Dreams of a ‘fire canoe’ come true in the Amazon

A man stands on the roof of a a large boat (or solar canoe) made of solar panels with an electric screwdriver in his right hand looking down at the roof. Young children look up at him from a canoe boat with curiosity in their eyes.
A member of the Achuar community repairs a solar powered canoe on the Wichimi River. Photo: Kayla Vandervoort / Kara Solar

Nantu Canelos vividly remembers the first time he saw a solar-powered canoe transport a group of Indigenous Achuar people down a river in the Amazon forest. It was 2017, and the boat was the first of its kind in the Amazon region.

“It was shocking to see our first solar canoe, Tapiatpia, sailing on the Pastaza River,” said Canelos, who is a member of an Achuar Indigenous community in Ecuador. “We never imagined that a boat of that size, 52 feet long, could work with solar panels and batteries.”

The boat, which was the length of a small yacht and featured a roof covered with solar panels, was a technological marvel. To the Achuar people of Ecuador and Peru, it also was the realization of a dream.

Elders in the Achuar community had long dreamed of a “fire canoe” or an “electric fish” that would someday transport their people and goods on rivers in the Amazon. That dream became reality five years ago, when the Tapiatpia, which means electric fish, embarked on its maiden voyage.

“That was the Achuar dream — a vision of a canoe utilizing the resource we have: the river,” said Canelos, who is the Amazon director for Kara Solar, a nonprofit group that launched the project. Among the Achuar people, Kara means “a dream that comes true.”

There are now four solar boats connecting 10 Achuar communities spread out along 56 miles of the Pastaza, Capahuari, Makuma and Wichimi rivers. The fleet has completed more than 400 trips on those rivers and served thousands of Achuar passengers.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is one of several philanthropic organizations supporting the solar boat project.

A solar canoe, shown from above, glides across the peaceful and nutrient rich river surface showing off the lush rainforest trees on the left and right banks of the river.
A solar powered canoe travels the Capahuari River in the Ecuadorean Amazon. Photo: Pablo Alberenga / Kara Solar

Oliver Utne, an American expat who lives in Ecuador and is CEO of Kara Solar, brought the dream of a solar-powered boat to life. He worked with the Achuar people, as well as engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Volvo, to design and build a boat that could carry two dozen people and travel 40 miles without consuming a drop of fuel.

Utne viewed solar boats as a means of clean transportation and conservation in the Amazon forest, one of the world’s most important and imperiled ecosystems. He said he was inspired to work in the Amazon during his first visit to Ecuador in 2008.

“I felt like I was stepping into the most important story of our time — saving the Amazon,” he said.

Deforestation is wreaking havoc on the Amazon, which is the world’s largest tropical rainforest. The clearing of forest to make way for huge agribusiness operations, mines, roads, hydropower dams and other large infrastructure projects has pushed parts of the Amazon to the brink of ecological collapse, according to experts.

Solar boats connect isolated communities in the Achuar territory and create economic opportunity without requiring new roads, which fuel deforestation. A 2020 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation Strategy Fund predicted that 75 existing and planned roads in Amazon countries could fuel the destruction of 5.9 million acres of forest.

“Solar infrastructure allows people to stay in their communities, create local economies and be more resilient,” Utne said. “When roads and other infrastructure come in, they add to deforestation, and people leave their communities.”

Mott’s support for the solar boat project is part of the Foundation’s larger effort to increase access to renewable energy in isolated communities across the Amazon region.

Since 2015, Mott has provided a total of $11.5 million in grants for projects that aim to increase access to clean energy in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Suriname. The Foundation has used a two-pronged approach to this work:

  • Mott supports organizations working to develop community-based solar energy systems that can be replicated to increase access to off-grid, renewable energy in communities across the Amazon.
  • The Foundation also supports organizations that advocate for regulatory and finance reforms that accelerate efforts to provide universal access to clean energy and reduce dependence on dirty, expensive diesel fuel and gasoline.

Two pillars of Mott’s support for model projects are community involvement and technical training. The Foundation’s partners in South America work with local communities on the design and implementation of solar systems, and they teach local residents how to install, operate and maintain the equipment, said Traci Romine, a program officer on Mott’s Environment team. She said the solar boat project has added a new and exciting dimension to that work.

A 2020 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation Strategy Fund predicted that 75 existing and planned roads in Amazon countries could fuel the destruction of 5.9 million acres of forest.

“Kara Solar has reduced communities’ reliance on fossil fuels and increased access to renewable energy resources,” Romine said. “This project could be a model for other communities in the Achuar territory, across the Amazon and around the world.”

An important aspect of the project, Romine said, is that it enables the movement of people, goods and telecommunications in a manner determined by Indigenous collectives in their territory. The boats have made it easier for the Achuar people to visit health clinics in other communities, attend school, see their shaman and participate in communal events, such as men’s and women’s soccer tournaments.

The project also has a two-way benefit. The boats generate electricity for solar mini grids in Achuar communities, and — when needed — the mini grids generate electricity for the boats.

Romine and Utne said the involvement of Achuar people in the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the solar boats was key to the project’s success. The project combined traditional boat-building techniques with modern engineering.

“Enabling local communities to own, manage and maintain their energy systems reduces the risk that off-grid solar panels and parts will become electronic trash in the forest,” Romine said. “The stronger the technical capacity in the community, the stronger the community becomes.”

Utne said Kara Solar is replicating its Achuar work in communities in Brazil, Peru, Suriname, French Guiana and the Solomon Islands. In each territory, the group works with established local organizations and community members.

Large roofed solar boats, or solar canoes, are parked on the edge of a river and next to a solar paneled building as the sun sets in the distance over the horizon of the river scape.
Solar canoes are part of a solar mini grid in the riverside village of Sharamentsa, on Ecuador’s Pastaza River. The canoes can generate energy for communities and receive electricity from solar systems on land. Photo: Martina Aviles / Kara Solar

Luciano Peas, an Achuar technician and solar boat driver, said the skills his people developed while working on the boats will help others in the community with technical tasks, such as installing solar panels that provide light.

“Our greatest capacity,” he said, “is to be able to share knowledge with our Achuar brothers — especially with the young.”

Working on solar power projects also changed Utne’s take on the use of modern technology in Amazon forest communities. Prior to his work there, he viewed computers and other electronics as a detriment to Indigenous communities that had thrived for centuries without the use of modern technology. He said the Achuar people enlightened him.

“They knew how to use computers and how to join a global conversation about the forest,” Utne said. “They knew the future of their land was being discussed around the world. They wanted to participate in that discussion and have a voice.”