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20 August 1999

Indigenous Communities Bank on Solar Energy

By Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Aug 10 (IPS) - Indigenous communities in Ecuador's Amazon provinces of Pastaza and Napo are using solar energy and hydro-electric power generated by a waterfall to improve their quality of life. With aid provided by the Italian Cooperation, the communities have set up solar-energy panels and accumulators with the capacity to generate 13.3 kilowatts in six Pastaza villages.

Milton Balseca, a representative of Ecuador's National Institute of Energy, praises the project - which cost a total of 700,000 dollars to implement - as an example for other rural areas that do not have access to electricity.

''In isolated areas such as mountains and rain forests, where it is difficult or impossible to extend the existing electrical network or ship the diesel fuel necessary to operate an electric plant, the only solution is to take advantage of solar energy,'' Balseca points out.

Thanks to this project, the Amazon communities of Arajuna, Sarayacu, Canelos, Curaray, Boberas and Mauntay, in the province of Pastaza, can now request emergency medical care by radio that operates on solar energy. With one call, an air ambulance can be dispatched to difficult-to-reach regions. Villagers can also enjoy movies and videos in community centres, which also receive energy supplies from the sun. Balseca emphasizes the benefits of solar energy: it can be managed autonomously and locally; it has the capacity to adapt to all needs; it is not technologically complex; and it does not pollute the environment.

This focus on solar energy began with research done by the engineer Gilberto Montoya at the National Polytechnic Institution, which created the Center for the Search for Alternative Energy Systems in 1978. This project, which initially seemed utopian, today boasts significant achievements and has at its disposal what has been acknowledged in Europe and the United States as the world's most effective solar-energy module. Montoya, who received recognition for his work in Spain and Germany, remembers that when they began researching solar energy, the project produced no income. ''It is now a good business, but ten years ago nobody believed in all that could be done in this field. For many it was difficult to believe that a Third World country could create state-of-the-art solar-energy technology,'' Montoya comments.

By participating in commercial exhibitions throughout the world, the Ecuadoreans have built up an export trade. Modules have been shipped to Japan and Korea and sales abroad grew from 200,000 dollars in 1996 to 500,000 dollars in 1998. The center's most sought-after creation outside of Ecuador is the ''aluminum module with the copper soul,'' a small piece capable of absorbing solar heat with greater intensity than any other similar device. It won an award for outstanding quality from the Trade Leaders Club in Madrid.

The possibility of operating small telecommunications stations in remote areas with solar panels is also under consideration. In the Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park, in the province of Napo, two communities have joined together to bring light to their region by way of another alternative energy source. Since last November, the Huahua Sumaco Falls Micro-Power Station has been operating and providing hydro-electric energy to the communities of Pacto Sumaco and Huahua Sumaco without harming the environment.

From the beginning, this idea was supported by both the German Technological Cooperation (GTZ) and the Ecuadorian Institute of Forestry, Natural Reserves and Wildlife (INEFAN). The German government donated the turbine while GTZ and INEFAN provided technical assistance and the communities constructed roads to enable ther generators to be brought to the site. The power company contributed civilian labor and the provincial council provided construction materials for a small power station.

GTZ engineer Hans Knoblauch stresses the hydo-electric power from Sumacio Falls is ''a renewable source of energy with a minimum impact on the environment.'' Knoblauch explains that the electricity is needed to improve the quality of life of the Amazon communities: it will allow them to manufacture products from local raw materials; it will lead to greater employment possibilities for young people and women; it will help to diminish the exodus of rural residents to urban areas; and it will reduce the strain on the land. ''Large hydro-electric dams create unfortunate ecological and social problems. Sources of energy such as coal, petroleum, diesel fuel and natural gas are not at our unlimited disposal; and they also lead to environmental problems. These small power stations are the best solution,'' declares Knoblauch.

The installation of two or three of these small power stations would supply all the energy needs for northeast Ecuador, which is made up of the provinces of Sucumbios, Orellana and Napo. As these small power stations are established, environmental education programs inform local residents how the forest-water-energy-production relationship works.

''The people who now cut down the trees of the rain forest as the only solution to their immediate needs will begin to conserve the watershed areas so their power stations can operate in optimum conditions,'' concludes Knoblauch.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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