Harnessing the sun

Indigenous communities in the Amazon forest embrace solar power

It’s a scorching hot day in the village of Pyulaga, an isolated indigenous community in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, and a tribal chief is crouched close to the ground, drawing parallel lines in the dirt.

Chief Yapatsiama is showing visitors how an electrical grid will gather energy from several new solar panels and distribute it throughout the village. By harnessing the power of the sun, the solar panels will provide sustainable, renewable energy for the village school, a medical and dental clinic, an administrative office, communal huts, and a well for drinking water.

The chief said reliable electricity is a lifeline for the children of Pyulaga, many of whom have respiratory ailments.

Men from the Xingu Indigenous Park install a solar panel in the village of Pyulaga.

Men from the Xingu Indigenous Park install a solar panel in the village of Pyulaga.
Photo: Neal Hegarty

“Our children suffer because they can’t breathe, and energy is needed at our health post for the inhalation machines,” he said. “Our children need this treatment constantly.”

The small village also uses electricity to power refrigerators, a radio and computers. “This new energy is important, and we hope it will meet our needs,” the chief said.

The solar panels in Pyulaga are part of a three-year effort to provide energy access to remote villages in the Xingu Indigenous Park in central Brazil. The project will provide electricity for 6,000 people living in 82 communities and produce enough energy to power 55 schools, 22 health posts and 10 community centers.

An aerial view of Pyulaga. Photo:Neal Hegarty

An aerial view of Pyulaga.
Photo: Neal Hegarty

When finished, it will be a model for distributed renewable energy systems, such as wind and solar, that could provide electricity to more communities in the Amazon. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supported the Xingu project with a $1 million grant.

Noting that 1.2 billion people around the world lack access to electricity, Mott Foundation President Ridgway White said increasing access to energy in developing countries is a priority. “If you can replicate a model of decentralized, renewable energy that works in the Amazon, you can provide energy access to people virtually anywhere — using the power of the sun,” White said.

As part of the solar power project, 100 men in the Xingu learned how to install and maintain solar panels.

As part of the solar power project, 100 men in the Xingu learned how to install and maintain solar panels.
Photo: Traci Romine

Solar power is widely regarded as the most efficient way to provide energy access to isolated communities. In the Xingu, it will allow tribes to decrease their use of diesel-powered generators, which have been the primary source of electricity in many villages.

The generators pollute the air, and they’re noisy, unreliable and costly to operate. Villagers must travel long distances by boat to obtain jugs of diesel fuel, and the Brazilian government spends around $2 billion (U.S.) annually to subsidize diesel fuel costs in remote regions of the Amazon.

The Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest spans an area the size of Massachusetts.

The Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest spans an area the size of Massachusetts.

The Xingu solar power project has four goals:

  • Support the development of renewable energy policies for isolated communities in Brazil that are not connected to the national power grid;
  • Build mini-grids for energy distribution in four areas of the Xingu and connect those grids to solar panels;
  • Decrease the use of diesel fuel by providing greater access to renewable energy and implementing energy-efficiency measures in community facilities; and
  • Train indigenous people to install, maintain and manage the solar power systems and electrical grid.

Switching to solar power aligns with the broader mission of the Xingu Indigenous Park, which spans an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. Established in the 1960s as a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon, the park preserves the traditional lifestyles of communities that have lived in harmony with forest ecosystems for millennia.

Deforestation outside the boundaries of the Xingu Indigenous Park. Photo: Traci Romine

Deforestation outside the boundaries of the Xingu Indigenous Park.
Photo: Traci Romine

From the air, the contrast between the Xingu and the barren landscape outside the park boundary is striking. Inside the park, the mighty Xingu River snakes through a vast green blanket of pristine forest. Outside the protected area, loggers, farmers and developers have systemically cleared large areas of forest to make way for soybean farms, cattle ranches, roads and other infrastructure.

The chiefs of several Indian tribes in the Xingu have embraced sustainable energy as a means of protecting the forest, improving education, enhancing quality of life, and creating economic opportunities for villagers who make and sell pottery, jewelry and other goods.

With support from Mott, the Brazil-based Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) is managing the project. ISA has trained 100 men in the Xingu to be solar energy technicians. That training is a critical element of the project, said Traci Romine, a program officer at Mott.

“One of the barriers to bringing solar power to Brazil and the Amazon has been the lack of technicians, especially in remote areas of the forest,” she said. “This project bridges the knowledge gap.”

Romine said the newly acquired technical skills will help people in the Xingu take control of their energy future and retain their independence.

Paulo Junquiera, adjunct coordinator of ISA’s Xingu Program, said the project could become a prototype for Brazilian communities of all sizes.

“Brazil has enormous potential because of the solar radiation we have here,” Junquiera said. “We can show indigenous communities and urban centers that solar energy is possible, and it doesn’t impact the environment.”

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