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HOT BOX. Basic solar oven can be a breakthrough for the countries that depend on wood fuel for cooking. COOKING BY THE SUN

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EACH day millions of third-world families waste valuable time chopping down precious forests in a desperate struggle to find fuel for cooking. The women spend hours tending hot fires in smoky, windowless rooms. The wood shortage is reaching crisis level in many parts of the world, as forests are being depleted at a rate of 27 million acres a year.

By the year 2000, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2 billion people will be affected.

Robert Metcalf, a bacteriologist at California State University, Sacramento, believes there's a simple solution to much of this problem: Let the sun do the cooking.

Dr. Metcalf and the organization Solar Box Cookers International are promoting the use of solar ovens around the globe. ``Sunshine is free, non-polluting, and virtually inexhaustible,'' Metcalf says.

He's convinced that his simple box made of cardboard or wood, aluminum foil, and one pane of glass can retard the destruction of forests and free third-world people from hours of searching for wood.

For years, solar ovens suffered from poor design. But in the mid-'70s, two creative grandmothers from Tempe, Ariz., Barbara Kerr and Sherry Cole, designed one that could retain heat longer, was larger, and could cook on cloudy days.

In January, Metcalf had an opportunity to test his theory that solar ovens could help solve the problem of deforestation. Under the auspices of the Pillsbury Foundation and Foster Parents Plan, he and Dr. William Sperber, a microbiologist, conducted workshops in El Progreso, Guatemala.

When Metcalf arrived in El Progreso, he was struck by the daily struggle to collect firewood. ``Men, women, and children are out all times of the day with machetes, collecting and hauling firewood,'' he says.

In the last three years, the cost of fuel wood has doubled in El Progreso. Those who have to buy it spend about 30 percent of their income on it.

``If the residents continue collecting wood at the present rate, in 10 years the area will resemble the desert areas of Africa,'' says Mo Tejani, field director with Foster Parents Plan there.

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