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Alternative energies; ¿are they sustainable?
Luis Ángel Saavedra
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The arrival of electricity improves living conditions in indigenous communities, but generates other needs that have an impact on their culture and the environment.

The implementation of alternative energies in indigenous communities is viewed as ways that are friendly to the environment and make an effort to conserve it.  However, the uncontrolled use of this energy could lead to the creation of an energy market that is favorable to electric power companies, in which case this alternative energy would only spearhead the penetration of traditional energy.

The arrival of electricity to a community has always been seen as the arrival of progress. It has been said that the advancement of civilization is directly related to the rate at which the laying of power lines takes place. Universal literature has described these moments very movingly, but has never questioned the source of this energy nor the cost that it represents for the communities or the environment. For certain, electric energy has been defined as clean energy, regardless if it comes from enormous generators operated by a combustion process derived from oil.

The origin of this energy is being questioned now that the ecological debate has moved forward, even when it comes from hydroelectric plants. What are the environmental cost and the cost to those communities that have been left without water to pursue their agricultural activities? What are the costs for damming a river?  Who is the beneficiary of this industry? These are some of the questions being asked by environmentalists.

Just as many are the examples of how hydroelectric companies have infringed upon the rights of the communities, or of how small villages have to obtain electricity from unstable sources, electricity that is generated by motors, while passing above them is the electric grid carrying electricity to cities or centers where natural resources are being exploited.

In Ecuador, there is now a deeper analysis of this debate after the implementation between 2004 and 2007 of a project called Basic Services of Local Initiative for Ecuadorian Amazon (Servicios Básicos de Iniciativa Local para la Amazonía Ecuatoriana-SILAE) conducted under the auspices of the European Union. This project was aimed at providing electricity service to the entire Amazon area through the creation of rural community enterprises, in coordination with the then Development Council of Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador (Consejo de Desarrollo de los Pueblos y Nacionalidades del Ecuador-CODENPE). This resulted in the creation of four rural enterprises and broadened the scope of the project to another similar project called EUROSOLAR that took place in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.

The Sarayaku Experience
One of the experiences of SILAE was implemented in Sarayaku, a Kichwa community in the Amazon that is known for waging resistance against the oil industry and for being defenders of their territory.

The start of oil extraction activities and the subsequent process by the community to defend their land intensified their contact with the Western world; and with this contact some families began to bring in electricity generators, TV sets, audio and video players. “We started to have noise,” says José Miguel Santi, a member of the communications team of Sarayaku, to Latinamerica Press.

Electricity started to position itself as an alternative to improve living conditions in the community, but the use of gasoline powered generators was in contrast with their opposition to oil extraction activities. This brought on the idea to install solar panels, something that was proposed by SILAE. A system was installed in 2005 that was able to provide 12 volts to each family, enough to maintain a light bulb and a radio going for a maximum of three hours.

A larger capacity system was installed later to provide electricity to an information technology center in order to have internet connection that is used by secondary and university students who take distance learning programs.

The Sarayaku community assembly decided to install these panels free of charge and also provided the training to technicians to be in charge of repairs in case of break downs, in this way there would be no need to depend on outside personnel, being that the nearest community is eight hours away traveling by canoe and their fees cannot be afforded by a family.

Despite all this, the use of solar energy has not reduced the use of gasoline powered generators because contact with the Western world has meant that the population starts to feel other needs, such as the refrigeration of products. Although the sale of liquor and beer is prohibited, are appearing stores selling ice-cream, soft drinks and juices, which use gas powered refrigerators, something that has the same impact as gasoline powered generators.

“The real problem is the presence of gasoline powered generators that not only have an impact because they generate noise and smog, but in a way they become a means for the introduction of a different culture through home appliances and multimedia. We can control the use of solar panels, but we cannot control the use of generators,” says Santi.

Social Code of Conduct
The use of energy has made it necessary to incorporate various regulations that are now part of the Social Code of Conduct which applies to this community, as are the setting of schedules for the operation of the gasoline powered generators, or the implementation of a multimedia room with solar panels for the use by the population, especially when there is a need to follow up on the news that this community generates outside.

For now, the Sarayaku Social Code of Conduct can still control the use of this energy, but the population is growing and is exerting pressure regarding the need for more drastic change.

The maintenance and replacement costs for the solar panels are very high and the costs are borne communally for now, but the demand keeps on growing and so do the gasoline powered generators. Contact with the Western world increases and the young people of Sarayaku are more and more connected to social networks and travel more frequently to El Puyo, the capital of the Pastaza province. Their dynamic increases the need for electricity.

“We do not know how long we will be able to resist outside influence, but I believe that the time will come when we will have to talk about whether we should resist the arrival of the electricity produced by the hydroelectric plants or should we from now start thinking of the conditions under which we can welcome it,” says Santi.

The concerns that Santi has have to do with the construction of the hydroelectric projects very near the Sarayaku territory, as is the complex to be built in the Santiago River, in the province of Morona Santiago, that borders with this community.

Time will tell if the Sarayaku will remain as a community that resists Western influence, or if it is able to maintain its identity and culture despite this penetration where electricity becomes one of the best allies of acculturation.  —Latinamerica Press.


The use of solar energy has not reduced the use of gasoline powered generators in the community of Sarayaku. / José Miguel Santi
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