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A Green Dawn: Solar Energy and Community Empowerment in the Amazon Rainforest

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The Amazon rainforest is privileged with rich biological and cultural diversity, natural splendor, and the potential to benefit all humanity by helping to stabilize the climate. Roughly the size of the 48 contiguous United States, it covers some 40 percent of the South American continent and includes parts of nine countries. It is also one of the most energy-impoverished regions in the world. Due to its sheer size and remoteness, lack of enduring governmental policies, and poor fiscal and market incentives to promote energy access and sustainability, millions of people in the region live their days without a secure source of energy. This context leads many inhabitants of the Amazon to use polluting and costly diesel fuel, unreliable and accident-prone candlelight, and firewood that, if unchecked, can lead to forest degradation.

ACT team member explains use of solar lamps to community member

ACT team member explains use of solar lamps to community member

In order to address this issue, in late 2017, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), with support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, began to establish sustainable solar energy systems in indigenous partner communities of Colombia’s middle and lower Caquetá River basins—reducing local energy poverty, promoting community empowerment, providing opportunities for social development, and contributing to the livelihoods of vulnerable populations. In less than one year, context-specific solar energy management guidelines were developed across these basins and 328 solar lamps were delivered, benefitting 1,776 people through an improved quality of life and strengthened community governance processes.

Since 2002, ACT has worked with Colombia’s Regional Indigenous Council of the Middle Amazon Region (CRIMA) and the Association of Indigenous Authorities of La Pedrera, Amazonas (AIPEA), two representative bodies of the indigenous communities of the middle and lower Caquetá River basins, to strengthen knowledge exchanges, increase indigenous wellbeing, and enhance grassroots-led conservation in the Colombian Amazon. Without strong and resilient indigenous communities, conservation efforts in these increasingly vulnerable regions are certain to fail, something ACT has understood since its foundation in 1996.
In 2017, with support from ACT, indigenous communities in the middle Caquetá River basin, located partly in the southern border region of the recently expanded Chiribiquete National Park–one of the Amazon’s largest protected areas and also a recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site—achieved a monumental victory: the combined expansion of the Puerto Zábalo-Los Monos and Monochoa indigenous reserves amounting to 1.4 million acres (570,000 hectares), roughly equal in size to the state of Delaware. The expansions effectively connected the Chiribiquete National Park with the largest indigenous territory, the Predio Putumayo indigenous reserve, creating a vast conservation corridor in the Amazon region linking nearly 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of protected lands.

Additionally, and with support from ACT and the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), the indigenous communities of the lower Caquetá River basin led an almost decade-long grassroots effort that brought into being a decree from the Colombian government to establish a national public policy for the protection of isolated indigenous groups.

Community member learns how to install and use lamp kits with the assistance of ACT team member

Community member learns how to install and use lamp kits with the assistance of ACT team member

Throughout this long-term partnership, ACT and partner communities and organizations have identified energy poverty as a major and enduring factor that negatively affects the sustainable development of the region and the survival of indigenous peoples in their territory, many of whom are leaving their communities and moving to regional urban centers. Within ACT’s initiative, the communities prioritized elders, people with disabilities, midwives, and traditional healers as the first solar panel recipients. Upon availability, other households would receive the solar panels. The renewable energy system that was selected by the communities—Pico Solar Photovoltaic (pico-PV)—provides lighting and one charging station for a cell phone or radio per household. The elders and leaders report that pico-PV systems assure their energy needs without affecting the traditional livelihoods they wish to preserve, livelihoods that would be jeopardized with larger energy installations allowing for the use of televisions and other electronic devices not considered culturally appropriate.

With the project in place, by early summer 180 solar lamps kits had been delivered in 16 middle Caquetá communities (departments of Caquetá and Amazonas), and 148 solar lamps kits were delivered in 15 communities of the lower Caquetá river region (department of Amazonas), with an additional six community kits being installed in community centers, schools, and health posts.

The Amazon Conservation Team and @MottFoundation, reduce energy poverty, promote community empowerment, provide opportunities for social development, and contribute to the livelihoods of indigenous populations in the Colombian Amazon… Click To Tweet

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