SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to Venezuela, where a deep economic crisis has made every facet of life more difficult. Take the everyday act of just preparing a meal. Normally, most Venezuelans use propane stoves and ovens, but a shortage of cooking gas has led many of them to resort to wood fires. Reporter John Otis has more.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING ON FIRE)
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Rosmery Matute (ph) is blowing on an outdoor wood fire, trying to keep the flames alive. That's crucial because she's cooking huge pots of rice and beans that will be fed to teachers at a school here in the western city of Barquisimeto. Cooking with fire, she admits, is complicated.
ROSMERY MATUTE: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: "You have to be really careful with the wood and the embers so the rice gets cooked but not burned," she says.
Matute has a lot of practice. She and the other cooks here have been preparing school lunches over wood fires for the past three years. It's the same story across much of Venezuela. Normally, 90% of the population cooks with propane stoves, but there's a severe propane shortage. Some families have electric stoves, but they're not much good during the country's frequent power outages. So many have fallen back on the ancient technology of fire.
Ironically, Venezuela sits atop massive reserves of oil and natural gas, which are used to make propane. But government mismanagement has led to a collapse in production.
ANTERO ALVARADO: When oil production start to decline, natural gas also start to decline.
OTIS: That's Caracas energy consultant Antero Alvarado. To make up for the shortfall, he says Venezuela initially planned to import propane, but the country's worst economic crisis in history has left the government strapped for cash.
ALVARADO: It's energy poverty. I mean, when you have - you are on the second-largest natural gas reserve from the Western Hemisphere and you push people to cook with wood, this is coming back to the 19th century.
OTIS: It's also a health hazard.
OTIS: At this soup kitchen in Barquisimeto, volunteers like Jenny Rodriguez (ph) use several large open-air fires to prepare meals for about 100 malnourished people. Sometimes the wood is wet, which makes it even more smoky.
JENNY RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: "Cooking with wood means you're surrounded by smoke all day," she says. "Smoke gets into the walls, into your clothes, even into your skin."
RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: She adds, "sometimes at night I get asthma attacks and have to use a nebulizer."
With so many people now cooking with wood, the landscape around Barquisimeto has changed.
DANIEL ANTEQUERA: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: As he tours the arid outskirts of the city, Daniel Antequera, a former Venezuelan congressman, says, "these hills used to be a lot greener. All the trees have been destroyed."
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING WOOD)
OTIS: But woodcutters like Jose Salas (ph) claim they're providing a service. He earns about $3 a day by scouring the countryside for trees and dead branches, which he sells to city residents desperate for any kind of fuel.
OTIS: Salas is a welder but lost his factory job amid Venezuela's economic crisis. He says the only upside to the cooking gas shortage is that it's provided him with a new line of work.
JOSE SALAS: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: "You don't get rich cutting wood," he says, "but at least you can survive."
For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
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