonderful to see their motives change from an interest in saving money to a yearning to use our resources more wisely. The women continue meeting regularly in our chapel and are looking forward to soon offering their very own workshop to neighbors and schools in the community.
Columban lay missionary Anna Draper lives and works in Chile with her husband David and son Joshua.