“Sowing Light” Part 1: Bringing Solar Power to Rural Venezuela

Posted on August 30, 2010

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Pic above:  For the first time, this elderly couple has light in their home.

For a photo gallery about the Sembrando Luz program, click here

“Sowing Light” Part 1: Bringing Solar Power to Rural Venezuela

By James Suggett – Venezuelanalysis.com, August 30th 2010

“We live in paradise. Look, the people are very tranquil, the kids are growing, and we cultivate food without contamination because we know how to produce natural fertilizer from worms. And now, with solar electricity, it’s like a dream,” said the Venezuelan farmer Ramón Dávila with a smile, his solid stature and rough, wrinkled skin bearing the signs of six decades of rural life in the remote Andean village of El Quinó.

Dávila’s community is made up of forty closely knit families and separated from the nearest town by a full day’s rugged hike into the Sierra Nevada National Park. It is one of thousands of communities that have benefitted from Sembrando Luz, or “Sowing Light,” a government social program that brings electricity to the country’s most geographically isolated towns by installing solar panels and training the community to use and maintain them.

When Dávila’s family arrived in El Quinó 104 years ago, they produced light with lamps powered by cloth, pig lard, and sheep wax. They used the natural fibers of the fique plant to make hammocks, bags, ropes, and clothing to wear or sell. As a child, Dávila walked barefoot or wore woven sandals. When he was 16 years old, the neighbors built their first aqueduct, and a few years later, began producing coffee to sell in nearby towns.

The town has not changed much over the past century. Farming for local consumption remains prominent, with the exception of coffee production. Families produce sugar cane, bananas, yucca, beans, plantains, tomatoes, onions, and raise cattle and chickens on small farms. Most continue to live in homes made of adobe walls with a basic wooden frame and a corrugated metal roof. The community remains disconnected from the national electric grid, but now each and every family enjoys basic electricity service to their home, powered by the sun.

The Sembrando Luz Program is Born

In 2005, a group of functionaries from the state-funded Foundation for the Development of Electricity Services (FUNDELEC) were carrying out a nation-wide census to diagnose electricity deficiencies in public schools. They found that in rural areas, the problem existed on a much larger scale; whole towns remained completely disconnected from the electric grid and isolated from the benefits of the nation’s tremendous oil wealth. Sembrando Luz was created to bring electricity to these communities as part of the government’s efforts to eliminate poverty, according to Mahely Marquez, the project coordinator in the Andean region.

Márquez and her co-workers realized two things quickly. First, there were so many unattended communities – approximately 1,500 – that the Sembrando Luz project could not serve them all at once. The program coordinators decided to give priority to towns that were separated by more than ten kilometers from the farthest extension of the regional electricity grid. They also prioritized the communities that were most economically depressed, difficult to access because of unpaved or non-existent roads, and located in national parks or other protected areas – in other words, towns like El Quinó.

Second, the program must work on the principle of integral community development. This means a town without basic public services such as clean water, a health clinic, and a primary school should receive those services first, in addition to being endowed with electric power. Also, the community must be organized in some form, for example in the form of a communal council, in order to assume responsibility for the solar electric facilities once they are installed, to reduce dependence on the government.  

“Energy is necessary for development, but energy alone does not generate development,” Márquez told Venezuelanalysis.com. “So, it is necessary to unite efforts with other entities, different government institutions so that we bring not only energy, but projects, services, and other elements to these towns.”

So far, Sembrando Luz has built inter-institutional cooperation with the National Parks Institute, the Ministries for Health, Education, Environment, Science, and Technology, the Armed Forces (mainly for transporting supplies to the remote communities), the state oil company PDVSA, the Foundation for Training and Innovation to Support the Agrarian Revolution (CIARA), the National Institute of Land (INTI), and workers from the various regional electric companies, Márquez said.

There are two phases of the Sembrando Luz program once a community agrees to participate. During the first phase, teams of engineers, electrical workers, and national park workers install solar panel systems in the major hubs of community activity, such as the church, health clinic, community meeting center, and primary school. During the second phase, the teams install a system for each family home with the goal of creating “ecological” towns that are completely solar powered.

The first phase began in 2007. By the end of 2009, more than 800 systems were installed in 550 communities, along with 110 solar powered water purification systems and 30 water pumps, benefitting an estimated 200,000 people. The second phase began this year in El Quinó and a handful of other Andean towns.

Ecological and Social Benefits

Mainstream discourse in much of the industrialized world pits ecological conservation and social progress against one another. In El Quinó, however, farmers know all too well that the two are connected.

Eduardo Sabel is a forty-year-old father of two who produces coffee organically like many of his neighbors. He said that installing new electric lines and a new road to maintain them would have caused deforestation, soil erosion, and river contamination, affecting vital cropland which is a vital source of local food.

“A better road? Sure, we’d like to make it a little better. Electric lines? Well, not if it brings us landslides. Better to have a little solar electricity,” said Sabel, who wears a ragged T-shirt, dark military pants tucked into his high-laced leather boots, and a machete slung around his waist every day.

Coffee producers in El Quinó plant trees with each coffee crop in order to stabilize the soil and withhold moisture in the hilly terrain. For fertilizer, they only use worm compost and organic matter they produce themselves, Sabel said.

Beyond the need to conserve fertile cropland, ecological consciousness in El Quinó is motivated by the fact that the mountainous area is officially a national forest. For several decades, the state imposed regulations to prevent deforestation, fires, and water pollution. These measures spurred the community to organize regular controlled burnings, plan crop rotations, and plant trees together.

“What we have here is a lung for Venezuela,” Sabel said. “I love living here because out there in the city you see the kids eating purely junk food, and there is trash everywhere, but up here we do not work with any chemicals, everything is natural.”

Sabel also showed concern for future generations who would suffer the consequences of deforestation. “We have to take care of nature not so much for ourselves, because we, I for example am 40 years old; I’ve already lived. When I was a kid, I remember the sources of water and springs were abundant, but we have kids that are young who are facing a critical situation. They don’t know how the water was before, because in places where my father used to have to place me on top of a beast [of burden] in order to cross, my kids can walk across. It’s because of the deforestation,” he explained.

 The arrival of solar power in El Quinó has brought a range of concrete social benefits. Rosa María Dugarte, who grew up in El Quinó, described how in the past, the kids could rarely eat meat or drink milk in their school meals because there was no refrigerator. Women had a higher rate of death during childbirth and people died of preventable illnesses because the health clinic could not store vaccines and medicines properly or treat patients effectively at night. The injured or ill often had to be carried in a hammock slung across wooden sticks over rough, steep terrain for eight hours or more to seek treatment.

In recent years, some residents purchased small, gasoline-powered electric plants. But in order to produce a few hours of electricity required a long and bumpy ride to and from town to purchase a jeep-load of gasoline. The fuel contaminated the air and water when it was burned, and the machines made a lot of unpleasant noise.

Now, thanks to Sembrando Luz and a range of donations from other government institutions, the local primary school enjoys a photocopy machine, a television, and a small refrigerator. The health clinic has a refrigerator and basic medical appliances, and can treat patients at all hours. Community events including weddings, meetings, and recreational activities can take place during the day or night. People like Mr. Sabel, who is illiterate, are able to study at night with the Misión Robinson, the public education program that has virtually eliminated illiteracy from most of the country. For communicational purposes, a makeshift community radio station is available during most of the day to make announcements and spread information, serving as a substitute for the non-existent telephone lines and very limited cell phone reception – a true communal media hub.    

“In the past, it was more difficult,” Dugarte said. “Since solar energy arrived to the community of El Quinó, we are very happy. We give thanks to God, our mother the sacred virgin Mary, and especially to President [Hugo] Chavez, who is truly concerned for the poor,” she added, revealing the community’s strong Catholic roots and almost literal worship of the president.

Community Building

Working with Sembrando Luz, El Quinó has come together as a community. When military helicopters arrived to drop off the panels, batteries, and power chords at the top of the mountain, neighbors formed assembly lines to unload the supplies and transport them to the town. The communal council arranged housing for the Sembrando Luz teams on their repeated trips to install the systems, and a group of neighbors showed up to help with the installations in every single home. Those who received the systems first shared their electricity with those who were still waiting.

“We are so proud of what we have achieved as a community. The first community in the state of Merida with an ecological electric system, surrounded by mountains, fauna, clean water, and plantations,” said Yorley Dávila, son of Ramón.

 The national director of Sembrando Luz, Jesus Marrero, told Venezuelanalysis.com that in addition to bringing electricity, the program aims to “generate consciousness in the communities,” with a “focus on the historical and cultural precedents of the community.

In order to do this, the government and the community council sign a “co-responsibility” contract that obligates the community to undergo training in basic maintenance of the systems with FUNDELEC, Marrero explained. Some communities have decided to deny this responsibility and thus forego solar energy in search of different government services which are of greater priority to them, while other communal councils have implemented a small fee among their neighbors for ongoing maintenance services to the solar systems.

Marrero said FUNDELEC’s priority is making solar technology – including the knowledge necessary to use and understand it – accessible to the poor. “In the past, this technology was only available to the rich, for their estate perhaps, or for those who were technologically savvy. These systems can be understood by people without a college education, people who cannot read, it is easy, if things are explained in a simple, understandable way, like we do. Everyone – from the top managers to the functionaries, we all participate in educating these communities,” said Marrero.

Cultural Impact

I arrived in El Quinó at night, and one of the first things I noticed was a group of adolescents and adults crowded around a television set, watching soap operas, music videos, and other programs that are iconic of mainstream popular culture. The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Walt Disney’s “The Jungle Book” in Spanish, which a 6 year-old boy, Juan Pablo, was enjoying while munching on a traditional arepa made of wheat flour and filled with grated locally-produced cheese, which he clenched in his soil-stained hands. When asked what the best part of having solar energy is, Juan Pablo said it was to watch television and listen to the radio. This from a child who, as we were walking down a dirt trail minutes later, could name insects, plants, and birds of which I knew not the slightest bit.

To be sure, Juan Pablo’s mother said that having electricity has improved the boy’s education, broadened his exposure to the world, and introduced him to different ideas. But aside from these positive impacts, might there be unforeseen negative cultural impacts as new customs made possible by electricity replace old ones?

Christopher West, a British physicist and expert in alternative energies who works with Sembrando Luz, said the quality of the programs that are broadcast on television or the radio is an issue of public policy and cultural trends, not the direct result of having electricity. 

Some people and communities have the financial means to choose to live off solar energy as a conscious lifestyle change, but the communities served by Sembrando Luz include people with “different levels of education, different aspirations, some more materialistic than others, who didn’t buy the systems, but chose them as a solution from the government,” said West. “So it will be really interesting to see how they use the systems, and how the nature of the systems affects their own mentality.”

West also said the program is an opportunity to cultivate a culture of energy conservation from a clean slate. Since the solar electric systems have real limits in output, people will learn from the start to ration energy effectively, rather than becoming accustomed to the gratuitous use of energy that has been erroneously identified with modern progress. 

The limited output of the solar systems means people in El Quinó use the electricity mainly for everyday household tasks and comforts, and not as a tool to increase their economic production or progress in a modern capitalist sense, by mechanizing production and constructing economies of scale and so on. For Ramón Dávila, El Quinó’s 60-year-old grandfather, the arrival of solar power means progress nonetheless.

“When I was young, I didn’t know what a light bulb was. I didn’t know what a toilet was, or a car. These kids know what all these things are, and they can even have a little refrigerator in their home, and vaccines, and that’s going to move them forward. They are going to have a lot of support. They are going to live more peacefully,” said Dávila, adding, “This is a great gift from the president, and from God.”

Posted in: Venezuela