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Renewable energy projects bring light to rural communities
Louisa Reynolds
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Indigenous women get empowered learning how to weld and assemble lamps and solar panels.

In September 2013, Catarina Mejía Toma, 46, and Isabel Torres Medina, 43, two Mayan Ixil women who had rarely ventured beyond Xeputul, one of the most far-flung villages in the highland municipality of Cotzal, in the Northwestern department of El Quiché, boarded a plane for the first time in their lives and traveled to India.

The two women are illiterate and neither of them speaks Spanish nor English. When they arrived in India after a grueling two-day journey, they were taken to the Barefoot College in the village of Tilonia, Northern India, where they would spend the next six months learning how to assemble solar panels and lamps.

Founded by social activist Bunker Roy in 1972 and based on Gandhian philosophy of promoting self-reliance in rural villages, the Barefoot College aims to empower rural people, especially women, by teaching them practical skills, such as the use of solar power, that will help their communities to break the poverty cycle.

Lessons began at 9 am in a large hall and they learnt by example, copying their instructors’ work.  Learning how to weld and assemble electrical parts did not come easy to them.

“Sometimes we got told off when we assembled a lamp and it didn’t work. We had to do it all over again,” Torres told Latinamerica Press, speaking through an interpreter. “Sometimes we burnt our hands and it really hurt.”

When training sessions ended at 5 pm, they retired to large communal dormitory that they shared with women from different nationalities, to rest until dinnertime. Adapting to Indian cuisine was part of the culture shock.

“We missed our corn and our tortillas,” says Torres.

Mejía and Torres were chosen to go to attend the Barefoot College course, which is funded by Indian cooperation aid, by Semilla de Sol, a local NGO that promotes community-based renewable energy projects.

Once they returned to their village, the two women set up a workshop where they assembled solar panels and lamps for each of the 30 families in the village. The parts were donated by Barefoot College and Enel (Ente Nazionalle per l’Energia Eletrica), an Italian-owned company that runs the nearby Palo Viejo hydro-plant, paid for the import tax.

During the early 1980s, Cotzal, together with the neighboring municipalities of Nebaj and Chajul bore the brunt of a brutal onslaught against the Mayan Ixil population unleashed by former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) in an effort to drive out the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) leftist guerrillas.

Mejía was ten years old when her older brother was burnt alive by soldiers. He was one of the 200 innocent civilians who were slaughtered by the army in the municipality of Cotzal and her family members were among the thousands of people displaced.

More than three decades after the massacres of the Ríos Montt dictatorship, the dire conditions in the Guatemalan highlands that gave rise to the conflict in the first place have barely changed and 86 out of every 100 people in this predominantly indigenous municipality continue to live below the poverty line. The tiny village of Xeputul doesn’t even have a health clinic and there’s no public transport, which means that villagers have to walk for 5 kilometers to get to Cotzal.

The light arrived
But the arrival of electric energy has ushered in a series of transformations. “We used to live in darkness. All we had were candles and ocote [a resinous pinewood that is used to obtain fire] and sometimes our houses would catch fire,” says Mejía.

The US$8 a month that families used to spend on candles is now spent on food and other basic necessities, and school children have adequate lighting to do their homework in the evenings.

“We’re proud of the fact that rural women with barely any schooling are involved in this kind of project,” says Baltazar Cruz, mayor of Cotzal, who has pledged to donate municipal land for the construction of a Guatemala’s own Barefoot College, which will open its doors in early 2018 to women from Central America and the Caribbean and will provide training workshops in Spanish if Semilla de Sol manages to source the necessary funding from international donors to run the project. The college would admit 24 women per semester.

Ten Guatemalan indigenous women have completed the Barefoot College course and four new “barefoot engineers” are due to return from India on Mar. 17.

Many men in rural areas, however, don’t share the mayor’s enthusiasm for the project and in some villages men have prevented their wives and partners from leaving the community in order to attend the course.  The impossibility of finding a relative or neighbor to look after their children during their absence has also been a problem.

In Xeputul, some households have also refused to contribute towards the $100 monthly salary that Mejía and Torres are supposed to receive for the maintenance of the solar panels as most of the villagers are small-scale coffee growers and they are experiencing financial hardship as a result of a coffee rust epidemic in the region.

“In some cases, they [men] don’t acknowledge the work that these women are doing. Machismo still rules,” Mario Hernández, director of Semilla de Sol, told Latinamerica Press.

Since a micro hydro-power plant was inaugurated in the village of Batzchocolá, in 2014, when night falls, this community, as well as the neighboring villages of La Laguna and Viziquichum, glow in the dark like three small clusters of light amid the dark silhouette of the mountains.

The 90 kilowatt hydropower plant provides electricity for 161 households in the three villages. Each household pays a fixed tariff of $5 a month plus $0.19 per kilowatt used, in order to pay the salaries of the three local youths that Semilla de Sol trained as technicians and who earn $100 a month, as well as maintenance costs.

“Communities can have their own hydro-plants; it’s not just something that large companies can do. We have great resources such as the rivers but we don’t take advantage of them and then large companies come and exploit them,” Miguel Cruz Cobo, president of the Community Development Committee (Cocode) and coordinator of the Batzchocolá hydro-power project, told Latinamerica Press.

The three communities now have street lighting and women have taken up weaving in the evenings after finishing their chores, as an extra source of income.

Dreaming big
Access to electric energy has allowed the three villages to dream big. With a donation from Telus, a Canadian-owned call center, Batzchocolá now has a technology center with ten computers, where high school students learn information technology and basic English. Teenagers typically work in the fields from 7 am to 3 pm and then attend classes from 4-6pm or 6-8pm.

Viziquichum is in the process of setting up a cardamom dryer and this year Batzchocolá set up its own carpentry workshop, funded by the Latin American Energy Organization (OLADE).

Large-scale hydropower is a highly contentious issue in many of Guatemala’s rural communities due to its environmental impact as well as what communities perceive as the unfairness of companies exploiting local resources for urban areas located hundreds of kilometers away to enjoy the comforts of electric energy, when they are forced to live in darkness as transmission lines have not reached their remote villages.

The development projects that revolve around the Batzchocolá micro hydro-plant have been set up by a committee that includes community leaders, private sector representatives and government officials.

According to Hernández, the idea is for corporations to ease tensions by working with communities rather than ramming through megaproyectos without their prior consent.

“We understand that companies act according to their own interests but people also want a better future for their children. The problem is that sometimes companies try to buy people’s will rather than working towards meeting the communities’ needs,” says Hernández.

However, in Xeputul, not everyone was happy with the idea of Enel paying for the import tax for the components used to assemble the solar panels. Critics point to the environmental damage caused by the Palo Viejo hydro-plant — flooding that has threatened subsistence crops in the nearby village of Santa Avelina — and believe it is wrong, on principle, to accept any compromise with the company.

Guatemala currently has seven community-managed micro-hydro plants: four in the highland department of Quiché and three in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.

Hernández explains the key ingredient for these projects’ long-term success: “A great deal of organization is needed for the project to be sustainable. You need to be business-savvy because the project shouldn’t be a burden for the community; it should be a tool for social and economic development.”

Although these projects have succeeded in some of Guatemala’s poorest and remotest communities, Hernández points out that this is not a one-size fits all strategy. For instance, a community-managed wind farm inaugurated in 2001 in Punta de Manabique, in the eastern department of Izabal, was burnt down by local drug traffickers, which illustrates the challenges of implementing such projects in communities that have been overrun by organized crime. —Latinamerica Press.


Indigenous Maya Ixil women and men participate equally in the maintenance of solar panels. / Semilla de Sol
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