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Teachers create lasting change for people and primates via clean cookstoves (commentary)

Chimpanzee in Uganda, photo courtesy of, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

  • Kibale National Park has the highest diversity of primates in the world and 300+ species of birds, but wildlife are threatened by habitat degradation from activities like firewood collection.
  • Fuel-efficient cookstoves can be used to reduce wood consumption, improve cook times, and mitigate smoke inhalation associated with cooking on open fires.
  • Many such projects fail over time, but a new project involves the multiplicative effect of involving teachers in educating the community about their usefulness, since a single teacher can influence many students.
  • This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Traditional wood stoves in developing countries are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and rely on a steady supply of wood, often causing habitat destruction. Around Kibale National Park, Uganda, where the population density has reached over 300 people per square kilometer, the need for fuelwood can fuel the destruction of critical forest habitat.

Kibale National Park also has the highest diversity of primates in the world (13 species, including chimpanzees) and more than 300 species of birds, but wildlife are threatened by habitat degradation. Fuel-efficient stoves can be used as an alternative to traditional three-stone stoves to reduce wood and water needs, improve cook times, and mitigate smoke inhalation associated with cooking on open fires. However, effectiveness of these stoves is dependent on their design, maintenance, and adoption and in some cases, stove construction has not actually led to reduced wood consumption.

UNITE for the Environment, a program of North Carolina Zoo with support from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, has been working with 12 schools bordering Kibale National Park since 2002. In 2016, 120 teachers that are part of the program were trained in techniques to build two models of fuel-efficient stoves that could be constructed from local and primarily natural materials like grass and dirt.

New cook stove construction. Image courtesy of North Carolina Zoo.

Teacher training is lauded for its potential multiplicative effect – a single teacher can influence many students. However, such effects can be challenging to demonstrate. In addition, teacher training has the potential to lead to sustained behavioral change as teachers can continue to teach the same content year after year, but this is rarely evaluated.

In a recent paper published in American Journal of Primatology, my team assessed the effectiveness of teacher training as an approach for creating sustained and multiplicative behavioral change in relation to the construction of fuel-efficient stoves. Stoves built by teachers, students, and the community were found to require less wood than traditional stoves and to cook faster but didn’t reduce water use.

In addition, findings demonstrated a multiplicative and sustained effect both in terms of behavioral change and in terms of knowledge and attitude change in students taught by the teachers. More than 150 stoves were constructed per year up to three years after the initial training when the study was completed. In addition, student knowledge about (and attitude towards) fuel-efficient stoves had improved from beginning to end of the school year every year for three years, while no change occurred in students from similar control schools that weren’t part of the program.

Teacher training event. Image courtesy of North Carolina Zoo.

One of the greatest challenges in creating behavior change for environmental causes is to make it lasting and sustainable. Teacher training may be a technique for sustained conservation commitment as teachers will continue to teach the content year after year and also are respected members of their community, particularly in rural areas of developing countries.

However, one of the limitations of fuel-efficient stoves as a means to reduce fuelwood consumption is that the stoves require continued maintenance to remain efficient. While a single year focused on teacher training on fuel-efficient stoves was able to lead to sustained construction of the stoves for several years afterwards, follow-up support for stove maintenance will likely be critical for continued use of the stoves. Nonetheless, teacher training can create behavior change and may be more effective than conservation education efforts that rely on awareness-raising or students alone.

But what does this mean for the forests and for great ape conservation? Translating findings on stove construction or use into total trees saved can be a challenging calculation, but is a key step for evaluating the value of this conservation strategy.

In a similar study also recently published in American Journal of Primatology from Democratic Republic of Congo, a two-year, community-based social marketing campaign to promote fuel-efficient stoves was evaluated. This study demonstrated not only successful installation of stoves (with an increase from 18 to 78% of households having one after the campaign) but also showed a 50% reduction of wood use in homes with the new fuel-efficient stoves.

This study had shown that most wood used by these communities was coming from a nearby forest of significance to Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees. Less wood needs should thus translate to more habitat saved, but measuring this precisely and tying gains (or at least reduced losses) in habitat linked to a specific mitigation strategy like fuel-efficient stoves remains a challenge for these community-based programs.

See related: Changing energy use in rural Africa with power from solar, clean stoves and women

Traditional ‘three stone’ hearths are smoky and inefficient. Image courtesy of North Carolina Zoo.

Fuel-efficient stoves have been implemented by a variety of organizations all over the world, but whether or not they achieve intended outcomes is dependent not only on their initial adoption but on their long term use and maintenance. Both projects depended on strong community involvement to ensure actual community adoption and sustained use and maintenance of these stoves.

Only time will tell as to the success of these initiatives in the long term to reduce demands for firewood, save great ape habitat, and slow climate change. But one thing is for sure, teachers are influential members of their community with the ability to create lasting and multiplicative change that can protect great apes and their forest habitats now, while empowering conservationists of the future.

Corinne Kendall is Curator of Conservation and Research at the North Carolina Zoo.

Banner image: Chimpanzee in Uganda, photo via, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain.

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