The Sun through a Lamp: Solar Energy in the Colombian Amazon

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For more than seven years, we have worked with the communities of the middle and lower watersheds of Colombia’s Caquetá River, supporting them in the conservation of tropical forests and the strengthening of their local initiatives. Thanks to this common purpose, we have come to understand the needs of the indigenous and small farmer families, as well as the difficulty of accessing certain resources and services.

One of the greatest disadvantages facing those who inhabit this area of ​​Colombia is the lack of electricity. Thus, they have sought other sources of lighting that incur high costs relative to the income of each family. For example, purchases of candles, batteries, gasoline and fuel oil for engines lead to an average monthly expenditure per household in the middle Caquetá River region of 43,400 Colombian pesos (~$15 USD), and in the lower Caquetá of 27,800 pesos (~$9 USD)—large sums for them. Added to this is the risk of suffering burns and accidents that have especially affected the children who seek lighting to do their homework at night.

Taking this context as a reference, beginning in 2018, we commenced the establishment of a renewable energy system that to date has benefited more than 1,700 people from 31 communities, contributing to ecosystem conservation, community governance, and of course to the improvement of their daily livelihoods.

How did the initiative come to be?

The first step was to determine with each community which people would be prioritized for the delivery of solar lamp kits. Traditional authorities, elders, midwives, traditional healers, people with disabilities or diseases, female heads of households and households with more than five children were the primary beneficiaries of the initiative.

Subsequently, agreements were reached on the use and management of each kit, based on respect for the specific context of the communities, understanding their ways of life and working with their traditional knowledge and practices. Finally, the installation and operation of two lamps, a solar panel, an electricity box, a double USB port, two switches and a mobile phone charger were explained, emphasizing the importance of keeping them in good condition.

Before the installation of the solar energy system, most families in the middle and lower Caquetá River region enjoyed light between 3 and 4 hours a day. We at ACT hope that the implementation of this initiative enables them to have light whenever they require it. To date, we have delivered 328 lamp kits and will continue the distribution of the 661 remaining kits.

We wish to share a few testimonials of men and women who today have continuous lighting in their communities.

“The lamps are a new dawn.”

My name is Betsabe Fusiamena. I’m from the center of the department of Amazonas, from the community of La Chorrera. I came to Los Estrechos 32 years ago.

At that time, we spent a lot on ACPM to fill the lighters, and many times the children burned themselves while carrying out their chores with gas-fueled lamps. They fell asleep, and they knocked over the gasoline. That’s very dangerous! Sometimes, we also used batteries, but they were used up very quickly. Now, with the lamps, we have a way for the children to do their homework.

We are very happy as a community; it is like a gift from God for us. The use of this light frees us from many things, because we as women suffer a lot in the dark.  We work in the dark. We get up early to carry out our tasks, to prepare the cassava very early, and previously there was no way to illuminate our work. Thus, the change has been very good, and we arise with our lamp with happiness.

I wake up between 3 and 4 in the morning, and the first thing I do is turn on the lamp and go to the chagra (traditional garden). For me, it is like walking in the daytime—without fear, I cross that hill as if there were light. Before, I had to travel on the road in the dark. I like to get up early and to wash early, because later the sun rises and work is harder, thus you tire more easily. I feel that before, this darkness was like being forgotten, and now we have received a light of joy, a very great spirit for us.

I feel that this light shines on one’s soul, because it feels like a relief. We no longer have to think: “We have run out of batteries … where are we going to get them? How are we going to get them?” The lighting problem we had is over, and one’s spirit is also illuminated and happy.

“Since I received the lamps, I have returned to making handicrafts.”

My name is María Nieves Cabrera. I live in Caño Negro. I learned how to make crafts 20 years ago with a woman from La Chorrera. She gave us a workshop in the community so that the women to could work in this trade. At that time, my grandmother was very old, but she was the only one who knew about handicrafts, so I asked her to teach me because I had to understand the concepts, and from that moment, I practiced cumare crafting.

Unfortunately, I had to stop making crafts for five years because of poor eyesight. But since I received the lamps, I have returned to work. It has helped me a lot because I can devote myself to the crafts at night, and with that, I earn a little for our living. Also, I use it in the kitchen to grate yucca and make cassava. My husband uses it for illumination when he is making mambe and while preparing food.

Thank God we have benefited from the lamps a lot. Before, we used three packages of candles every fifteen days, and each package cost 6,000 pesos. Those 18,000 pesos saved already allow us to buy other necessary things.

“Before, we used to spend a lot of money; now we can say that the light we have is free.”

My name is Alcides Castiblanco. I was born 36 years ago in the community of Berlín. When I was a young man, we lived with our eyes closed like puppies: in the dark.

When we received the two lamps, we put one in the room and another in the kitchen. They have benefited us a lot. In my case, I dedicate myself to the art of fishing. I go out at night, and previously I arrived at 11:00 pm and I had to prepare the fish with a flashlight. It was worse when a merchandise boat did not arrive and we were without batteries, because we had to collect firewood to make a fire and not let our food go bad. But now that we have the light, we put away the candle. One can arrive late and do tasks without worry.

The solar lamp has been useful because we have a small child; things have gotten easier. One tries as one could to obtain fuel for a generator or batteries, but economically it is very difficult. Previously, we used two gallons of ACPM monthly, and six pairs of batteries in a week. Now, we use only two pairs of batteries. Before, we spent a lot; now we can say that that light we have is free.

“The sun through a lamp”

My name is Regulo Peña Pérez. I am an old man from the community of Bajo Aguas Negras, Caquetá. My wife died a while ago, so I do not have much company.

Before the lamps arrived, we used ACPM, lanterns or candles, but we suffered a lot because there was not enough money to buy batteries or gasoline.  One had to decide between buying those or the other things that one needs.

For example, I could not go fishing at night, because when you walked at night in the dark, you often bumped into things or tripped, and for an old man with poor vision it is much worse. The change has been great. Now, I lie down in my hammock and rest peacefully. The wind does not blow out the light, and I feel happy. I begin to sing and prepare my illuminated mambe (coca powder).

My household economy has also benefited, because I previously spent about 10,000 Colombian pesos for ACPM, and a package of candles costs 3,000 or 4,000 pesos. I was left without the money to purchase soap or the salt that is so important for food. Now, that is no longer the case: what I spent on all that I now can spend on food. I can carry my lamp wherever I want and take care of other needs, because there are many, and I also experience illnesses; thus, it is a great help. It has changed my life. I care a lot about my lamp; I even sleep with it next to me. It’s like having the sun through a lamp.

“These lamps benefit all the families that live in the community.”

My name is Remigio Piranga.  I am a leader in the community of Buena Vista. I have lived here for more than thirty years. I am immensely grateful for the solar lighting kits that we have received. We used candles before, and ACPM lighters, but all of that was really expensive. This helps us to reduce those expenses.

I believe that energy will always be needed. We must take care of these lamps, because they benefit all the families that live in this community. It has been very useful in the evenings, for both those practicing mambe rituals and those tending the chagras (traditional gardens).

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