Of Cow Dung, Cook Stoves and Sustainability in Practice
By Tal Lee Anderman
When the Environmental Defense Fund asked me to measure how biogas cook stoves were changing the lives of farmers in rural India, there wasn’t a word in that question with which I was comfortable. Having just graduated from the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, I had never done fieldwork; and the concept of a biogas digester, which turns cow dung into natural gas through anaerobic digestion, was itself a mystery. I had no idea that this was the beginning of a steep learning curve into low-carbon development at a large scale. But even more, that it would provide a window into the lives of families whose existences have permanently improved thanks to the clean cooking stoves.
The learning process began in January 2013, when I arrived at the Agricultural Development and Training Society in Karnataka, India. Like the Environmental Defense Fund, the organization is a member of the Fair Climate Network and a leader in pro-poor clean development both locally and abroad. Established in 1977, the Society’s underlying mechanism is the Coolie Sangha, a membership based people’s organization of peasant farmers who solve local problems by pooling financial and social capital. The Society is making substantive progress throughout their five districts – totaling 1,165 villages – on adult literacy, children’s education, community health, agriculture, alternate credit systems, and women’s programs. They also have pioneered projects, such as low-carbon farming and biogas-fueled cook stoves that engage emission-trading schemes to support low-carbon development in rural areas.
My goal was to better understand some of the co-benefits from the clean cook stoves (right) for the farmers’ quality of life. Specifically, I measured whether there were significant differences in the diversity of a household’s diet, the allocation of women and children’s time, and the prevalence of respiratory health issues between families with the biogas-fueled stoves and those who relied on conventional wood stoves. We surveyed 250 randomly selected households from 15 villages in the district. Each interview lasted about one hour, with questions ranging from how many times the family ate ragi ball per week, to the frequency and cost of a doctor appointment for chest pain or asthma. Taken together, our aim was to quantify changes taking place at the household level as a result of the new stove.
While our survey data still need to be evaluated through rigorous statistical analyses, it was obvious from the moment that I set foot into a house whether or not the family owned a clean cook stove. Rather than being greeted by a wave of smoky air, the clean stoves left no evidence of when the family had last cooked; roofs retained their natural straw or metal material, instead of being covered in black soot (left). Some of these changes were to be expected – a direct outcome of replacing a wood burning stove with natural gas. What took me by surprise, however, were the endless stories people told of all the subtle yet significant ways their lives had improved because of the “Gobergas,” as it is locally and affectionately known.
For example, Rangamma (right) of Muguchinnapalli delighted in telling us how she has replaced long days in the field collecting wood with simply gathering dung from her cow, mixing it with water, and turning on a stove. She and countless others describe the struggles of firewood collection: taking over 15 hours a week, it subjected them to nasty thorns gauging their feet (they have pins on their necklaces just to remove the barbs), heavy physical strain from carrying the wood on their heads, and constant contact with unexpected animals and strangers. Mehrun (below) of Karkur described how prior to the stove, she didn’t have sufficient time to finish cooking for her children in the mornings; they left hungry and empty handed on their way to school. Now, with the turn of a nob, she can quickly make not only breakfast, but also lunch for them to take throughout the day. Consequently, the family regularly eats three warm meals a day, rather than being limited to one or two because of the time and wood needed to start a fire.
These are just a few of the countless stories told about ways in which the biogas cook stoves have improved the lives of farmers in rural India. In the years to come, profits from selling the carbon credits will be distributed to each family, providing additional resources for the coolie sangha to meet local needs. As the Agricultural Development and Training Society progresses with the project, I will be taking my data and working with Prof Ruth DeFries toward a publication of the quantified benefits provided by the biogas stoves. As my first fieldwork project, the experience allowed me to test firsthand the theories learned in courses within the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, while facilitating the application of key skills I fostered while in the program. This marriage of my formal education with on-the-ground experience brought to life the struggles and triumphs of a truly applied sustainable development project. It will stay with me as I pursue a PhD in natural resource management, and will shape my thinking for many years to come.
Anderman is an alumni of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, and currently works as a research assistant to Professor Ruth DeFries on projects with the Environmental Defense Fund.