Travelers who step off a plane in almost any developing nation immediately notice two things: a smell of cooking fires and denuded hillsides. Get on the highway and be struck by the number of people walking along the road carrying bundles of sticks.

In Africa, Asia and Latin America, much of the grueling daily work — especially for women and children — goes into gathering wood and building fires to cook meals. The age-old practice, until now necessary for survival, has also left the ecosystem in bad shape and is thought to contribute to global warming.

For refugees in hot, dry Chad, where an estimated 200,000 displaced people from Darfur are competing for already-scarce wood, there are graver, more immediate perils. Women and youngsters who leave the camps to gather wood are prey for militia and roaming bandits. Women are often raped, beaten and even branded.

The Archdiocese of Portland is joining an effort to address the problems by harnessing the power of the sun. The archdiocese has asked parish leaders to garner support for an initiative to fund small, efficient solar cookers for Darfuri families stranded in Chad.

The local chapter of the American Jewish Committee has been gathering contributions for the ovens. A donation of $30 provides two solar cookers for a family of five to seven. Use of the ovens cuts use of firewood by 40 percent, cutting back the need for dangerous treks.

“This is an initiative that is practical and tangible,” says a letter to parishes from Archbishop John Vlazny. “I am sure that many will want to help.”

In the letter, the archbishop suggests church bulletin announcements and leadership from justice and peace committees.

Millions of refugees from Darfur have already faced organized starvation and mass murder. Every month, thousands are still dying of violence and disease.

The United Nations reports that 52 percent of trees cut globally are used as cooking fuel. Women in Third World countries who cook with wood often suffer from lung and eye diseases because they inhale smoke equivalent to 10 to 20 packs of cigarettes a day.

Leaders of the solar oven movement say that the appliances can save enough time that children can pay more attention to schoolwork.

Checks to fund the solar cookers can be made out to the “American Jewish Committee—Solar Cooker Project,” and mailed to archdiocese’s Pastoral Center, 2838 E. Burnside Portland, OR 97214.